This gem of a program from the Indiana Pacers dates to the final days of the American Basketball Association in the winter of 1976. A young artist named Rich Ernsting painted many of the program covers for both the Pacers and the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association during their 1975-76 seasons. Both teams played at the newly built Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, opened in 1974.
Ernsting’s portraits typically featured a Pacers or Racers player – or, in the case of the program at below right, a team personality, such as Racers play-by-play man Bob Lamey.
“They were all watercolor paintings on heavy watercolor paper. I basically had freedom of design to come up with whatever,” Ernsting recalled to FWiL in 2012. “I wasn’t really a big hockey fan, but I was a huge Pacers fan. A friend of mine and I saw most home games, sometimes for free with mid-court seats. There was nothing like the old ABA Pacers. They were so exciting.”
Ernsting balanced a full-time day job with the task of producing dozens of original art designs for the Pacers and Racers as a nocturnal side job.
“Roger Brown was my favorite player. I’m very disappointed he isn’t in the Hall of Fame. I liked <my> Billy Keller cover and Roger Brown as well. There were several I thought turned out really good. The coach of the Indianapolis Racers and a couple of their players. There were also a few that weren’t so good, sometimes because I was just so tired. It was a pretty hectic schedule I was on. Not enough hours in the day.”
Occasionally Ernsting’s cover art highlighted a star player from the opposition, such as this illustration of Spirits of St. Louis star Don Chaney from a January 7, 1976 Pacers vs. Spirits game in Indianapolis.
Chaney led an interesting career, entering the NBA as a 1st round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1968. An ace defensive player, Chaney would win NBA titles with Boston in 1969 and again in 1974. In September 1974, Chaney signed a contract to jump to the ABA for the 1975-76 season after playing out his option year with Boston. Although other high profile NBA veterans jumped to the ABA in the past – Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham, Zelmo Beatty – Chaney was the first to leave a defending NBA championship team to join the junior circuit. The Spirits lured Chaney away with a reported offer of $100,000 annually, nearly double the $60,000 salary Chaney drew from the Celtics in 1974-75.
Chaney ended up joining the ABA just in time to witness its death throes. Two clubs – the San Diego Sails and the Utah Stars – folded during the 1975-76 season. Chaney’s Spirits wobbled through the season. The team fired Head Coach Rod Thorn after 47 games and played to microscopic crowds in St. Louis. At the conclusion of the 1975-76 season, the NBA accepted four ABA clubs in a merger – the Pacers, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs.
The NBA didn’t want the ABA’s other three clubs. The Virginia Squires went out of business and the Kentucky Colonels accepted a modest seven-figure buyout. In a now infamous deal in NBA lore, Spirits owners Ozzie and Dan Silna negotiated a clever buyout that would pay them a 1/7th share of all NBA television contract money earned by the Pacers, Nuggets, Nets and Spurs in perpetuity. The Silna brothers owned their ABA franchise for only two seasons. Nearly four decades later, the Silnas have collected more than aquarter of a billion dollars from the NBA under the terms of this remarkable buyout. The NBA has looked to extricate itself from the deal for decades without success.
Don Chaney would return to the NBA in 1976 after the Spirits folded. After one season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Chaney returned to the Celtics in 1977 for his final two pro seasons. He is the only Celtic player to play with both Bill Russell and Larry Bird.
Rich Ernsting has turned his professional interests to photography. These days he tours the country, photographing college campuses and creating photo collages as keepsakes and remembrances for graduates. He has photographed over 700 campuses in 48 states and his work can be seen at www.richtraditionsart.com.
Click here for our complete2012 Interview with Program Artist Rich Ernsting
Here are a few more Rich Ernsting program covers from 1975 and 1976: