Minnesota Pipers

By Stew Thornley
Author of Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers

Minnesota Pipers LogoIt was a move unprecedented in the history of major-league sports. A failed franchise was being replaced the following season by a championship team.

The Minnesota Muskies had produced the second-best winning percentage in the American Basketball Association in 1967-68, but they could not match that winning record at the gate. After a season of performing before a sea of empty seats at Bloomington’s Metropolitan Sports Center, the team migrated south and became the Miami Floridians.

The ABA, however, felt compelled to maintain a team in the Twin Cities since the league was headquartered in Minneapolis with former Minneapolis Lakers star George Mikan as commissioner.

The void was filled on June 28, 1968 when Gabe Rubin, owner of the Pittsburgh Pipers, announced he was moving the team to Minnesota. Rubin remained as chairman of the board and continued to operate the team even though he sold a controlling interest in the club to Bill Erickson, a Northfield, Minnesota, lawyer and former legal counsel for the ABA. Vern Mikkelsen, another former Lakers star who had served as general manager of the Muskies for one month before the team moved, was hired to perform the same job with the Pipers.

The Pipers, like the Muskies, had played before a near-empty arena in Pittsburgh even though they had won the ABA title and produced the league’s Most Valuable Player in Connie Hawkins.

Banned from the NBA because of an alleged connection with gamblers as a college freshman at Iowa, Hawkins instead played for the Pittsburgh Rens of the American Basketball League in the early 1960s and later for the Harlem Globetrotters. With the Pipers, he led the league with a scoring average of 26.8 points per game and was second in rebounding and shooting percentage and fourth in assists.

Making the move from Pittsburgh to Minnesota with Hawkins was Tom Washington, who lhad ed the ABA with a .523 field-goal percentage; Art Heyman, who was acquired in a mid-season trade and promptly helped the Pipers to a 15-game winning streak that led to the championship; Chico Vaughn, who had connected on 33 percent of his 3-point attempts and averaged 19.9 points per game; and Charlie Williams, who made the all-ABA team.

Like Hawkins, Williams was barred from playing in the NBA. His offense was failing to report a teammate at Seattle University who had been offered a bribe. (The ABA harbored several players who were blacklisted by the NBA because of, often-times, sketchy involvement with gamblers)

The cornerstone of the ABA in its first year may have been those not allowed to play in the NBA, but the new league came up with another star, one the NBA was very sorry to lose, for its second season.

Playing for the San Francisco Warriors, Rick Barry was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1965-66; the following season he averaged 35.6 points per game to end Wilt Chamberlain’s string of seven consecutive scoring championships. Barry then shocked the sports world with the announcement that he had accepted a lucrative offer to play with the Oakland Oaks of the ABA. Because of the option clause in his NBA contract, however, Barry was forced to sit out the first season of the ABA’s existence before he could join the Oaks. By the start of the 1968-69 season, the impatient Barry was more than ready to resume his playing career.

The Pipers would open the season in Minnesota with a new leader. Vince Cazzetta, who had coached the Pipers to the championship, resigned after Erickson and Rubin refused to give him a raise to cover moving his wife and six children to the Twin Cities. Hired to replace Cazzetta was 39-year old Jim Harding, who had compiled a 93-28 record in five seasons at LaSalle College in Philadelphia.

Harding had been equally successful in coaching tenures at two other colleges, but he left behind a trail of NCAA violations and endless turmoil, the latter a pattern that followed him to the professional ranks.

In an attempt to establish regional support, a decision was made for the Pipers to play only 25 of their 39 home games at the Met Sports Center. Ten games were to be played in Duluth and the remaining four were to be scheduled in other Upper Midwest locations. The experiment was aborted, however, when the team averaged barely 1,500 fans in eight games at the Duluth Arena; the remaining two games for Duluth were instead played at the Minneapolis Armory and St. Paul Auditorium, and no games ever did take place outside of the Twin Cities or Duluth.

The crowds at the Met Sports Center were barely any larger. Only 1,943 showed up to watch the Pipers crush Miami, 126-94, in the season opener. Led by Hawkins, the Pipers jumped to the top of the Eastern Division standings and opened up a comfortable lead over the second-place Floridians.

On November 27, Hawkins set an ABA record with 57 points in a 110-101 win over the New York Nets; eight days later he poured in 53 against the Denver Rockets to raise his season average to 34.4. Rick Barry was performing similar heroics as he led the Oakland Oaks, who had been the ABA’s worst team the year before, to a 16-2 start. The Oaks would eventually win their division by 14 games.

Meanwhile, Barry and Hawkins were battling for the league scoring lead, and fans were looking forward to the first head-to-head meeting of these stars, scheduled for December 13 in Oakland. Two nights before, however, Hawkins ruptured a blood vessel in his arm and sat out the Oakland game.

With Hawkins on the bench, the Pipers blew an eight-point lead in the closing minutes and lost, 127-122. Barry scored 45 for the Oaks, but this would be his only appearance of the season against the Pipers. Injuries shelved Barry for a significant part of the season, and the much-heralded matchup between Barry and Hawkins never materialized.

Hawkins remained out of the lineup for a week, but in the meantime, the team found itself dealing with a problem that had been brewing all season. The tension between Harding and the players came to a head after an altercation between the coach and center Tom Hoover. Unhappy that the incident was reported in the newspapers, Harding ordered his players not to talk to sportswriters and closed all practices to the press. The Minnesota management, in turn, refused to back Harding and all restrictions on the press were lifted.

During the next week, Harding began experiencing chest pains and underwent an electrocardiogram. Just before the team was to fly to Houston for a December 20 game, it was announced that Harding would not be making the trip. Concerned by the coach’s chest pains and dangerously-high blood pressure, doctors ordered Harding to take an indefinite leave of absence.

Mikkelsen assumed the coaching duties in the interim. The Pipers won only six of thirteen during that time but still maintained the lead in the division. Originally, Harding was to be gone for six weeks, and the Pipers said Mikkelsen would take his place as coach of the East squad in the All- Star Game. Harding, however, returned three weeks early and was back on the bench in mid- January.

Only three days after Harding’s return, though, disaster struck. Hawkins suffered a cartilage lock in his right knee in practice. He sat out the game the following night, but was back in the lineup against Oakland two days later.

Early in the second half, Hawkins had already scored 21 points. But a few minutes later, he came down with a rebound and his knee locked again. This time the injury required surgery and Hawkins missed the next 25 games, including the All-Star Game.

Art Heyman, nursing a groin injury, also missed his chance to play for the Eastern All-Stars; the Pipers’ representatives for the game instead were Tom Washington and Charlie Williams, as well as Coach Harding.

Harding was angered, however, by Washington and Williams absence at a banquet the night before the All-Star Game and attempted to fine them $500 each. His anger increased when he was overruled by team officials, and he sought out part-owner Gabe Rubin.

The result was a bloody midnight confrontation that left Rubin with a welt on his temple (and Harding with a scratched face). Harding was immediately relieved of his All-Star duties by Commissioner Mikan; two days later, he was fired as coach of the Pipers.

Verl “Gus” Young, the team’s director of special promotions and a former coach at Gustavus Adolphus, replaced Harding. Without Hawkins, though, the team lost five of its first six under Young. By the middle of February, they had been knocked out of first place, relinquishing the top spot for the first time that season.

They did make a couple of forays back into first, but the slide continued the rest of the year. They finished the regular season in fourth place with a 36-42 record before being eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by Miami.

The Pipers suffered equally at the gate, averaging only 2,300 fans per game despite reducing the ticket prices to only $2.00 a game with five weeks left in the season. Even promotions through supermarkets, at which fans could purchase two tickets for 29 cents, failed to fill the seats.

The Pipers, as well as the entire league, had been hurt by the injuries to Hawkins and Barry that prevented the two from appearing against each other; despite that, there was hope for the future as the ABA teams were banding together in an attempt to lure Lew Alcindor of UCLA for the following season. Erickson, anticipating the huge crowds that would flock to see Alcindor, even announced that the Pipers would stay in Minnesota if the ABA could acquire him.

Five days later, however, Alcindor announced he was signing with the NBA Milwaukee Bucks, despite a claim by Mikan that the ABA had offered him a five-year, $3.25-million contract to play for the New York Nets (formerly the New Jersey Americans) of the ABA

The ABA would survive, but the failure to land Alcindor prompted a disillusioned Erickson to leave the sport. Following the 1968-69 season, the Pipers were sold to an eastern group who, amazingly enough, moved the team back to Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season.

Copyright 1989 Stew Thornley

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