For those who grew up in Pittsburgh during the late 1960s and early 1970s, mention the Pipers, Condors, or Triangles, and it will bring back memories of professional teams long forgotten. The city of Pittsburgh once had both a professional basketball team and a team in a league that still exits today, World Team Tennis.
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The American Basketball Association (ABA) was established in 1967 and merged with the National Basketball Association in 1976. Having played just nine seasons, Pittsburgh fielded a team in the league in the inaugural season and called themselves the Pipers. The franchise would last just four seasons, having moved to Minnesota for one year in 1968 before returning to the ‘Burgh for two more before ceasing operations.
That first season in 1967 became special as the team led by Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins sported the rookie league’s best overall record of 54-24 and wen on to the win the first-ever ABA title. In winning the championship, the Pipers knocked off the New Orleans Buccaneers in the title round four games to three. It would be the city of Pittsburgh’s only pro basketball title ever. With a championship under their belt, a majority of the franchise was sold to a lawyer from Minnesota named Bill Erickson who opted to move the team to Minnesota because Minneapolis had lost their Muskies team to the city of Miami due to attendance issues. Faring no better in Minnesota with the fans, the Pipers then made their way back to the Steel City after just one season in the midwest. According to some report, Pipers co-owner Gabe Rubin brought the team back only because he could not find another city to move to.
Years after his retirement, Connie Hawkins reflected on his career:
“People always say that they never saw how good I was, really was, because they stole my best years and all that. That bothers me because I look at it like, my first year I made the NBA All-Star team, I made the All-Pro team too. So what did they steal? I showed my capabilities, what I could do, but all most people think about is what was taken from me. Look, I’m in the Hall of Fame. That’s the pinnacle. They saw the best of me. I was fortunate enough to play against the top players in the world. And I know what I did against them.”
When the Pipers returned to Pittsburgh, apparently, fans were unforgiving in welcoming the team home as attendance dropped and in 1970 the team was sold to Haven Industries who believed a name change should be made. Originally, a contest was held so fans could pick the new nickname and the end result was “Pioneers.” Unfortunately, that moniker belonged to Point Park College and the school indicated they would sue if the name was used. The team’s ownership then declared Condors as the new nickname.
“I was fortunate enough to play against the top players in the world. And I know what I did against them” Connie Hawkins
The name change did nothing to aid in the success on the hardwoods. For the season, the announced average attendance at the old Civic Arena was just 2,806 per game. According to some, it was actually less that half of that number. The General Manager at the time was Marty Blake and he came up with a scheme to increase attendance that ended up costing him his job. His idea was to hand out free tickets for every seat available in the arena for one game early in that 1970 season.
The game was scheduled for November 17 and it drew the largest crowd in the history of the team playing under name Condors. But that big crowd only numbered 8,074 where Civic Arena had a capacity of 12,300. Among season ticket holders, 3,000 failed to show up for that one game. The Condors lost the game and Blake lost his job.
For their final season in the league in 1971, the Condors changed their logo and uniforms and attempted a jazzy marketing routine. Trying to lure fans to the arena, the Condors’ management made a deal with the NBA’s league champions, the Milwaukee Bucks who had a center leading them to the title named Lew Alcindor. Alcindor wold soon become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the name change took place just days before the planned exhibition game between the Bucks and Condors.
Ownership agreed to pay Milwaukee’s owners $25,000 to come play in Pittsburgh, and an ad was taken out locally in the ‘Burgh stating “Bring on Alcindor.” The problem was that by game time, Alcindor was now Abdul-Jabbar, and the great center also suffered and injury and did not take part in the game. The end result was a disaster with less than 9,000 fans showing.
Once the season began, the Condors lost four of the first 10 games and Head Coach Jack McMahon was fired and replaced with Mark Binstein. That moved failed miserably and Pittsburgh’s last professional basketball team finished the season 25-59 with an average attendance of just 2,215.
The attendance issue became a major problem and ownership had the team playing in other cities around the state and eventually even as far away as Birmingham, Alabama. Haven Industries planned to move the team the following season to another city but could not work a deal and the roster was disbanded with players placed into a special draft.
One icon that made the old ABA special was the red, white, and blue basketball that was used in games. Perhaps the most memorable name from the old league would have been that of Julius “Dr. J.” Erving. Averaging a little over 28 points per game during his five years in the old league, Erving, simply known around the world as Dr. J. took the court for both the Virginia Squires and the Brooklyn Nets. With circus like and magical moves on the courts along with his ability to using an amazing jumping ability, Erving was making dunks look special long before Michael Jordan came along. With the Pipers and Condors however, Connie Hawkins was the star.
Along with Hawkins, John Brisker and George Thompson also starred for the team. Hawkins holds the record for most minutes played in a season while Brisker made the most field goals (898) in the brief history of the club. Thompson had the second most. Mike Lewis holds the career record for most games played with 295 while Brisker is the all-time leader in points.
For the record, the team’s colors were blue and orange from 1967 to 1970 then a switch was made for the final three seasons to Red and Gold. The owners were Gabe Rubin for the first three years and Haven Industries for the franchises remaining years. There were two General Managers (Vern Mikkelsen and Marty Blake) who hired the following head coaches: Vince Cazzwetta, Jim Harding, Vern Mikkelsen, Verl Young, John Clark, Buddy Jeannette, Jack McMahon, and Mark Binstein.
When one thinks of professional tennis, current fans will probably spew out the names Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, or perhaps Rafael Nadal. Old-timers like this writer will remember Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova or Billie Jean King for example. But many tennis fans probably don’t know that in 1973, the sport was turned into not just an individual sport, but a TEAM sport. It was termed “World Team Tennis” (WTT) and a format was adopted to create a competitive league with players making up teams in cities arcoss the country.
In Pittsburgh, with the city sometimes known as the “Golden Triangle” the newly formed tennis team was dubbed the Triangles. The team was founded by John H. Hillman III, William Sutton, and Chuck Reichblum. Shortly after local businessman Frank B. Fuhrer purchased a major part of the team and became Chairman of the franchise. The Civic Arena became home and 1974 was the first season played there.
The uniforms worn were bright yellow and green and the Triangles were placed in the Eastern Division along with Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland and a team representing Toronto and Buffalo. Another eight teams made up the Western Division giving the WTT 16 teams to begin their league.
For the Triangles, they would only last three seasons. But in 1975, the Triangles won the league championship. The original rules consisted of a court that had no line and each match would consist of five sets. Those five sets would be made up with a men’s singles, doubles, and women’s singles and doubles, followed by a mixed doubles. Unlike normal tennis rules, the scoring was done so on a no-advantage basis with no requirement to win a game by two points.
Lob and Smash
If a deuce (40-40) occurred, the next point scored was the game winner. Five games won determined the set winner. If sets resulted in a 4-4 tie, a nine-point tiebreaker decided the set. For each game won, a single point was awarded. In the event of a tied match at the end, overtimes and something called “supertiebreakers” were put into place.
In 1976, the Pittsburgh Triangles folded. However, the city of Philadelphia did not have a team in the league and the WTT leadership gave thought to sporting a team nicknamed the Pennsylvania Keystones.” Cleveland Nets owner Joseph Zingale was struggling with attendance in his city and showed the interest in having a team playing not just in Cleveland but also in the ‘Burgh. The end result in 1977 was the Nets splitting their home games between the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio and the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
As for the players who made up the three season squads for the Pittsburgh Triangles, there were some very famous tennis stars and others that were not household names. In their inaugural season, the head coach was Ken Rosewall, a proven veteran on the professional tour. His team included stars like Vita Gerulaitis, Evonne Goolagong, and Peggy Michel. 21 players in all made up that first team. When the Triangles won the league championship a year later, Vic Edwards became the coach and with just six other players, the team took the title.
In their final season, the Pittsburgh Triangles Mar Cox became the head coach and Dan McGibben took over at the helm halfway through the campaign. In 1974, the team finished with a record of 30-14 and second in the Central Section of the Eastern Division beating the Detroit Loves 63-27 in the first round of the playoffs. In the next round the Triangles went down at the hands of Philadelphia Freedom 52-45 losing the Eastern Division crown in the process.
In their title run of 1975, Pittsburgh finished 36-8 on the season and received a first round bye in the post-season. From there they defeated the Boston Lobsters and then the San Francisco Golden Gaters for the league championship.
Finally before folding, the Triangles finished 24-20 in 1976 finishing second in their division before bowing out in the playoffs to the New York Sets. Not many Pittsburghers may remember the Pittsburgh Triangles or the Pittsburgh Pipers/Condors, but yes fans, they did exist.