Campus Corner

Kansas City almost had a pro basketball champion

Editor’s note: Sportswriter and avid reader Blair Kerkhoff talks to the authors of sports-themed books in an occasional series for The Star.

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With the NBA playoffs in full swing, it’s a good time to recall Kansas City’s trip to the finals of a professional basketball championship. Not the Kings, who reached the NBA Western Division finals in 1981, but the Steers.

Who?

The American Basketball League was a blip on the radar screen, enduring 1½ hectic seasons attempting to draw an audience. But the quality was superb, with some of its teams comparable in talent to the NBA. One of the strongest franchises was the Kansas City Steers, who were led by former Kansas star

Bill Bridges.

In 1962, the Steers won their way to the ABL final, where they met the Cleveland Pipers, coached by future Hall of Famer

John McLendon

. In the best-of-five series, Kansas City won the first two games at Municipal Auditorium and lost the next two in Cleveland.

The deciding game was played at Rockhurst University because Municipal was booked. The Steers fell 106-102.

The second season never reached a playoff as the league, founded by Harlem Globetrotters owner

Abe Saperstein

, disbanded.

The league’s short history, with stars like

Connie Hawkins

and innovations like the three-point line, has been wonderfully captured by

Murry R. Nels

on in his book “Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League, 1960-63” (McFarland).

Q.

Why is it important to remember the ABL?

A.

Although the ABL lasted less than two years, it introduced a number of things that have endured and helped basketball to grow and thrive, notably the three-point shot and the trapezoidal lane. The three-point shot not only emphasized outside shooting, it opened the inside game to better play. Plus, (future NBA All-Stars) Connie Hawkins and Bill Bridges made their pro debuts in the ABL.

Q. What did the Harlem Globetrotters have to do with the league?

A. Abe Saperstein owned both the Globetrotters and the ABL franchise, the Chicago Majors. He shuttled players back between the two. Most importantly, the Trotters would play the opener of doubleheaders, with ABL teams playing the nightcaps, resulting in big crowds and allowing the league to survive.

Q. How good were the Kansas City Steers?

A. The Steers, who lost in the championship series, had a fabulous back line of Bridges,

Larry Staverman

(“Best shooter I ever saw,” said Steers announcer

Monte Moore),

and hulking

Gene Tormohlen. Maury (Maurice) King

and

Nick Mantis

were good guards. The bench was thin, true of ABL teams, but in the nine-team NBA, the Steers would have been in the middle of the pack, behind the Celtics, Lakers, Warriors, Royals and Nationals, as good as the Pistons and Hawks, while topping Chicago and the Knicks.

| Blair Kerkhoff, bkerkhoff@kcstar.com

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