THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Mikhail Prokhorov's New Jersey soon to be Brooklyn Nets National Basketball Association franchise is taking part in the league's celebration of the 45th anniversary of the first year of play of the NBA's rival, the American Basketball Association. The old ABA lasted just nine years between 1967 and 1976 and the league caused NBA owners nothing but headaches and in some cases great financial losses if owners statements were to be believed.
The two leagues were business rivals and there were some bitter feelings that were somewhat assuage in 1976 when the NBA collected $12.8 million from four ABA franchise holders who joined the old league as what can best be described as "junior" partners for a while.
Prokhorov's Nets players are wearing, according to the team's news release, "retro New York Nets royal blue uniforms with stars down the side during five home games as part of Hardwood Classics Nights.
"The Nets played on Long Island from 1968 through 1977 in three different venues, including Commack Arena, 1968-69 season; the Island Garden, 1969-1970 through 1971-72 seasons; and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 1971-72 through 1976-77 seasons, before moving to New Jersey. The Nets won ABA championships in 1974 and 1976 before joining the NBA for the 1976-77 campaign."
Oddly enough there is no mention of the Nets starting life as the New Jersey Americans in 1967.
The NBA has decided to embrace the ABA's history to make a few bucks by having teams like the Nets, the Charlotte Bobcats, the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Miami Heat, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the San Antonio Spurs wear replica shirts from old mostly defunct ABA teams. Charlotte will become the Carolina Cougars (a team which started out in Houston with a brief stop in Carolina and finished as the Spirits of St. Louis---a franchise owned by a pair of New Jersey brothers, the Silnas, who are still getting a share of television revenue from the NBA in "perpetuity" as part of the 1976 dissolving of the ABA). The Los Angeles Clippers have donned the identity of the Los Angeles Stars (a franchise which started in Anaheim, moved to LA and finished in Salt Lake City), The Memphis Grizzlies assumed the likeness of the poorly financed Memphis Tams (a franchise that started in New Orleans and was a dismal financial flop as both the Pros and Tams in Memphis).
Denver will wear old Nuggets, not Rockets, shirts and Indiana will wear an old Pacers uniform. Indiana is the only ABA franchise that paid to join the NBA and that did not move or change names.
Mickey Arison's Miami Heat will transform to the Miami Floridians, an ABA franchise best known for four bikini clad ball girls. The Floridians franchise started in Minnesota and died in Florida splitting home games around the state. Cause of death? Lack of interest and financial failure.
The Minnesota Timberwolves franchise will be masquerading as the 1967-68 Minnesota Muskies not the 1968-69 Minnesota Pipers. After the original Muskies franchises headed to Florida, the ABA stuck the failing Pittsburgh Pipers franchise in Bloomington. That lasted one year as the franchise made a U-turn and went back to Pittsburgh as the Condors where it eventually expired. The New Jersey Nets, in the throwback jersey business became the New York Nets which was not the original team even though the Nets throwback news release indicated that the team started life on the other side of the Hudson River. The Nets franchise played as the New Jersey Americans at the Teaneck Armory.
The San Antonio Spurs began life as the Dallas Chaparrals in 1967-68. By 1971, the Dallas ownership renamed the team the Texas Chaparrals and expanded the club's territory by playing in Dallas, Fort Worth and Lubbock, Texas. That was a failure. According to Steve "Snapper" Jones, an ABA player and eventually an NBA TV analyst, the team was "loaned" by San Antonio interests just to see if San Antonio had any interest in the ABA team. San Antonio did and the franchise never went back to Dallas. San Antonio is playing throwback games as the Texas Chaparrals.
The NBA probably will make some money on the throwback shirts but there is a great deal of revisionist history in the NBA's embrace of the ABA. The ABA struggled almost immediately in many areas, including financially, with media recognition and acceptance.
In 1966, a California businessman named Dennis Murphy started looking for investors to form a new basketball league. By February 1, 1967, Murphy had put together enough investors to announce the formation of the American Basketball Association.
New York, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Anaheim and Oakland were represented at the league's first news conference on February 2.
"That was a very difficult time in my life, trying to organize the league," the ABA's first commissioner and NBA great George Mikan once explained. "I told them, I'd give them a league in three years and I lasted two years. They wanted me to leave Minnesota and come to New York and I said why go into the lion's den and be the Commissioner there?
"The media was all for the NBA and it proved to be right."
Ownership problems immediately sprang up. The league added Louisville on March 5, 1967 and moved the Kansas City franchise to Denver on April 2. But there was no national TV contract, something, which established another so-called outlaw sports circuit going against the establishment, the American Football League, immediately nor was there an embrace from the national media like the AFL got in 1960. The ABA’s failure of landing a national TV contract would ultimately cost Mikan his job.
"It was tough finding people with money who were willing to sacrifice everything to make the league go," said Mikan who added that big city arena's, many of them privately owned in those days, didn't want the ABA either forcing teams like the New Jersey American's to play in the Teaneck Armory. "Those were the only ones available to us. We were shut out of all the big arenas so we took a spot around the country where we could play. We needed recognition."
But the ABA did have some things in its favor. Some gimmicks like the red, white and blue paneled ball, the three-point goal and a large number of talented basketball players who for various reasons could not crack NBA rosters. There were just 120 NBA players at the end of 1967.
"I wanted something that would stimulate woman appeal," said Mikan of the tri-colored ball. "We tried to find a ball that would be viewable from all parts of the arena. I don't care where you are sitting in the arena; our red, white and blue ball can be followed. One of things I didn't like in the NBA at that time was the dark ball.
"You couldn't see it going through the basketball. We also added the hockey red light that went on when the basketball went through so the people could orientate between the two."
The ABA also borrowed from the failed American Basketball League by implementing a three point field goal on shots from the 25 foot arc and also had a 30 second game clock. (The ABL may best be known for introducing George Steinbrenner to the world as a sports owner. Steinbrenner had the Cleveland franchise in 1961-62 and attempted to drop out of the ABL and move his Cleveland Pipers franchise to the NBA. Steinbrenner failed because he could not get out of his ABL commitment. His Pipers did not play in 1962, the final year of the ABL but Steinbrenner paid college star Jerry Lucas that year after signing Lucas to a big money deal by 1962 standards.)
"The three-point play was a play we put in," said Mikan. "We wanted a home run in basketball like you have in baseball. It's been very successful. They changed the rules, when we were playing we could not break the zone and after a while the owners found that in the warm-ups dunk the ball and everybody liked it. The powers to be finally decided to allow the dunk, which I think has been great for the game.”
The dunk, the three-point play and the characters in the ABA gave the league a distinct feel. But the ABA was lucky in once sense. There were many unemployed talented players looking for a spot to play.
"If you took a look at who played in the ABA … you look at the Indiana team. You had Mel Daniels, who was one of the really great players, you had Roger Brown, one of the greatest players ever to come out of New York City, Bob Netolicky, who was a heck of a player, and Freddie Lewis, who was a really marvelous backcourt man. There were some really great teams in the ABA," said Spencer Ross who was the New Jersey Americans play by play announcer in 1967/68.
"The Pittsburgh team had the greatest of them all at that time (in) Connie Hawkins. He was the forerunner of Dr. J. By the time ‘The Hawk’ had come to the NBA, he had productive years. But he wasn't anywhere near the player he was when he was a kid at Boys High School in New York. His years with the Harlem Globetrotters eroded some of his skills, but he was a great player. There were such great players in that league."
David Stern's NBA of today doesn't publicize the end of the ABA in 1976. Officially the NBA accepted four ABA franchises as expansion teams---Denver, Indiana, New York and San Antonio. Each franchise paid a $3.2 million entry fee which is big money in 1976. The New York Nets franchise gave Gulf and Western's New York Knicks $4.8 million for invading the Knicks space. For many years there remained some deep resentment about the NBA-ABA business accommodation from ABA lifers like the first coach of the Indiana Pacers Bob Leonard and Julius Erving, the player most identified with the ABA and others.
"I still call it the massacre," said Leonard years later. "The NBA didn't like us because we upped the ante for players and everything. We come in and they take away your draft choices, they don't give you any television rights, you pay $3.2 million (each ABA team had to pay the NBA to join the league) in cash up front to get in. So it really was a massacre.
"But I look back at that and I say how good was the ABA when the merger came? It was really very good. Because the first year after the merger in the NBA All-Star Game we put 12 players on the roster."
Indiana would eventually hold a telethon during a season ticket drive to save the franchise from leaving the city in 1977 not long after joining the NBA.
The Nets ownership was not so fortunate. In addition to paying a $3 million fee to join the league, Roy Boe had to give the New York Knicks a 10-year annual $480,000 fee for "invading" the New York territory. The financially strapped Boe sold Erving's contract to the Philadelphia 76ers to make ends meet. A year later, the Nets were playing in a college gym in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Boe's other entity; the NHL's New York Islanders nearly sold its players to pay for the Nets entering the NBA. The ABA-NBA consolidation did Nets owner Roy Boe no favors. Boe was over extended and he had already pledged $4 million to the Garden in 1972 for invading the New York Rangers territory when he got an expansion franchise in Nassau County. Boe had done the NHL a favor by accepting an NHL expansion franchise because it closed off a potentially solid market, Long Island, for the World Hockey Association. The new hockey league was established by the same people who put together the ABA. Boe had helped the Garden too because the WHA’s New York Raiders franchise rented the arena to use for WHA games in 1972-73 and 1973-74.
But Boe found out that despite being part of the sports owners’ fraternity that business trumped friendship and he happened to be in a market that required deep pockets, something which Islanders President and General Manager Bill Torrey said that Boe didn’t have.
Erving withdrew from the business of basketball. As the ABA's lead performer, he was center attraction, but he was aloof, somewhat, in the NBA.
"The thing I was saddened about was that all the players in the ABA didn't get a chance to play in the new league, the merged league,” he said. "There were some pawns in the process and that saddened me greatly and had me stay away from the Players Association activities and even the Board of Governors activities because I thought those players got compromised, and I didn't want to be a party to that. I had fought very hard as Vice President of the Players Association to get everybody in. It was going to be all or nothing.
"Then the Nets and Nuggets applied for entrance into the NBA and that was the undoing of the ABA. It was really a sabotage. So that saddened me and that troubled me and I had my own form of protest for several years before eventually coming around. I didn't join the association in the NBA and I was vocal about that. I just signed a contract, played ball and minded my business."
Even though the NBA does not recognize ABA accomplishments in the league’s official records, the league welcomed almost all of the ABA personnel who could make the merged entity stronger. That includes selling shirts with the logos of Muskies, Cougars, Stars, Floridians, Chaps and Tams from a time that is lost. But don’t expect to ever see a Carolina Cougars jersey on the market with the number 27 and the name Caldwell on the back. Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell remains a non-person in NBA circles for his legal challenge to the NBA’s reserve clause. Caldwell signed with Carolina after winning his court case in January 1971 and leaving the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Caldwell was the NBA’s version of baseball’s Curt Flood but gets no recognition for challenging the system.
The NBA-ABA war is an era that some NBA people would rather forget because of the money the league lost and had to bid for players. But selling a shirt is another story, recalling a feel good time that really didn’t exist.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com and Amazon.