Technically, nearly all of them were rookies.
Some, like Bobby Lloyd, were fresh out of college. Others were closer to 30, having spent a few years in Europe or the Eastern League. Just a handful had a sliver of NBA experience on their resume.
They were the New Jersey Americans, 17 players that formed the inaugural roster of the franchise that would become the New York Nets one year later. Nearly 50 years after the team first tipped off against the Pittsburgh Pipers on October 23, 1967, six of them reunited at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse in Grand Central Terminal, some of them having not seen one another since their last game together.
There was Lloyd, Johnny Mathis, Bruce Spraggins, Hank Whitney, Bob McIntyre and Dan Anderson, along with broadcaster Spencer Ross and Herb Turetzky, the team’s official scorer from that opening night in 1967 right up through today.
Turetzky has long been the franchise’s unofficial historian, keeping in touch with those from the franchise’s earliest years. But this reunion came about somewhat by happenstance. Anderson made plans to visit New York and attend the U.S. Open, and reached out to Spraggins about getting together for dinner.
“He was the one I knew how to get a hold of,” said Anderson.
The connections were made one by one, based on who had who’s number, the same way Anderson reached out to Spraggins, until they gathered on an evening in late August. Fifty years earlier, they came together a bit more randomly.
Anderson was a few years out of tiny Augsburg College and playing in AAU semi-pro games. The Nets themselves had their origins there, where original owner Arthur Browne sponsored a team called the ABC Freighters. When he took a franchise for the ABA’s inaugural season, Browne brought along Freighters coach Max Zaslofsky to coach the Americans, and Zaslofsky invited Anderson to try out. Lloyd had just finished a standout career at Rutgers, where he’d averaged 26.6 points per game over three seasons, and McIntyre was a year out of St. John’s after starring at Holy Cross in Queens.
McIntyre had been playing in Spain for a year, as had Mathis, before both returned to the states for a chance to play in this new pro league.
“I thought it was a great opportunity,” said Mathis. “It was an opportunity for a lot of guys.”
Spraggins had played in an earlier attempt at a rival league, the American Basketball League, before continuing to play in the Eastern League, a forerunner to the Continental Basketball Association. That’s where Whitney was playing when he got a call from Americans forward Walt Simon in the middle of the season.
Whitney had already begun a teaching career, playing Eastern League games on weekends. He wasn’t in a rush to change things up. Simon talked him into it.
“We need a big guy,” Whitney said Simon told him. “We need a sheriff.”
For most of them, their time with the Americans/Nets and their ABA careers were short-lived. Only McIntyre was still with the team by the third season, playing in seven games after missing the 1968-69 season with a knee injury.
Mathis and Spraggins both played on in the Eastern League after a single ABA season. Spraggins went on to a career in non-profit and community work, while Mathis has had a legendary coaching career at John F. Kennedy HS in the Bronx, winning two PSAL city championships and numerous honors over three decades. He lives not far from Barclays Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
McIntyre and Lloyd both forged successful business careers, with Lloyd pivoting 25 years ago to work with the V Foundation for Cancer Research in honor of his college roommate and teammate, Jim Valvano. Lloyd served as the foundation’s Chairman for 20 years.
Whitney, a Brooklyn native, returned to teaching and was principal at his old junior high school for 25 years. Anderson, traded to Minnesota during the 1967-68 season, stayed there and became president of an insurance company.
There’s always a limit to how long ballplayers can stay in the game, and for most of the Americans, it wasn’t very long at all. For some of those adjacent to the action, one season turned into lifetime. Turetzky, who went to the first game as a fan before being asked to help out at the scorer’s table, will begin his 51st season as official scorer in October. Ross, who got the job thanks to the legendary broadcaster Marty Glickman, followed in Glickman’s footsteps as a mainstay in New York media, going on to broadcast games for nearly every major pro team in the area.
But all of them have the memories of that first season, and the knowledge that the franchise they helped get off the ground survived the ABA’s wild nine-year journey and lives on today.
“I’m glad that I ended up with one of the teams that ended up merging in,” said Anderson. “It’s more fun to say I played for the Nets than the Houston Mavericks or Minnesota Muskies.”