These were Carl Scheer’s “outlaw” days.
It was the 1970s and he was running the Denver Nuggets in the American Basketball Association. The goal was to force the NBA into merger talks. Scheer and his ABA buddies were messing around with red-white-and-blue basketballs, 3-point shots and dunk contests.
“We were the outlaws to the NBA guys,” said Scheer, the longtime Charlottean who was honored by the Nuggets during Saturday night’s game against the Indiana Pacers. “We had small markets and no real television contract. We had to find ways to entertain people.”
So Scheer and his colleagues dreamed up gimmicks unapologetically. The slam-dunk contest was Scheer’s brain storm. It still exists decades later in the NBA All-Star Weekend. Now working in marketing and ticket sales with the Bobcats, Scheer recalls those ABA days as wild and pragmatic.
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“We had some of the best players in Julius (Erving) and David (Thompson). So we went out and stole their referees and stole their coaches,” Scheer said of the attack on the NBA establishment.
Scheer recalls with a laugh that Boston Celtics chief Red Auerbach accused him of diminishing basketball with the ABA’s game presentation.
“We were too entertaining,” Scheer said.
It worked. The NBA finally agreed to a merger in 1976 (the more senior partner termed it “expansion.”) The (now-Brooklyn) Nets, the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs and Scheer’s Nuggets joined the NBA and turned out to be very competitive.
The Nuggets were immediately one of the NBA’s better teams. The Nets eventually went to two NBA Finals, built around point guard Jason Kidd. The Spurs and the Pacers are both contenders to make the Finals this season.
Scheer is still in pro basketball; this is his second stint in Charlotte. He was the Hornets’ first general manager when they debuted in Charlotte in 1988. The ABA experience was quite valuable in introducing Charlotte to major-league sports.
“I believed in the approach. My first week in Charlotte we established a ground rule – regardless of the product on the floor, fans had to leave the arena feeling they had a good time,” Scheer recalled.
Scheer left the Hornets for a second stint with the Nuggets and the relationship between the city and then-Hornets owner George Shinn declined until the team moved to New Orleans. Now the NBA is back in Charlotte and soon the Hornets’ identity will be, too.
That makes Scheer smile.
“I’d like to think,” Scheer concluded, “I helped stabilize basketball in the small markets.”
Five thoughts on the NBA
• I’m sympathetic to Los Angeles Lakers veteran Kobe Bryant saying he’d just as soon not participate in this season’s All-Star Game. He’s focused on his recovery from injury, and even if he’s back playing before the All-Star Break, there’s no reason for him to do anything more than a cameo appearance. Bryant is right that the league would benefit from adding another young star (like Portland’s Damian Lillard), rather than use the roster spot on him.
• It was cool Thursday night listening to Stephen Curry discuss how emotional his dad, Dell, was upon learning Steph had been voted an All-Star starter. The weekend in New Orleans should be great for that whole family.
• Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers articulated something when he was in Charlotte that I’ve been thinking for a while: It’s time for NBA fans to stop assuming rookies chosen with high picks will immediately have impact. The days of Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning entering the league as a virtually finished products are over. No. 4 pick Cody Zeller playing a small role with the Bobcats this season is the norm.
• Speaking of draft picks, Bryant – one of the last preps-to-pros guys before the rules changed – said the NBA should stop barring high school seniors from entering the draft. I get why the NBA wants to scout prospects at least one college season, but the whole one-and-done thing has become a charade for colleges, the pros and the prospects.
• I get asked a lot about former North Carolina player P.J. Hairston’s NBA status. Hairston isn’t eligible to play in the NBA this season. But when he signed his Development League contract, he automatically became available in the 2014 NBA draft.