SALT LAKE CITY — If you’ve loved every Kevin Durant scoring spurt, every Stephen Curry moon shot, and every howling Blake Griffin dunk this NBA season, “Jumbo” Jim Eakins has a message for you: all were made possible, in part, by the American Basketball Association.
Run-and-gun, draw-and-kick, rim-rattling basketball flourished in the 1960s and ‘70s, during the nine-year life of the ABA.
“The showmanship was all started by what the ABA brought to the game,” said Eakins, an eight-year veteran of the upstart league.
A BYU standout before turning pro in 1968, Eakins was sailing down memory lane this week. On Wednesday he attended a dinner in Norfolk to commemorate the Virginia Squires, who ran cash-dry 38 years ago.
People tend to romanticize the past, so was the ABA really as good as its reputation?
“In all ways,” Eakins said. “Just as mythical and legendary as people say.”
This week’s event, organized by the Norfolk Sports Club, is being called the “Virginia Squires Legends Reunion.” Among others committed to attending with Eakins: Charlie Scott, Julius Erving, George “Iceman” Gervin and former coach Al Bianchi.
In his two NBA seasons, after the leagues had merged, Eakins played against other greats such as Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and “Pistol” Pete Maravich. In the ABA he was on teams featuring Erving, Gervin, Rick Barry and Moses Malone.
“Playing against Pistol was like playing with the Doctor (Erving),” Eakins said. “Sometimes you’d be playing against him and you’re in the flow of the game and suddenly you’d stop and say, ‘Did he just do what I think I saw him do?’ As far as entertaining the crowd and bringing it to its feet, Dr. J was at the very top.”
Eakins won two ABA rings, one with the Oakland Oaks in 1969, another with the New York Nets in 1976. Other pro stops included Washington, Utah, San Antonio, Kansas City and Milwaukee.
But the bulk of his career was with the Squires, where he played with future coaches Larry Brown and Doug Moe. He says he could foresee Brown as a coach, but Moe, not so much.
“Doug Moe, big surprise; Larry, no surprise,” Eakins said.
Brown would often join his coach, or even opposing coaches, at dinner to talk basketball strategy — a born student.
“But I didn’t expect Doug to be a coach,” Eakins said. “He was so laid back and easygoing.”
Moe, who once coached an NBA exhibition game in dungarees, labeled the Chicago Bulls “Michael Jordan and a bunch of stiffs.”
That comment today would send NBA public relations people scurrying.
Moe lightly explained it away by saying in his dictionary, “a stiff has no talent, but can help you win.”
Eakins learned much in the ABA, including when to shoot. As a rookie with Oakland, he found himself open for a 12-foot shot and didn’t hesitate. During the next time out, Barry, a future hall of famer said, “Jumbo, did you see me open?”
“Yeah,” Eakins said, “but you were 18 feet out and I was open at 12.”
“Jumbo,” Barry replied deliberately, “which is better, Jim Eakins for a 12-footer or Rick Barry for an 18-footer? Think about it.”
Forty-five years later, Eakins is still smiling.
Following his playing days, Eakins coached at Mountain View, Mount Vernon, Granite and Cottonwood high schools in Utah, as well as starting the basketball program at Salt Lake Community College. He and his wife served an LDS mission in Micronesia, where they lived 600 miles from the mission home.
Recently he has been inducted into the Encina High School and Northern California high schools' halls of fame.
Eakins was traded to the Utah Stars midway through his career, so he could tutor a young Moses Malone. Shortly after, he was summoned to the room of coach Tom Nissalke, who had taken over midseason for Bucky Buckwalter.
“In my first meeting with the team, I detected some negative vibes from you,” Nissalke began.
“Well, Tom, the only thing I know about you is what I’ve seen from you as an opposing coach and what I hear other coaches and players say about you,” Eakins said. “And quite frankly, all of them call you one s.o.b."
Nissalke said, “Jumbo, I promise you those players who say that are the ones that will not give 100 percent. You always give 110 percent, so you don’t have to worry about me yelling at you.”
That’s roughly how Eakins and former teammates are attacking this week’s reunion — 110 percent. A golf outing is scheduled for Friday. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be more than a little showmanship at that, too. After all, it’s in their blood.
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