To two generations of Pittsburghers who have been raised to believe theirs isn’t a basketball town, an account of the 1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers seems apocryphal at best.
But 50 years ago, on May 4, 1968, Pittsburgh was on the pro basketball map after the Pipers won the inaugural American Basketball Association title. Arvesta Kelly, 72, was a rookie guard with the Pipers then, and the memories of that day and that season remain fresh.
“That,” he said about the title-clinching win at Civic Arena, “was the best thing I have ever experienced in my life.”
The story of the Pipers could be told in terms of their success: having the best record (54-24) in the ABA, having the league’s MVP (Connie Hawkins) and coach of the year (Vince Cazzetta) or staving off elimination in Game 6 of the finals in New Orleans to force the deciding Game 7 in Pittsburgh.
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But the story of this nearly forgotten team is one of relationships: between the players, between a team and a city, between a city and a sport.
Like their ABA brethren in that formative season, the Pipers were assembled from a collection of players who were cut or blackballed by the NBA. Pittsburgh’s two best players, Hawkins and Charlie Williams, were banned by the NBA: Hawkins for his alleged ties to point-shaving and Williams for failing to report a bribe offered to a teammate at Seattle University.
Being shunned by the NBA gave the players a common cause.
“There were good players (in the ABA). Most of us had either been drafted or had tryouts (in the NBA),” said Pipers guard Jim Jarvis, 75, who was drafted out of Oregon State by the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors. “As competitors, we felt like we were as good as the (NBA).”
Hawkins, who died in October, was the unquestioned star and leader. At 6-foot-8 with large hands, long arms and freakish athletic ability, “he was Julius Erving before Julius Erving,” said guard Steve Vacendak, 73.
“(Cazzetta) called me in Seattle and asked me if I wanted to come and play for him in Pittsburgh,” Williams, 74, said. “I said, ‘Well, what kind of players do you have?’ He said, ‘Well, I have Connie Hawkins …’ I said, ‘I’m coming.’ ”
Hawkins’ talent and unselfish play — he led the Pipers in scoring and assists — endeared him to his teammates. His graciousness endeared him to the town where he would make his home for nearly three decades.
Walt Szczerbiak, who grew up on the South Side and later played for the Pittsburgh ABA franchise when it was re-branded the Condors, remembers Hawkins being a frequent participant in pick-up games around the city. A summer basketball league Hawkins helped to create and played in was active in Pittsburgh from 1975-2010.
“He grew up in New York, but he became a Pittsburgher,” Szczerbiak said.
While Hawkins was the Pipers’ go-to, Art Heyman was their glue. Though his personality could be mercurial — he had several physical confrontations with heckling fans — his influence on the Pipers was obvious.
Before Heyman was acquired in a trade with the ABA’s New Jersey Americans, the Pipers were 11-12 and had lost their previous four games. After his arrival, the Pipers went on a 15-game winning streak and were 43-12 the rest of the way.
In stark contrast Hawkins’ fluid style, Heyman played a more like bull in a China shop.
“He would just put his head down and drive to the basket,” Szczerbiak said, “He would just make shots in traffic that you wouldn’t expect a guy that unathletic to make.”
Lower Burrell native Mark Whited recently interviewed the living members of the Pipers for his upcoming book, “The Pittsburgh Pipers, The Forgotten Franchise.” He said the importance of Heyman, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1963 NBA Draft, could not be overstated.
“This was a really interesting and unique cast of characters,” he said, “and they weren’t the type who would necessarily mesh right away, and they didn’t. But once they got Heyman, they came together as a team.”
It was fitting that a black player (Hawkins) and a white player (Heyman) were the linchpins of the Pipers.
In the late 1960s, Jarvis pointed out, the integration of professional sports still was in its infancy. But while racial tensions simmered in various sectors of society, there were no such issues with the Pipers.
“I hung out more with Connie Hawkins and Chico Vaughn and (the black players),” center Craig Dill, 73, said. “They always laughed and called me the honorary blue-eyed soul brother.
“We were players and friends, and color really didn’t mean anything.”
Kelly agreed: “We enjoyed each other, and we won as a result.”
Despite winning, the Pipers were slow to catch on with fans. According to remembertheaba.com, the Pipers averaged about 3,200 fans — good by early ABA standards but hardly overwhelming.
Whited said the Pipers were handicapped by playing many of their home games on Tuesday and Friday nights — high school basketball nights in Western Pennsylvania. They also had to compete with the newly formed Penguins, who had a ready-made fan base after Pittsburgh had been home to the AHL’s Hornets for the previous 30 years.
But the Pipers finally made people sit up and take notice.
Against the New Orleans Buccaneers in Game 6 of the ABA Finals, the Pipers appeared in danger of being eliminated before Hawkins pulled them off the deck. He scored 41 points and had 12 rebounds to pace a 118-112 win.
By the time the team returned to Pittsburgh for Game 7, the city’s interest was piqued. More than 11,000 reportedly watched the Pipers win the title 122-113 behind 35 points from Williams.
Now the team had momentum, and, Vacendak said, the city embraced it.
“The fans, everywhere we went, when they realized we were with the Pipers, they were congratulatory and supportive,” he said.
The players and their new legion of fans were ready for an encore. What they got instead was the shock of their lives: The team was moving to Minnesota.
Minnesota’s original franchise flopped at the box office and relocated to Miami. Because the ABA’s headquarters were in Minneapolis — NBA legend George Mikan was the commissioner and insisted on having his office in Minneapolis — the league believed it was necessary to have a franchise there.
And who better than the league’s best team with the league’s best player?
The Pipers didn’t fare any better in Minnesota than their predecessor. After one season, the team returned to Pittsburgh — without Hawkins, who had his NBA ban lifted and went on to a hall-of-fame career.
The franchise slogged through three more seasons, the final two as the Condors, before folding.
The damage from the move was irreparable.
“To get up and move and come back,” Kelly said, “people felt like we betrayed them. And we did.”
Vacendak and Williams remain convinced that if the Pipers had stayed, there might still be pro basketball in Pittsburgh today.
“We thought we had a real good following that would have carried over to the next year,” Williams said. “If we would have stayed, there might be an NBA team there now. Who knows? I think the city was ready for professional basketball.”
Others have tried — the Piranhas, the Xplosion, the Phantoms — but pro basketball hasn’t stuck in Pittsburgh since.
The Pipers have become a footnote in Pittsburgh. Whited said he cringed when, during the Penguins’ recent Stanley Cup runs, local media would say a Pittsburgh team had a chance to win a title at home for the first time since the 1960 Pirates.
He believes the Pipers’ legacy should be the same as that of every other Pittsburgh pro sports champion.
“There’s a tendency to think (the ABA) was a minor league, and (the Pipers) don’t rate the same kind of due. But that’s nonsense,” he said. “If you add up the 12 NBA teams and 11 ABA teams (from 1968), that’s 23 teams, less than are in the NBA now. The Pipers were part of a very legitimate league.”
Added Dill: “It was a basketball team that could have competed at almost every level with the NBA that season.”
Members of the Pipers will return to Pittsburgh on May 4-5 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their title. Kelly said he hopes the reunion will spark appreciation from a city that has overlooked one of its champions.
“A lot of people don’t know anything about us,” he said, “and to be able to come to Pittsburgh and be presented to the public, it’s a great moment for all of us and the city of Pittsburgh.”