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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Pro Basketball Champions, The Pipers

by OldSchoolShirts Info 28 Oct 2022
Pittsburgh's Forgotten Pro Basketball Champions, The Pipers

Pittsburgh calls itself the City of Champions, and rightly so. That nickname stuck in the late ‘70s after the Steelers won their third and fourth Super Bowls, while the Pirates sandwiched a World Series win between those NFL Championships. Unfortunately, that was the last World Series win for the Bucs. The Steelers, of course, went on to win two more Super Bowls following the 2003 and 2007 seasons, respectively. The city’s often downtrodden hockey team got in on the Championship action starting in 1991 with the first of five Stanley Cup wins. 

There’s another championship squad, though, a pro basketball team that many in Western Pennsylvania have forgotten. Indeed, some may not have heard of them at all. That team was the called the Pittsburgh Pipers.

Humble beginnings

In 1967, a group of Southern California lawyers and businessmen established the American Basketball Association (ABA) to compete with the established National Basketball Association (NBA). Inspired by the success of the American Football League (AFL), which had just merged with the National Football League, the ABA founders saw an opportunity.

By starting a new league, they hoped to force a merger with the NBA, which would have allowed their initial investment in teams to at least double in value. The NBA, like the other three sports leagues, the NFL, National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Baseball (MLB), were all reluctant to add teams at that time and thus split their profits up into smaller pieces. That stubbornness opened the door for several so-called rebel leagues, including the ABA.

A great start

The league opened for business with 11 teams on October 13, 1967. One of those teams was the Pittsburgh Pipers, who tipped off 10 days later against the New Jersey Americans and won 110-107. The team featured future Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins, along with Chuck Williams and Chico Vaughn. Hawkins was familiar to Pittsburgh fans from his days with the city’s American Basketball League (ABL) team, the Pittsburgh Rens, just a few years earlier. 

Under coach Vince Cazzetta, the Pipers won a league-best 54 games. In the first round of the playoffs, they swept the Indiana Pacers in three games.  They dispatched the Minnesota Muskies four games to one to advance to the ABA Championship Series against the New Orleans Buccaneers.

The Bucs, who had topped the Western Division during the regular season, gave the Pipers quite a fight. The championship series went to seven games, with the decisive contest played in Pittsburgh. The Pipers triumphed 122 to 113 to capture the league’s first crown. Then something odd happened.

A modern home

The team played in the then state-of-the-art Civic Arena (built in 1961). They were roommates with the city’s brand-new NHL team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. By ABA standards, the Pipers drew well, averaging 3,200 fans a game. A season-high 12,300 fans witnessed a January win over the Minnesota Muskies, while Game 7 of the championship series drew 11,457. The Penguins, meanwhile, averaged 7,407 fans a game, even though they failed to make the playoffs. 

With a league title and respectable attendance, the Pipers decided to move. What’s even stranger about that is their choice for a new home. The team headed to Minnesota. The ABA team there, the aforementioned Muskies, had packed their bags and headed to Florida after receiving almost no fan support in the Twin Cities. This despite a second-place finish behind Pittsburgh and a playoff appearance.

The Minnesota Pipers

The Pipers didn’t fare much better in Minnesota. Their record dropped to 36 and 42, which earned them a playoff spot. In the first round, they took the Miami Floridians (the former Minnesota Muskies) to seven games before being eliminated. However, they were back in Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season. 

They finished their third season with a mark of 29 and 55, out of the playoffs, and with little fan support. In 1970, the team was purchased by Haven Industries, makers of Jack Frost sugar. The new owners decided a new name was in order and held a name-the-team contest.

New name, same results

For the 1970-71 season, the team became the Pittsburgh Condors. The team didn’t improve much on the court, and attendance fell to just over 2,000 fans a game. It got worse the following season as the team remained mired with a sub-.500 record and even fewer fans showing up to Civic Arena. An attempt to move the team to a bigger city in the summer of 1972 failed, and the franchise folded. 

In addition to jump-starting the pro career of the great Connie Hawkins, as well as launching that of Chuck Williams, the Pipers/Condors also had another well-known player, who some would say was more infamous than famous: John Brisker. He played in Pittsburgh for the team’s final three seasons and was the league's second leading scorer in his rookie season. 

After the Condors folded, he joined the Seattle SuperSonics of the rival NBA. In 1975, he played part of one season for the minor league Cherry Hill Rookies of the Eastern Basketball Association. In 1978, he traveled to Uganda, where he soon disappeared. Though declared dead by King County, Washington officials in 1985, his fate remains unknown to this day.

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