Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Semi-pro? This ABA star says no

Roanoker Glen Combs paints a different picture of his former league than Hollywood does.

Former Virginia Tech basketball player Glen Combs is shown in front of a photo in which he drives for his ABA team against Milwaukee of the NBA.

JOSH MELTZER The Roanoke Times

Former Virginia Tech basketball player Glen Combs is shown in front of a photo in which he drives for his ABA team against Milwaukee of the NBA.

Roanoke resident and former Virginia Tech standout Glen Combs (left) played seven years in the ABA, including for the Utah Stars.

Photo Courtesy of Virginia Tech

Roanoke resident and former Virginia Tech standout Glen Combs (left) played seven years in the ABA, including for the Utah Stars.

Virginia Tech Hokies basketball

Berman Courtside

Now playing in theaters is a Will Ferrell movie about the American Basketball Association. Don't expect to see Glen Combs in line buying tickets.

Combs, a Roanoke resident and former Virginia Tech star, spent seven seasons playing in the ABA, the NBA's now-defunct rival. The three-time ABA All-Star has no interest in watching a comedy make fun of a league -- and time in his life -- he holds dear.

Especially not one named "Semi-Pro."

"I don't agree with that at all," Combs, 61, said. "The quality of players was about equal to the NBA."

Yes, the shorts were very short and the socks were very long. The crowds weren't up to NBA standards. And one time the Virginia Squires were a day late with his pay.

But while Combs was traded three times, it was never for a washing machine, which happens to Woody Harrelson's character in the movie. And he didn't wear an Afro, like Ferrell does in the film.

"I had sideburns and a little mustache," said Combs, the retired president of a food brokerage company. "That was as close as I could get to an Afro."

Not that there weren't amusing moments when he played for four teams in the league from 1968-75.

"The teams, they would try to do promotions to try to get people in because they didn't have any television [deal]," he said. "Now it's pretty common to see ball girls at all the games. But the Miami Floridians, they had ball girls dressed in bikinis to try to bring people in."

Combs, who averaged 16.5 points in his pro career, still has one of the red-white-and-blue basketballs that were the signature of the league.

"Everyone laughed at [it] at first, but you play with it, you get used to it, and you don't think anything about it," he said. "It proved to be a terrific marketing tool."

He played against such stars as Julius Erving, Rick Barry and George Gervin. There would also be exhibition games between ABA and NBA teams; Combs once played against a Milwaukee team that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

Combs played for the Dallas (and later Texas) Chaparrals, the Utah Stars, the Memphis Tams and the Virginia Squires.

The NBA didn't have a 3-point line back then, but the ABA did. That was an asset to Combs, an ex-guard who made 503 3-pointers in his pro career.

"It was a run-and-gun league," he said. "It was really a league designed more for guards and forwards," he said. "The NBA probably had an advantage on us with big men."

Combs will be honored at this week's ACC Tournament as part of the conference's annual "legends" class, although he was a Tech star way before the Hokies joined the ACC. As a junior, he helped Tech reach the final eight of the 1967 NCAA tournament.

In 1968, the NBA's San Diego Rockets drafted him in the fifth round and the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals selected him in the eighth round.

Combs opted for Dallas because of the ABA's 3-point rule. He also liked the fact that the Dallas coach was a fellow Kentucky native, Cliff Hagan.

Combs made about $13,000 as a rookie, with a $4,000 signing bonus. The ABA wouldn't allow him to have an agent or lawyer when negotiating his contract, a rule that was changed several years later.

Combs worked in Roanoke for his father-in-law's company in the off-season. Combs had met his future wife, a Roanoke native, at Tech.

The ABA lasted for nine seasons; Combs was around for all but the first year and the last. He was part of the Utah Stars team that won the 1971 ABA crown. Bill Sharman, now in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, was that team's coach.

When Combs played for Memphis, the team's owner was the late Charlie Finley, who was more famous as the owner of the Oakland A's baseball team.

"Memphis was not a good situation," Combs said. "We didn't draw, and Charlie Finley wouldn't put any money into the team.

"I was going from a first-place team to a last-place team, so I had my attorney call to see if I could get a better contract because I was going to lose out on the playoff money. Charlie Finley, his response was, 'What he's going to get is what he's got in his contract right now.' "

Combs requested a trade from Memphis to the Squires prior to his final season. But he played in only 13 games in 1974-75 because of a knee injury before deciding to end his ABA career.

"They were fun years," he said. "I'd have probably done it for nothing."

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