Memories come Clawing back

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Memories come Clawing back

Postby rlee » Sun Oct 03, 2010 11:31 pm

Memories come Clawing back

By John Cannon
Frederick News-Post

Every now and then, there's talk about Baltimore getting an NBA team.
But the fact is, it's been 35 years since Baltimore had a major-league basketball franchise. And here's an even more interesting fact -- that team played its last game in Frederick County.

No, Baltimore's last big-league basketball team was not the Baltimore Bullets, who left the city after the 1972-73 season. It was the Baltimore Claws of the American Basketball Association, a top-tier league that competed with the NBA for players and fans from 1967-1976.

The Claws have largely been forgotten, and for good reason. Thanks to financial troubles, Baltimore's ABA franchise never played a regular-season game. During their brief existence, the Claws played just three preseason games, and the final one happened to be held at Mount St. Mary's on Oct. 16, 1975.

That night in Emmitsburg, Baltimore played the Virginia Squires. Admission only cost $1.50 for adults, $1 for students. For that small price, spectators would get to see Claws stars like all-pro Mel Daniels and guard Skip Wise, the Dunbar High (Baltimore) product who left Clemson after his freshman year to turn pro.

But few jumped at this basketball bargain. Less than 1,000 people attended the game, according to The Frederick News-Post article on the event.

The Claws lost, 100-88. From among the fans who attended, some chanted for Wise, who came off the bench to score 12 points. It was also reported the event was "marred by one fight and another scuffle."

The game was for the benefit of the Mount Athletic Association. Jim Phelan, who was the Mount men's basketball coach at the time, didn't see that Claws-Squires game, but he still remembers hearing about it.

"The few people that were there said they were very good," Phelan said this week.

Especially when compared to the college basketball being played in Emmitsburg around that time.

"We were struggling," Phelan said. "We went through a lull."

Phelan, who coached 49 years at the Mount, would have another 27 seasons of basketball in his future. But for the Claws, that night on the Mount's court was the end of the briefest of basketball eras.

It's rare enough for a top-tier professional team not to finish its inaugural season, but the Claws never even got to start their inaugural season.

Actually, the ABA itself wasn't fated to last. The ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, when four of its teams -- the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs -- were absorbed into the more established league.

The ABA was innovative. It popularized the use of the 3-point arc years before the NBA started using it and held the first slam dunk contest (which the NBA would later hold) at its 1976 All-Star game. And instead of traditional orange basketballs, ABA games were played with loud red, white and blue basketballs.

And the league featured top-notch talent. Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone began their careers in the ABA.

But the league also suffered from financial difficulties, and even winning teams like the Utah Stars had money problems. In fact, a fictitious ABA franchise with shaky finances was depicted in Will Ferrell's movie "Semi-Pro."

Ferrell knows good material for his goofball sports movies when he sees it -- a team on a shoestring budget, playing in a maverick league trying to distinguish itself. And it was the 1970s, a decade destined to be laughed at for everything from disco to leisure suits.

Like the team in Ferrell's movie, the Claws were not financially sound.

The team played the previous season as the Memphis Sounds, and the ABA had to take over the troubled franchise. A group of Maryland businessmen bought the team and moved it to Baltimore. Originally called the Baltimore Hustlers, the name was changed to Claws, which made people think about a Maryland delicacy -- crabs -- instead of an adult magazine.

Despite a new home and new name, the franchise's problems persisted. There was talk players weren't being paid their salaries. Players were even forced to go without their $20 per diem allowance for three days before being paid, according to an Associated Press story from 1975.

The Associated Press also reported that a lack of money apparently caused ABA President John Y. Brown to "virtually pluck star Dan Issel off the Baltimore roster and send him to the Denver Nuggets." The Claws had just recently acquired Issel from the defending ABA champion Kentucky Colonels, but Baltimore reportedly had trouble raising money for the deal.

The Claws were disbanded less than a week before the regular season. Baltimore players were put in a dispersal draft.

These days, there are few reminders the team even existed. I wear one regularly -- a Baltimore Claws throwback cap I found online. It's orange with a green brim. On the front, it has a green-trimmed Claws logo, which includes a crab claw circling a red, white and blue basketball. On the right side, it has the year 1975 embroidered in green.

I like getting keepsakes from short-lived local pro teams -- be it a patch of the World Hockey Association's Baltimore Blades or a team picture of the United States Football League's Baltimore Stars.

Of course, it's hard to imagine any franchise having a shorter life than the Baltimore Claws. And to think, Frederick County was a part of it.
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