At the start of the 1978-79 basketball season, the newly-renamed CBA had a distinct startup rival in the Western Basketball Association. The WBA, formed in 1978, featured teams along the American west coast. Represented teams included franchises in Nevada (Las Vegas and Reno), California (Fresno), Montana (Great Falls), Washington (Richland), Arizona (Tucson) and Utah (Salt Lake City). In the league’s first season, two future CBA coaches battled for the WBA league championship, as Herb Brown’s Tucson Gunners defeated the Reno Bighorns, coached by Bill Musselman.
The WBA’s dream, however, was to convince the CBA’s strongest – and most westerly – franchise, the Anchorage Northern Knights, to jump leagues and join their loop. The Knights politely refused.
However, another option was floated – have both the CBA and the WBA merge as one coast-to-coast minor league, with nearly 20 franchises between them.
A series of merger discussions were held between the two leagues, and on April 20, 1979, both the WBA and CBA voted to approve the merger plan. The CBA Board of Governors approved the merger on May 19, 1979; the WBA followed suit on June 2.
On June 29, the UBA (United Basketball Association) was formed, and press releases were sent out extolling the virtues of the combined super-minor league. Art Pachter, the President of the Wilkes-Barre Barons, noted, “This merger creates a national showcase for the great players in our league. Last year, 16 players from our league went to the NBA. Now our fans will see great players from around the entire country.”
James Drucker, who had previously served as both Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of the CBA, would serve as the UBA’s first Commissioner. He, along with former CBA commissioner Steven Kauffman, along with Bill Maxwell from the Western League, set up plans to coordinate a minor league feeder system with the NBA, providing the major league with top minor league basketball talent. At the time, the WBA’s most valuable player, Jeff Cook, was on his way to an eight-year career in the NBA; while the CBA’s Rookie of the Year, Billy Ray Bates, received attention (and a contract) from the Portland Trail Blazers.
But a merger that sounded promising in July 1979 completely fell apart by September. The WBA was a financial mess, and barely made it through its first season intact. According to a history of the WBA as penned by Robert Bradley, Steven Brainerd and Chris Anderson of the APBR, the WBA 1979 playoffs were nearly tossed into turmoil when the Reno Bighorns threatened to not play game 6 of the series until they received their back pay. The Las Vegas Dealers franchise barely made it through the year – the original owners gave up on the team, and the WBA front office absorbed the costs. And as the merger of the CBA and WBA started to solidify, one by one the teams from the original Western Basketball Association folded or declared bankruptcy. What would have been the first UBA season became the CBA’s second season under that name (and the 34th season from the start of its Eastern Pro League days).
Eventually teams from former WBA cities joined the CBA on their own – the Montana Golden Nuggets set up shop in Great Falls for a number of seasons; the Las Vegas Silvers and the Reno Bighorns were on the CBA roster in the 1982-83 season.
And the UBA was relegated to a single sentence in CBA history: “CBA negotiates a merger with the Western Basketball Association, but all WBA teams fold before merger is complete.”