Jerry Zgoda's Sunday Insider: A year shapes a life of former Minnesota ABAer

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2012 - 1:31 AM

Erv Inniger came north to play for a largely forgotten basketball team, then returned to build a family and career.

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Former Minnesota Muskies guard Erv Inniger from the American Basketball Association at his son's home in Golden Valley on Saturday.

Photo: Jerry Zgoda, Star Tribune

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Erv Inniger is grateful for that first cold northern winter spent in these parts long ago.

Grateful for the chance to play straight out of college for a fledgling franchise in a fledgling league that someday would change its sport by popularizing the three-point shot and the slam dunk with a funny-colored basketball.

Grateful for a life's change of course that transported him from an Indiana childhood to nearly five decades living in North Dakota and Minnesota.

And grateful that he survived those Minnesota Muskies uniforms, the ones the Timberwolves will wear in replica, with one important modification, for six games this season to commemorate the American Basketball Association's 45th anniversary.

"We're lucky we have kids today," said Inniger, who has two sons. "Those shorts we wore back then were a lot shorter, and tight."

Inniger came to Minnesota from Indiana University in 1967, the same autumn when both the ABA and an NHL team called the North Stars arrived to play in sparkly new Metropolitan Sports Center out in the suburbs.

The Muskies survived for one season, the ABA for just two in Minnesota. They succeeded on the court that first season, winning 50 games against the likes of the Kentucky Colonels, Anaheim Amigos, Oakland Oaks and one called the Indiana Pacers with a roster filled with rookies (included a very talented Mel Daniels).

And they flopped at the box office in a market where the new North Stars and the established NHL was king that first season.

"We had a pretty good team; too bad we didn't draw," said Terry Kunze, a former Gophers guard who played for nearly a decade in Europe and for one memorable season at Met Center. "Some nights, you probably could have heard everyone in the building."

The ABA survived and changed pro basketball with its individual expression of play and the stars -- Julius Erving, Moses Malone, David Thompson and George Gervin, among others -- that style produced until the league merged with the NBA in 1976.

The Muskies, and the Pipers that followed them the next season at Met Center, became a forgotten footnote in state sports history.

Inniger has the original $10,000 contract he signed with the team and other ABA memorabilia. He passed a couple of the league's famed red, white and blue basketballs -- collector's items now suitably insured -- down to his sons, both of whom live in Minnesota.

A 6-4 guard, Inniger followed the Muskies to Florida when the franchise moved there after that first financially failed season. But he eventually returned to Minnesota rather than return to Indiana. He coached at Golden Valley Community College, Augsburg and North Dakota State for years and years until he became NDSU's senior athletic director for the next 20.

"That was just a great time in my life," said Inniger, who still lives in Fargo, N.D., while Kunze lives in Brooklyn Center and is an original Wolves season-ticket holder. "We played for the right reasons, because you loved the game. I didn't realize until I got to be this age how fortunate I was. I never thought about it, I just did it because I loved it. That year changed my life. I applied for a job up here after that and I just never left."

That single season shaped his sons' lives, too, despite the fashionably short shorts.

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