In The Seventies, The ABA’s Virginia Squires Put ‘Fun’ In Fundamentals

By Bob Lipper
Updated: November 1, 2006

RICHMOND, Va. — Another season of pro hoops began Tuesday night without a representative from our fair dominion, and to consecrate that void we should all pause for 30 seconds of silence.

Virginia Squires. Born: July 30, 1970. Died: May 11, 1976.

May they rest in eternal remembrance and grins.

For those of you who believe the world began with MTV, be advised the Squires were our window to major-league sports until they ended their rollicking but threadbare run 30 years ago for lack of foresight and $75,000 in cash.

Four other members of the doomed American Basketball Association — the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs were absorbed by the NBA in ’76. The Squires neither made the cut nor got a dime in compensation. Story of their star-crossed lives.

Relocated from Washington as a regional franchise, the Squires played games in Richmond, Norfolk, Hampton and (briefly) Roanoke and at various times had Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Rick Barry, George Gervin and Bob McAdoo under contract. Pause again and read those names one more time.

Barry and McAdoo never actually suited up for the Squires. Erving spent two seasons of hang-time with the team, Gervin less than that. All were sold off by owner Earl Foreman to keep the creditors satisfied. Again, story of their lives.

Ah, but what fun while it lasted. The ABA was a new league with newfangled ideas — a red, white and blue ball, a 3-point shot, a 30-second clock, a slam-dunk contest at the all-star game. It birthed Erving, Moses Malone, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore, David Thompson. It had more funk than a Bar-Kays concert. It had more of a buddy system than a summer camp.

“The thing that stands out is the camaraderie we had in the ABA and how we worked together,” Al Bianchi was saying the other day. “Everyone was friendly. We were all in the same boat — trying to survive against the monster that was trying to put us out of business. Now it’s gotten so corporate. People don’t trust each other.”

Now 74 and still active as a scout for the Warriors, Bianchi was the Squires’ coach during those wild-and-crazy nights of Erving’s outrageous Afro and Neil Johnson’s muttonchops, of 132-127 shootouts. Of Fatty Taylor and Jumbo Jim Eakins and George Irvine and Willie Wise.

Of, alas, empty seats.

Not even Erving — the Doctor — could fill ’em. He was barely on the NBA’s radar when the Squires nabbed him after his junior year at UMass. The first time Bianchi saw him at a workout, this is what he remembers thinking: “Oh, boy.”

Indeed. Erving averaged 33.3 points and 20.4 rebounds in the 1972 playoffs as a rookie, astonished everyone with his dunks and grace — and was gone a year later, peddled to the Nets for some bodies and a million big ones. Dr. J was on his way to the summit. The Squires were on their way to 15-69 and 15-68, the records their final two seasons of existence.

“Earl explained it to me where we had to sell players just to survive,” said Bianchi. “We let Julius go to New York. We sold Gervin to San Antonio. It was just strictly about money and survival. ‘Course, it made me a lousy coach. But what the hell. I liked Earl. We had a friendship.”

Foreman eventually sold the team to a shallow-pocketed group from Norfolk. Its last act was to pass on a $75,000 ABA assessment that would’ve kept the Squires in business. Dumb move. The franchises that ponied up either joined the NBA or were paid off when merger followed in June.

The Squires were pushing up daisies by then. But memories linger.

“When I see the guys that are still working that are ABA guys, we just laugh,” said Bianchi. “We say we never had so much fun as we had in the ABA.”

Bounced checks and all.