It’s been a while since my last “Forgotten Franchises” post, but this one took a while to get all my notes organized, because there was a lot of stuff going on off the hardwood for this former ABA franchise.
The Spirits Of St. Louis was (or maybe wasn’t) the final incarnation of a franchise that spanned the entire history of the ABA. The team started as the Houston Mavericks, spent a few years as the Carolina Cougars (a regional franchise that was based out of Greensboro, NC) and then became the Spirits… At least technically. As Cougars coach Larry Brown and most of the roster went elsewhere, there are some who regard the Spirits as an expansion team.
However you want to regard the Spirits, they brought basketball to St. Louis for the first time since 1968, when the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta. The team name comes from “The Spirit Of St. Louis”, the airplane that Charles Lindbergh used to make the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. That original airplane is preserved in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
In their first season, the Spirits went 32-52 but finished third and made the playoffs. After upsetting the 58-26 New York Nets in the Semis, they lost in 5 games to the Kentucky Colonels in the Eastern Division Finals. In their second and final season, they improved to 35-49 but missed the playoffs.
Notable players included Marvin Barnes, M.L. Carr, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone (who was purchased from the Utah Stars after that franchise folded) and Steve “Snapper” Jones.
Steve Jones played 8 years in 7 cities during his ABA career, and capped it off with a year with the Portland Trail Blazers. He was a three-time ABA All-Star and has worked as a broadcaster on Blazer’s games and on NBA TV.
There’s another notable name associated with the Spirits, one who never set foot on the court or touched the ball. For the team’s first season, the play-by-play announcer was a 22-year-old who dropped out of Syracuse University to take the job. That college dropout was Bob Costas.
After the Spirits’ second season, the ABA merged with the NBA. When the merger came, the Nets, Spurs, Pacers and Nuggets went to the NBA and the other two remaining ABA teams, the Spirits and Kentucky Colonels, were bought out. However, the way that the Spirits were bought out would have a long-lasting effect on the NBA and especially on Spirits owners Daniel and Ozzie Silna.
Instead of getting a $3 Million buyout like the Colonels did, they negotiated a $2 Million sum, plus a percentage of the TV revenue for the four teams that did go to the NBA… In perpetuity. As TV revenue grew in importance for the NBA and all sports, this became a tremendously valuable buyout. The resulting revenue stream amounted to $300 Million as of 2014, and then they got another $500 Million from the NBA to buy them out of the contract. Talk about having a long-lasting impact on the sport…