The Baltimore Claws was an American basketball team which was supposed to appear in the 1975-76 season in the American Basketball Association. The team collapsed before the season started, playing only three exhibition games, all losses, in its brief history.
The team that eventually became the Baltimore Claws had earlier competed in the ABA as the New Orleans Buccaneers from 1967 through 1970, as the Memphis Pros from 1970 through 1972, as the Memphis Tams from 1972 through 1974 and as the Memphis Sounds during the 1974-75 season. The Memphis franchise had struggled through the years and in its last season there it had relied on the league itself to handle some of its bills. The Sounds began the 1974-75 season with a win followed by several losses; fan interest waned but the team rallied to finish in fourth place in the ABA's Eastern Division. In the playoffs they lost in the Eastern Division semifinals to the eventual league champion Kentucky Colonels, 4 games to 1. Of the Sounds' draft picks that season, two (Lonnie Shelton and Terry Furlow) remained in college and the third (Rich Kelley) signed with the NBA's New Orleans Jazz. At the close of the 1974-75 season league commissioner Tedd Munchak issued an ultimatum to the Sounds if they wanted to stay in Memphis: sell 4,000 season tickets, line up new investors and get a better lease at the Mid-South Coliseum. When none of the conditions were met, the league took control of the franchise and put it on the market.
Relocation to Maryland
Prior to the 1975-76 season a group of Maryland businessmen bought the troubled Memphis franchise (which the ABA league officers had taken over midway through the previous season) for $1 million and relocated it to Baltimore. In August 1975, new ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere suddenly awarded the franchise to another group in Memphis due to apparent financial problems involving the Baltimore owners. However, the Memphis group backed out the very next day and the team ended up back with the Baltimore owners.
The team was initially named the Baltimore Hustlers, but league and public pressure forced them to rename it the Claws.
In September the Claws gained attention early by gaining the rights to superstar Dan Issel of the reigning ABA champion Kentucky Colonels. The Colonels were supposed to receive center Tom Owens and $500,000 in cash for Issel, but the $500,000 never arrived. When Colonels owner John Y. Brown, Jr. found out the money hadn't arrived, he stormed into a Claws board meeting and announced Issel was being sold to the Denver Nuggets. To make the move look like a trade between Denver and Baltimore, the Nuggets sent forward Dave Robisch to the Claws. The Claws' owners protested, claiming that three more players should have come to Baltimore in the trade. They threatened to fold the team if the other players didn't arrive, but the league ruled against them. The Claws then sent another good player, Rick Mount, to the Utah Stars in another trade.
The Claws entered the preseason under coach Joe Mullaney with a roster that included Mel Daniels and Stew Johnson. The Claws also suited up guard Skip Wise, who the prior year was the first freshman to make the Atlantic Coast Conference all-conference first team, but then did not return to Clemson for his sophomore year.
Due to mounting financial problems, the second loss to the Squires ended up being the Claws' final game. Players and coaches were going unpaid and not even getting their per diem meal money. Only 300 season tickets had been sold. The players were still wearing old red Sounds uniforms with a green patch placed on it saying "Claws," along with unaltered red Sounds warmups. Their practice T-shirts had rips under the arms.
On October 26, 1975, ABA Commissioner DeBusschere got word that one of the Claws' banks had yanked its line of credit. DeBusschere responded with an ultimatum: deposit $500,000 with the league as a "performance bond" within four days to cover expenses or be shut down. The Claws got together half of the money but could not raise the rest. Reportedly, the remaining money, plus an additional $70,000, was being held in escrow by the city, to be released only if team president David Cohan resigned.
The ABA disbanded the Claws on October 20, 1975, less than a week before the regular season began. The league issued a statement noting that it had been prepared to enter the 1975-76 season with nine solid teams and had given the Baltimore group extra time to get its affairs in order but that the Claws had failed to do so. The Claws' office at the Baltimore Civic Center was locked up by arena management due to unpaid bills.
The Claws threatened to seek an injunction delaying the start of the season until the Claws were reinstated, citing a provision in the rules requiring 10 days notice before any team could be shuttered. However, after the league and the city threatened to file their own legal actions, the Claws gave up the ghost and folded. It can be argued that the ABA felt the 10-day rule was trumped by a larger obligation to ensure that its franchises were being run in a professional manner.
The Claws players were put into a dispersal draft. Dave Robisch and Paul Ruffner ended up going to the Spirits of St. Louis. Stew Johnson was sent to the San Diego Sails (who also folded, just a few weeks later). Claude Terry was sent to the Denver Nuggets. Chuck Williams was sent to the Virginia Squires. Scott English was sent to the Indiana Pacers. Joe Hamilton was sent to the Utah Stars. George Carter also ended up with the Stars despite not being picked in the dispersal draft; Utah would become the ABA's third casualty of the season, suspending operations in early December. The Claws' best known player, Mel Daniels, was disappointed at the Claws' fate and retired rather than play for another team. In Terry Pluto's book on the ABA, "Loose Balls", Daniels recalled that the Claws' players were allowed to take equipment and furniture from the team office in lieu of payment.
Not long after the Claws folded, the San Diego Sails and then the Utah Stars folded early in the 1975-76 regular season, abruptly shrinking the league from 10 teams to 7. The failure of those franchises was a factor behind the ABA-NBA merger in the summer after the 1975-76 season ended.
- Remember the ABA Baltimore Claws page
- January 1976 column by Dan Pattison on demise of the Claws and other teams and the impact on the ABA
- Baltimore Claws fan memories