This is an ABA red, white and blue basketball. In front of the ball are the words: The Spirits of St. Louis

The Spirits of St. Louis: All You Need to Know

The Spirits of St. Louis were a very colorful ABA franchise. Moses Malone, Bob Costas, and Maurice Lucas were among the big names who played or worked for the team in their two seasons of existence. The Spirits owners negotiated an incredible deal to fold the team during the ABA-NBA merger that made them millions. 

Who Were the Spirits of St. Louis? 

The Spirits of St. Louis were an ABA basketball team who moved from North Carolina in 1974. They played two seasons as the Spirits before the ABA merged with the NBA. 

The team played home games in the St. Louis Arena with a capacity of 18,000 fans. The team only averaged around 4500 fans in their first season and 3800 in their second.

While the team was never very good, they have a large spot in people’s memories of the ABA. 

This is the Spirits of St. Louis logo. There is a plane flying and the words of the team's name come out as exhaust from the plane.
Spirits Logo

There are many reasons for that, but one of them is surely the large number of big names that worked for the franchise.

One of those big names was future media star Bob Costas. Costas’ first post-college job was as the radio voice of the Spirits. 

Another big name was the team’s coach in their second year – Rod Thorn. Thorn was fired mid-season but would go on to much bigger things as the NBA’s second-in-command during the years David Stern was commissioner.  

The team also had some big-time basketball talent. Marvin Barnes was an ABA star who had addiction issues that kept him from being an even bigger star in the NBA. He was a dominant but mercurial force for the Spirits. 

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Marvin Barnes Spirits Card

Barnes starred as a rookie in the Spirits’ first season. Maurice Lucas was another rookie on that team.

Lucas went on to play 14 seasons in the ABA and NBA, made 5 All Star teams, won an NBA title with Portland in 1977 and made the ABA All-Time team.

The best player to ever play for the Spirits came over from Utah when the Stars folded. That player was Moses Malone.

Big Mo was only two years out of high school at this point, and he missed half of his single season in St. Louis, so he was not a dominant force for the team.

He would go on to have an incredible career in the NBA and is the only Hall of Famer who played for the Spirits.

The team also featured the likes of former ABA title-winner Ron Boone, former Celtics title-winner Don Cheney, future Celtics towel-waver (and title winner) M.L. Carr, long-time NBA center Caldwell Jones and future NBA coach Mike D’Antonio among others. 

The huge number of big names on the Spirits is one reason ESPN made a 30 for 30 documentary about the team called Free Spirits. 

You can read more about the Spirits’ best players, and see the complete rosters for both of their seasons, in other sections of this post. 

The Spirits were one of two teams, along with the Kentucky Colonels, who lasted until the end of the ABA but were not invited to join the NBA.  

Instead, the Spirits owners negotiated what turned out to be an incredible deal with the NBA that made them millions for not owning a team. You can read more about that below. 

Why did the Carolina Cougars Move to St. Louis?

The Spirits of St. Louis were essentially an ABA expansion team when they moved over from Carolina in 1974. Only three players, Steve Caldwell, Dennis Wuycik and Steve Jones, moved with the franchise. 

They weren’t a real expansion team, however. The franchise was one of the original 11 ABA teams but it had moved twice before landing in St. Louis.

The team started as the Houston Mavericks. You can read about their disastrous two seasons here. After failing on the court and flailing off of it, the team moved to North Carolina in 1969.

As the Carolina Cougars, the team found much more success off the court with strong attendance and even had one really good season on the court too. You can read about the Cougars here. 

Carolina Cougars Logo

But Ozzie and Daniel Silna bought the team with hopes of finding a backdoor to NBA ownership. Talks of an ABA/NBA merger had been going on for years. 

The Silna brothers figured if they owned an ABA team, they’d be part of the merger and it would make them richer. As it turned out, they were not part of the merger but it still made them incredibly richer.

The Silnas moved the team to St. Louis because it was widely believed the NBA would not take a franchise that played home games on a regional basis. 

The Cougars played some games in Greensboro, some in Charlotte and some Raleigh because none of those cities was large enough at the time to support professional basketball. 

The brothers chose St. Louis because it was the biggest city in the U.S. without an NBA team at the time. 

Why Were They Called the Spirits of St. Louis? 

This is a picture of Charles Lindbergh standing in front of the Spirit of St. Louis plane he flew across the Atlantic
Charles Lindbergh

The Spirits were named for the famous plane Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in the first-ever solo trans-Atlantic flight. 

The plane Lindbergh flew was named the Spirit of St. Louis. 

It was named for Lindbergh’s supporters in the St. Louis Racquet club, the city where he was living at the time of the flight. 

Lindbergh took off from New York on May 20, 1927 and flew for more than 33 hours and 3600 miles before landing in Paris, France. 

His plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, is prominently displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Were The Spirits of St. Louis A Good Team? 

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Spirits Card

The Spirits were not that great. Their best season was their first one. 

The team finished with a losing regular season record but shocked the New York Nets in the first round of the playoffs.

The Nets finished tied with the Kentucky Colonels for most wins in the Eastern Division in the ‘74-’75 season. The Spirits won only 32 regular season games.

The Nets had won all 11 of the two teams’ regular season meetings that year! The Nets also featured Hall of Famer Julius Erving. So, it is safe to say the Nets were heavy favorites in the series. 

But the Spirits young players, including rookies Barnes and Lucas, had found a way to play with the more established players on the team and everything came together in this series. 

Barnes in particular was incredible, averaging more than 30 points and 15 rebounds per game in the series. 

Julius Erving scored more than 27 points and grabbed 10 boards himself, but it was not enough for the Nets. 

Dr. J had a costly turnover late in game 5 of the series and, with only three seconds left in the game, Freddie Lewis hit a jumper to steal the game and clinch the series for the Spirits. 

They won 4-1 over the Nets but lost in the next round to the Kentucky Colonels in five games. 


Coach: Bob MacKinnonRegular Season Record:  32-52 (3rd in East)
Eastern Div. Semi-FinalsDef. New York Nets 4-1
Eastern Div. FinalsLost to Kentucky Colones 1-4


Coach: Rod Thorn & Joe MullaneyRegular Season Record: 34-50
Did Not Make Playoffs

Who Played for the Spirits of St. Louis?

You can see the complete rosters for both seasons the team existed below. 

1974-1975 Roster

10Don Adams6-6Northwestern
24Marvin Barnes6-8Providence
34Mike Barr6-3Duquesne
27Joe Caldwell6-5Arizona State
7Terry Driscoll6-7Boston College
15Jimmy Foster6-1UConn
12Bernie Fryer6-3BYU
11Gus Gerard6-8Virginia
42Tom Ingelsby6-3Villanova
23Steve Jones6-5Oregon
55Goo Kennedy6-5TCU
1Freddie Lewis6-0Arizona State
20Maurice Lucas6-9Marquette
54Gene Moore6-9Saint Louis
14Tom Owens6-10South Carolina
35Fly Williams6-5Austin Peay State University
10Milt Williams6-2Lincoln University of Missouri
44Dennis Wuycik6-6North Carolina

1975-1976 Roster

10Don Adams6-6Northwestern
24Marvin Barnes6-8Providence
34Mike Barr6-3Duquesne
1Ron Boone6-2Idaho State University
30M.L. Carr6-6Guilford College
12Don Chaney6-5Houston
10Mike D'Antoni6-3Marshall
45Randy Denton6-10Duke
22Gus Gerard6-8Virginia
42Steve Green6-7Indiana
13Rudy Hackett6-9Syracuse
3Caldwell Jones6-11Albany State University
14Freddie Lewis6-0Arizona State
20Maurice Lucas6-9Marquette
13Moses Malone6-10None
40Barry Parkhill6-4Virginia
42Harry Rogers6-7Saint Louis
45Paul Ruffner6-10BYU

Who Were the Best Players for the Spirits of St. Louis?

Moses Malone

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Moses Malone Book

I wrote here that Moses Malone was the best player to ever play for the Utah Stars but he was never the best player on the Utah Stars. 

The same is true for Moses on the Spirits. He was the best player who laced them up for the Spirits, but he was never the team’s best player. 

Big Mo was one of the greatest players in the history of basketball. He  was a 13x All Star, 8x All NBA Selection, 3x NBA MVP, 1983 NBA Champion and a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.

He made the All-Time ABA team as well. But Moses was still a kid when he played for the Spirits. He had come straight out of high school to sign with the Stars and played one full season there.

Then the Utah Stars went out of business 16 games into the ‘75-’76 season and most of the best players were sold off to the Spirits. Moses came over as one of them.

But as a twenty-year old in his second professional season, Big Mo was still learning. He also missed half of his only season in St. Louis with a foot injury. 

Malone was ninth in minutes played for the team at 27 per game. He did score 14 points and grab 10 boards a game for the team. But many other players on that squad did more to help the team than Moses. 

He would go on to all-time greatness but was still growing up with the Spirits. 

Marvin Barnes

Marvin Barnes was something else. He was the 2nd overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He chose to sign with the ABA instead.

He made the All-Time ABA Team like everyone else on this list. But his nickname was Bad News and he lived up to it.

Let’s start with the good. As a rookie out of Providence, Barnes lit it up for the Spirits scoring 24 points and grabbing 15.5 rebounds per game.

He was a 6’8” forward who could fill it up at another level. He averaged 24 and 11 his second season with the Spirits as well.

You can see his highlights below.

Now for the bad news. They called him Bad News for a reason. The Marvin Barnes stories never end. 

A month into his rookie year he disappeared for several days and then turned up at a pool tournament in Dayton, Ohio.

The story told at the time was that he was unhappy with his contract. It’s easy to wonder in hindsight if his drug addiction played a bigger part.

The team blamed Joe Caldwell, a veteran who had come over from Carolina, for the incident believing he had encouraged Barnes. They suspended him and he never played for the team again. 

Barnes famously misunderstood time zones, refusing to board a flight that landed at an earlier time than its departure because it crossed a time zone, saying “I ain’t getting in no time machine.” Instead, he rented a car and drove from Louisville to St. Louis.

He had a long talk with his second-year coach Rod Stern about being a leader for the team after one victory. He missed the team’s flight the next morning. 

Barnes also missed time in his second season with the team due to litigation revolving around hitting a Providence teammate in the head with a tire iron.

The stories are funny, but Marvin had demons. His career fell off a cliff when he left St. Louis. 

He spent time with a variety of NBA teams after leaving St. Louis, but never did much because his life was in a spiral. 

He later admitted to snorting cocaine on the bench during his one season with the Celtics. 

He died at age 62 in 2014, his life a testament to dangers of drugs and the sadness of addiction. 

Freddie Lewis

Freddie Lewis was a 6’0” guard who played 9 ABA seasons and two more in the NBA. 

Lewis was a 3x ABA champ with the Pacers, a 3x ABA All Star, including his first season with the Spirits, and also made the All-Time ABA Team.

Lewis scored 23 points and dished out 5.5 assists per game in the Spirits’ first season. 

He was a veteran leader on the team, playing in his 9th professional season with three titles behind him.

He made the defining play in franchise history, hitting the game winning jumper with three seconds left to clinch the team’s lone playoff series victory over Dr. J and his New York Nets. 

Lewis also played well in the team’s last season scoring 15 per game and dishing out 4 assists. 

Maurice Lucas

Maurice Lucas was 6’9” power forward who was, like Bad News Barnes, a rookie in the Spirits’ first season. Lucas would go on to play 14 seasons, 12 of them in the NBA.

He would be an All-Star in his 2nd ABA season and four more times in the NBA. Lucas is most famous for his time in Portland where he won a title with Bill Walton and the Blazers in 1977. 

He made two All-Defensive teams for the Blazers and was 2nd team All-NBA one year as well.

For the Spirits, Lucas was good as a rookie scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 boards a game.

He was better in his second season when he made the All Star team. For the year, he scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. 

But with the team losing, the Spirits shipped him off to the Kentucky Colonels after 28 games in a trade for fellow second-year center Caldwell Jones. Jones would also go on to have a long NBA career, outlasting Lucas by playing 17 seasons.

But Lucas was the better player, ultimately. He too made the ABA All-Time Team.

Ron Boone

This is the third different franchise for whom I have listed Ron Boone as one of their best players ever. He made the Dallas Chaparrals list here, and the Utah Stars list here. 

Boone joined the Chaparrals out of college as a 6’2” guard who surprised by scoring 19 per game for the team. But the Chaps shipped him out after a second good season for them. 

He went on to win a title with the Utah Stars. He is most famous for his consecutive games streak which lasted 1041 games straight, setting a record for professional basketball at the time. 

Like Moses Malone, Boone came over to the Spirits when the Stars folded. He was a veteran and played like it. 

Boone scored 21 points and dished out 5 assists per game for the Spirits in his only season with the franchise. 

He went on to play five more seasons in the NBA after his single season in St. Louis.

What happened to the St. Louis Spirits?

The end of the Spirits franchise is as much of a story as their actual existence. After the 1975-1976 season, the ABA ceased operations.

The Virginia Squires went bankrupt immediately, so they were eliminated from any possible merger with the NBA. 

That left six teams in the ABA and all of them hoped to join the NBA. The negotiations began and it became obvious that the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and New York Nets were the chosen teams to join the NBA.

This is a map showing the NBA teams and the remaining ABA teams at the time of the ABA/NBA merger
Map of the ABA and NBA teams

Image Credit: NBAABAmerger.png Orser67 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

But the owners of the Spirits and the Kentucky Colonels did not agree to just walk away. The Colonels owner John Brown fought for a while to join the NBA, but the Chicago Bulls did not want them to join for various reasons.

Brown saw the writing on the wall and sold off his best player, Artis Gilmore, to the Bulls then agreed to take a $3 million buyout to give up his franchise rights. 

Brown turned around and bought the Buffalo Braves and, in a complicated move, used them to acquire the NBA’s Boston Celtics.

The Spirits owners, the Silna brothers,  had other ideas. With dismal attendance in St. Louis in their second season, the owners had actually made plans to move the team to Utah where fan support had been strong for the Stars. 

The Stars folded over the owners’ financial difficulties not because of a lack of fan support. The new Utah team was to be named the Utah Rockies.

But plans for that move fell apart with the merger. 

The Spirits were the worst prospect for the NBA and were not given serious consideration. But the Silna brothers still made a great move for themselves. 

In exchange for folding their franchise, the Silnas got $2.2 million in cash plus 1/7 of each of the four new NBA team’s television rights money in perpetuity – yes, that means forever! 

Before the Bird and Magic era changed things, television rights were not such a big deal. As I wrote in this article about Larry Bird’s nicknames, the year before he and Magic entered the NBA both conference finals were televised on tape delay.

But boy did things change. As I am sure you are well aware, television rights surpassed every other source of revenue for NBA teams starting in the 1980’s and continuing ever since. 

And the Silnas owned 4/7’s worth of a franchise’s television revenue from the time the ABA ended in 1976 until they sold those rights in 2014. 

Despite never owning a team in the NBA, the Silnas became wildly rich from NBA television revenue. 

How Much Money Did the Silna Brothers Make? 

In the years from 1976 until their settlement with the NBA in 2014, the Silnas were paid over $300 million by the NBA.

The Spirits owners were in a lawsuit with the league that led to that settlement. The Silnas believed they were being shortchanged by the NBA because they were not getting a cut of certain streaming revenues and the NBA League Pass.

While I cannot claim I know the correct resolution of that lawsuit, I know this. The NBA settled with the Silnas for $500 million more in 2014. 

They did not agree to that figure because the Silnas had no case!

The settlement with the NBA effectively ended the Silnas claims to NBA television money, so we can now total up their complete haul.

Between the $300 million in payments they received and the $500 million settlement, the Silnas made $800 million by agreeing to dissolve the St. Louis Spirits – a team that had existed only two years and never played in the NBA.

There is a reason this is widely called the greatest deal in the history of sports! 

Check Out My Other ABA Posts

If you enjoy reading about the ABA, check out my other articles on the upstart league.

The Amigos/Stars

The Dallas/Texas Chaparrals

Read about the Mostly Dallas/Briefly Texas Chaparrals here.

The Mavericks/Cougars/Spirits

Read about the disastrous Houston Mavericks here.

Read about the Carolina Cougars here.

Summary: The Spirits of St. Louis

The Spirits of St. Louis had a documentary made about them for ESPN because of the large number of colorful figures associated with the team. Marvin Barnes, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas, Bob Costas and Rod Thorn were among the big names connected with the franchise. The team’s owners also made hundreds of millions of dollars by agreeing to give up the team in exchange for NBA television rights.

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