The Pittsburgh Pipers get glossed over in discussions of the greatest teams in Pittsburgh sports history, overshadowed by three other professional teams with 16 championships between them.
Pittsburghers forget that for one season in the late 1960s, Pittsburgh was home to a professional basketball powerhouse.
While Bill Russell was leading the Boston Celtics to the 1967-68 NBA title, Connie Hawkins was doing the same for the Pipers in the American Basketball Association.
Pipers lore begins and ends with that season, but looking back is worth it to give the Pipers their due for their ’67 glory.
Can a basketball team succeed in Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh was not the sports mecca it is today in 1967.
Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams used most of his Oct. 24, 1967, “Sidelights on Sports” column to bemoan the lack of success among the city’s teams, even though it came after a victory by the Pipers in their first game..
“[R]emember the Pirates, everybody’s choice to win the NL pennant, finished a miserable sixth,” he wrote. “The snake-bitten Steelers are now 1 and 5. The Phantoms [Pittsburgh’s NPSL soccer team that was formed and dissolved in ‘67] are said to have lost their owners in the neighborhood of $750,000 the first year. It’s too early to tell about the Penguins. And now we have the Pipers, not a musical organization, but one which plays basketball.”
The Pipers defeated the New Jersey Americans in Teaneck on Oct. 23, 100-107, sparked by a 34-point performance from Hawkins.
But the Pipers’ home opener at the Civic Arena on Oct. 24, 1967 turned out to be quite the letdown, as they fell to the Minnesota Muskies, 104-86, in front of a crowd of 5,719 fans.
“Muskies’ 3rd Period Rally Crushes Pipers,” blared the headline in the Oct. 25 edition of the Post-Gazette. Sports reporter Jimmy Miller called the defeat “humiliating,” also writing, “They could win on the road but failed dismally at home.”
Mr. Abrams’ column on Oct. 26 officially inducted the Pipers into the city’s “Losers’ Club,” which at the time included the Steelers, Pirates and Phantoms. Harsh, considering they were just three days into their franchise’s history.
“We hope the Pipers can shake off their lethargy,” he wrote. “This city needs a winner badly.”
A star is born
As the Pipers’ inaugural season continued, it was clear the team had a superstar in the 6’8” Hawkins, who went on to lead the ABA in scoring with 26.8 points per game that season.
“He was totally unselfish, a pleasure to play with,” Pipers backup guard Jim Jarvis told the Post-Gazette’s Milan Simonich in 2008.
Ira Harge, who spent part of the ‘67 season with the Pipers before being traded to the Oakland Oaks, told Simonich that the then-25-year-old Hawkins was a father figure to many of his teammates.
“He was the superstar, but he didn’t act like it,” Mr. Harge said. “Connie knew Pittsburgh, married a girl from Pittsburgh and he was the one who told us where it was safe to go and not go. He was the one who directed us to the good jazz spots in the Hill, and helped us find places to get our hair cut. He was very gracious.”
Hawkins would go on to play for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, but only after the league awarded him a $1.3 million contract as legal retribution for falsely accusing him of conspiring with a gambler to fix college games.
He may have only earned about $23,000 a year playing for the Pipers, but Pittsburgh was where he won his only professional basketball championship.
On May 4, 1968, the Pipers beat the New Orleans Buccaneers 122-113 to win the ABA championship. The team rallied from a 3-2 deficit, once on their home court and again at the Civic Arena to earn the series win.
“The Pipers drove New Orleans crazy and drove 11,457 fans wild last night as they won the American Basketball Association championship,” wrote the Post-Gazette’s Bill Heufelder on the pivotal Game 7 in the paper’s May 5, 1968, edition.
Hawkins averaged 30.7 points per game throughout the playoffs, and almost put up a triple-double in the deciding game against New Orleans, finishing with 20 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists.
Pipers Coach Vince Cazzetta told the Post-Gazette’s Roy McHugh that the first three quarters of the game (before the Buccaneers momentarily surged in the fourth quarter) were some of the best basketball you will ever see.
“For three quarters, this was as good a team as you’ll find anywhere,” he said. “The passing was sharp, the dribbling, the shooting, the rebounding. Defensively, they were blocking out and everything was perfect.”
Pipers Owner Gabe Rubin, whose venture was anything but a guaranteed success, expressed his sense of vindication to Heufelder after the team’s victory.
“I was a little nervous,” he said. “It makes you feel like it was all worthwhile.”
A champion crumbles
Despite the team’s success in Pittsburgh, Rubin sold the Pipers to a Minnesota lawyer who promptly moved the team to the North Star State for the 1968-69 ABA season.
“It came as a shock,” Jarvis told Mr. Simonich in 2008. “We were starting to catch on with the fans in Pittsburgh, and then we were gone.”
The Pipers moved back to Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season, but they never were able to capture the city’s attention the way they did in ’67. The team rebranded itself as the Pittsburgh Condors for the 1970-71 season, but it was all for naught, and the Pipers/Condors folded after the 1971-72 season.
The Condors played their last home game at the Civic Arena on March 26, 1972, squeaking out a 131-130 victory over the Virginia Squires. The headline for Phil Musick’s game story in the March 27 edition of the Post-Gazette read morbidly, “Condors Refuse to Die at Their Own Wake.”
“The unloved orphans of the American Basketball Association faded from the local scene last night before 681 pallbearers at the House of Grief, the Civic Arena,” Musick wrote (his entire story reads like a eulogy for a team nobody will miss). “The Condors left, not as they lived, but victorious.”
That last sentence is ironic given that the franchise won a championship only four years prior. Pittsburghers’ sports memories are short, and that ’67 Pipers/Condors season would eventually be forgotten as the city celebrated six Super Bowls, five World Series and five Stanley Cups.
But on May 4, 1968, as the Pipers fought hard to win the city’s only professional basketball championship, Pittsburgh acted like a city ready to let basketball into its sports DNA.
“I went on radio and TV and pleaded for the people to come out and make it look like a championship game,” Cazzetta told the Post-Gazette’s McHugh after his team won. “OK, it was the last game of the season and the World Series of ABA basketball. But tonight, the city of Pittsburgh supported us.”
— Joshua Axelrod
CORRECTION, posted Dec. 4, 2017: In an earlier version of this story, the wrong team was credited with winning the 1967-68 NBA championship. The Boston Celtics won the title that season.