When Louie Dampier sat down 10 years ago with the Kentucky Colonels of the fledging American Basketball Association to negotiate a contract, he quickly found out what his value to the club would be.
"Because you played at the University of Kentucky, you'll bring some fans in," the Colonels told him. "But we really don't expect you to be able to play in this league more than a year."
The ABA lasted nine years. Dampier, despite height and quickness limitations, is still a pro player, now wearing the uniform of the San Antonio Spurs. He's also a member of a nearly extinct species - the original ABA player remaining in the National Association.
"No, I don't feel like a relic," said Dampier with a laugh. "I'm just glad to be still around. This game always has been fun to play and I still love it."
Dampier isn't just hanging on, either, counting those two-a-month checks. Because of injuries to the SPurs' backout, he has been starting the last couple of weeks and doing pretty well for a 33-year-old man caught in the middle of San Antonio's racehorse style.
When the Bullets set up their defense for the Spurs tonight at 8 at Capital Centre, they won't worry about Dampier busting by for layups. But they will try not to let him have any open jumps shots. ABA teams found out 10 years ago that giving the 6-foot Dampier a free shot is like leaving keys in a car for a thief.
Of all the talented players who wore ABA uniforms, Dampier, one of the least known nationally, is the man who holds all the ABA career marks. He finished No. 1 in career scoring, three-pointers, field goals attempted, assists, and games and minutes played. He averaged almost 19 points a game in nine years and was a perenial all-star, even when the league grew in stature and added better personnel.
Dampier, once scored 55 points against Dallas and he spent two seasons specializing in three-points tries, tossing up in 552 attempts from beyond the 30-foot circle one year and 548 the next. He was, Adolph Rupp claims, the finest shooter to ever play for the University of Kentucky.
"Make that the finest shooter I've ever seen." says Rupp.
"That's not a bad accolade for someone who didn't even want to play college basketball until his senior year at an Indiana high school and who dreamed of being a pro-basketball star. Although he was an All-America at Kentucky, he was considered such a poor pro prospect that the NBA's Cincinnati franchise offered him a tryout, but no contract, when he graduated from college.
"It wasn't a hard decision for me to go with the ABA," said Dampier who now lives in a place called Pee Wee Valley, Ky. "Kentucky drafted me first and offered me money. That alone was pretty persuasive."
And so he began a unique career in a league no one expected to last beyond one season. Back then, he was the ABA's version og Ernie (No Defense) DiGregorio - if Ernie D could shot like Jerry West.
"It was shaky then, but fun," said Dampier. "We all had critics, especially myself. They said I was too small and I wasn't noted for playing much defense.
"They were right too. At first, I didn't play a whole lot of defense. I usually guarded the week guard and just worried about scoring. But I'm much better now. I wanted to prove I could play defense and I think I have."
In the ABA's early years, sirens would sound when he'd a three-footer and players would feel lucky if they escaped games with their bodies intact. How rouhg was it? Dampier was asked.
"In the NBA, they would say no harm, no foul," he said. "In the ABA, we'd say, no blood, no foul."
Dampier's life has changed now. The officiating is better, at least on most mights, and he has learned to adjust a fast-break style after year of playing in a set offense that concentrated on springing him for open shots.
"I've got no regrets. I never doubted I could play in the NBA and I don't have to prove it to myself. I'm even doing some things better now. I shoot for a higher percentage because I don't have to go out and score a lot of points like I did every night in the ABA."
With San Antonio, which landed him last year in the ABA dispersal draft, he has had to learn to come off the bench (he's averaging 10 points a game).
"I've been happy to find out I could play as a reserve. A lot of starters can't make that adjustment, but I have. Now I want to play one more year. Yeah, 12 years, that will be enough."
Bob Dandridge has a score left shoulder and did not practice yesterday. He is questionable for San Antonio . . .Wes Unseld's calf injury has healed and he will start tonight after missing two games . . .The SPurs are second in the league in scoring (114.8 points a game) and 20th in defense . . .Bullet coach Dick Motta says this club averaging 26 points, will run with San Antonio. Spur guard George Gervin is averaging 26 points a contest, fourth best in the league . . San Antonio has picked up Mo Layton and activated George Karl to help with its guard problems. Starter Mike Gale is out with an ankle sprain.