VIRGINIA BEACH — After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1973, Barry Parkhill had identical contract offers from the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and ABA's Virginia Squires. He chose the Squires primarily for the chance to play with a burgeoning legend named Julius Erving.
"And he was (traded) right before my rookie camp opened up," Parkhill said. "So that was kind of a bummer."
Prior to an extended Squires road trip in 1975, forward George Irvine fetched his paycheck from team HQ and, en route to the airport, stopped by the bank. Insufficient funds.
"That's grim," he said.
Welcome to life with one of the most renegade franchises in one of the most renegade leagues sports has ever seen.
That franchise and league were celebrated this past week in Virginia Beach as owner Earl Foreman, coach Al Bianchi and many of their players, Erving included, gathered for a reunion. They mingled with fans, signed autographs, bragged about their grandkids and shared memories of the only major-league team to grace Hampton Roads.
"I hope some who watched us play are here today," said George Gervin, "and I get a chance to shake their hand and tell them thanks for the support."
Like Erving and many other ABA alums, Gervin also starred in the post-merger NBA and is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But not even the presence of such obvious talent, the levitating Dr. J and finger-rolling Ice Man, could save the Squires, or the ABA.
They began as the Oakland Oaks before moving across three time zones to become the Washington Capitals for one fleeting season.
"One of the biggest attractions for me signing with the ABA (in 1970) was that I was going to get an opportunity to live in Washington, D.C.," said Charles Scott, an All-American at North Carolina. "Earl had me sign the contract in Washington, D.C., and he gave me my bonus check, and I went to a D.C. dealership and bought me a car.
"And I drove that car from Washington, D.C., to North Carolina, and by the time I got to North Carolina, I was a Virginia Squire."
Indeed, pressured by the NBA's Baltimore Bullets to vacate the market, the Caps changed names and headed south, where for six seasons, from 1970-71 until 1975-76, they were a regional franchise, playing home games primarily at Norfolk Scope, Hampton Coliseum and Richmond Coliseum, and occasionally in Roanoke.
In their first two years, the Squires went a combined 100-68 and reached the playoffs each season. But poor attendance and subsequent red ink prompted Foreman to unload many of his best players, and the product declined — markedly and predictably.
The Squires were 70-98 in their middle two seasons, a depressing 30-137 their last two.
"I thought the fans were great, but it was almost like they competed sometimes," said Parkhill, a U.Va. fundraiser who still recalls the Hampton street (Spanish Trail) on which he lived as a rookie. "If we'd had one site — now you're not going to get me to say one or the other — I think it would have been better."
Four decades have smoothed the rough edges, and Foreman, Bianchi and the players all managed to smile and chuckle at the setbacks, trades, firings and, yes, even the bounced checks.
"I would not change a thing," said former Squire and Old Dominion All-American Dave Twardzik, now the Monarchs' radio analyst. "It gave me an opportunity to stay in an area that we really love. I had the good fortune of having four years at Old Dominion and another four years here.
"The league was stable at the time, the franchise was stable. It was an easy decision to stay because I knew more about the ABA than the NBA, because the team played at (the ODU Fieldhouse) that first year (when Twardzik was a senior). I worked for the team. I was on the payroll. I was a stat runner. …
"I don't know if that was against NCAA rules, but I do know the statute of limitations has run out. It was the best thing I did staying here."
The reunion's overarching theme was the stunning talent replete in the ABA and the innovations the league employed — the 3-point shot, red-white-and-blue ball, All-Star Game dunk contest and cheerleaders — to spread the gospel in an era before ESPN and blanket television coverage.
Indeed, few of the Squires' games were televised, leaving precious little video record, especially of their early years. This is old-school history, told orally and reverentially, and displayed in scrap books filled with $2 ticket stubs, yellowed newspaper clippings and black-and-white Polaroids.
Irvine, who played in college at Washington against a UCLA center named Lew Alcindor, recalled the first two-a-day practices with Erving, an obscure rookie from the University of Massachusetts.
But there was so much more ABA brilliance, in Virginia and elsewhere. Just consider the ABA products who played in the 1978 NBA All-Star Game, the second season after the leagues merged: Erving, Gervin, Moses Malone, Artis Gilmore, Rick Barry, Maurice Lucas, David Thompson and Bobby Jones. Hall of Famers all.
And those are just the marquee names. The Squires also recalled the likes James Silas, Ralph Simpson, Ron Boone, Marvin Barnes, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Bob Netolicky.
Virginia's closest brush with a championship came in 1972, when the team averaged 119 points per game and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Nets, coached by Lou Carnesecca and led by Barry, Billy Paultz and John Roche.
Barry was the cruelest of foils for the Squires. He had played for the Oaks and Caps but refused to accompany the franchise to Virginia.
"My son Scooter is supposed to go to nursery school this year," Barry had told Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1970. "I hate to think of the complications that'll cause in Virginia. I don't want him to go down there to school and learn to speak with a Southern accent. He'll come home from school saying, 'Hi y'all, Daad.' I sure don't want that.
"I've been to Virginia once before, to a basketball tournament in Portsmouth. It seemed all right, but then I knew I'd be leaving right away. That gives you some idea how I feel about the place. I could say a lot worse things, but I won't — yet."
Soon thereafter, Foreman traded Barry to New York for a draft choice and $200,000, and one season later, fate matched the two combatants in this classic series, which included an absurd eight days between Games 2 and 3 — the Nets' arena was booked — wild momentum swings and a racehorse Game 6 that New York, led by Barry's 43 points, won 146-136.
Game 7 attracted 10,410 to Scope, and with the score knotted late at 88, Barry — who else? — made an excuse-me bank shot. The Squires did not score again and lost 94-88.
Irvine has another memory from that night: It remains the only game in which he played or coached where spectators stood and cheered throughout the 20-minute pregame warmups.
"They were very loyal," Irvine said of Squires fans. "There (just) weren't enough of them" in subsequent years.
Weeks before the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, after an embarrassing season in which they employed five head coaches, the Virginia Squires folded. No one was surprised.
This was their first organized reunion, and the event attracted hundreds of fans, most old enough to remember the team, others simply drawn by the hoops heritage.
"It was kind of hard to pass up," said Gervin, who jetted in from San Antonio. "I had to re-arrange my schedule. … I didn't mind doing that, because I think it's important. … It's something special, it's a good idea and as you can look around, a lot of other people think it's a good idea because they're here to be a part of this."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun