These were Carl Scheer’s “outlaw” days.
It was the 1970s and he was running the Denver Nuggets in the American Basketball Association. The goal was to force the NBA into merger talks. Scheer and his ABA buddies were messing around with red-white-and-blue basketballs, 3-point shots and dunk contests.
“We were the outlaws to the NBA guys,” said Scheer, the longtime Charlottean who was honored by the Nuggets during Saturday night’s game against the Indiana Pacers. “We had small markets and no real television contract. We had to find ways to entertain people.”
So Scheer and his colleagues dreamed up gimmicks unapologetically. The slam-dunk contest was Scheer’s brain storm. It still exists decades later in the NBA All-Star Weekend. Now working in marketing and ticket sales with the Bobcats, Scheer recalls those ABA days as wild and pragmatic.
“We had some of the best players in Julius (Erving) and David (Thompson). So we went out and stole their referees and stole their coaches,” Scheer said of the attack on the NBA establishment.
Scheer recalls with a laugh that Boston Celtics chief Red Auerbach accused him of diminishing basketball with the ABA’s game presentation.
“We were too entertaining,” Scheer said.
It worked. The NBA finally agreed to a merger in 1976 (the more senior partner termed it “expansion.”) The (now-Brooklyn) Nets, the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs and Scheer’s Nuggets joined the NBA and turned out to be very competitive.
The Nuggets were immediately one of the NBA’s better teams. The Nets eventually went to two NBA Finals, built around point guard Jason Kidd. The Spurs and the Pacers are both contenders to make the Finals this season.
Scheer is still in pro basketball; this is his second stint in Charlotte. He was the Hornets’ first general manager when they debuted in Charlotte in 1988. The ABA experience was quite valuable in introducing Charlotte to major-league sports.
“I believed in the approach. My first week in Charlotte we established a ground rule – regardless of the product on the floor, fans had to leave the arena feeling they had a good time,” Scheer recalled.
Scheer left the Hornets for a second stint with the Nuggets and the relationship between the city and then-Hornets owner George Shinn declined until the team moved to New Orleans. Now the NBA is back in Charlotte and soon the Hornets’ identity will be, too.
That makes Scheer smile.
“I’d like to think,” Scheer concluded, “I helped stabilize basketball in the small markets.”
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