In the spring of 1967, Erv Inniger, a kid from Berne, Ind., who had gone on to play for the Hoosiers, thought his basketball career had ended. He was a senior on an Indiana team that, tied for last in the Big Ten the year before, was about to finish tied for first.
Then, with a few games to go, Inniger, a 6-3 guard, injured his wrist. He wanted to play with a cast. But, as he remembers it, the Big Ten — having watched former Gophers great Lou Hudson play with a cast the year before — decided that wasn’t a good idea.
So, he thought, that’s it.
But it wasn’t, thanks to the newly forming American Basketball Association. With former Lakers great George Mikan as the league’s first commissioner, the league put a team in Minnesota that first season, the fall of 1967: The Minnesota Muskies, coached by another ex-Lakers great in Jim Pollard.
Future Hall of Famer Mel Daniels was the team’s first draft pick. Much later — in the sixth round, Inniger recalls — he was taken.
In the first week of April 1968, 52 years ago, the teams with the best records faced off in the league’s Eastern Conference finals. The Pittsburgh Pipers, led by the great Connie Hawkins and Art Heyman, vs. the Muskies, led by Daniels, Donnie Freeman and Les Hunter. In the first game of the best-of-seven series, in Pittsburgh, Hawkins and Heyman combined for 60 points in a 125-117 victory over the Muskies, who were led by Daniels (28) and Inniger (26).
“I probably would never had gotten the chance without the ABA,” Inniger said recently. “It was just a tremendous time of my life at that time. I had wanted to play pro ball, and this opened a lot of doors for me.”
It was a difficult first year, Inniger recalled. Both the Muskies and the brand-new North Stars of the NHL played at old Met Center in Bloomington. The North Stars drew fans; the Muskies didn’t. Somehow the fans just weren’t drawn by the new league, which featured red, white and blue basketballs and the three-point shot.
“It’s a lot more fun to play in front of people,” said Inniger, who averaged 10.6 points that first season. “But you have to play for the love of the game.”
But the Muskies were good. Pollard created great chemistry on the team, which went 50-28 and finished second in the East to Pittsburgh (54-24). The Muskies beat the Kentucky Colonels team featuring Darel Carrier and Louie Dampier. But the Muskies couldn’t get past the eventual league champion Pipers, losing in five games.
After the season ended, the Muskies moved to Miami and Hawkins and the Pipers moved to Minnesota for a season before moving back to Pennsylvania.
After being drafted, a stint in the reserves cut into Inniger’s second season, his last. But the experience changed his life. He met his wife in Minneapolis. After a year in Miami, they moved back to Minnesota. Eventually he started a coaching career that began at Golden Valley Lutheran, then Augsburg, then ultimately to North Dakota State, where the Bison went 244-150 in his 14 years as men’s basketball coach.
“Think of it,” he said. “I got a chance to play a couple of years of pro ball, and it changed the direction of my life. It was a great time in my life. I’ve never regretted doing it.”