SI 60: 1954-94 How We Got Here Chapter 3: The League Leader
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the greatest stories the magazine ever ran. They will appear each weekday for the next 12 weeks. First up: Steve Rushin's magnum opus, How We Got Here, a five-part feature published in the Aug. 16, 1994 issue that celebrated SI's 40th anniversary and is, at 22,000 words, still the second-longest piece in the magazine's history.
Gary Davidson has a lot of balls: gold-and-orange-striped footballs that flew like kited checks in the World Football League, and red-white-and-blue basketballs whose pigmented leather was hard to grip in the American Basketball Association. He has dark-blue hockey pucks held over from the World Hockey Association, smart little slabs of rubber that look alarmingly like those urinal-disinfectant cakes.
To be fair, Davidson had originally lobbied for a less subtle fire-engine- red puck for his new WHA to use, but that notion was angrily shot down by the general manager of the Alberta (eventually Edmonton) Oilers, Wild Bill Hunter. ''That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen,'' Hunter said when first affronted by the proposed scarlet puck. ''Our players will never be able to see that
''Because,'' said Wild Bill, ''they'll be looking for a black one.''
The word ridiculous comes up often when speaking of the spawn of Gary Davidson, who made his way through only slightly fewer leagues than Jules Verne and turned out more acronyms than the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. This is the man who was the first president of the ABA, a cofounder of the WHA and the founder of the WFL. In the 1970s Davidson's rebel leagues were designed to be the mod alternative to the square professional sports Establishment, or at least the 1974 WFL media guide would have you believe that. ''The Detroit Wheels are a 'now' team,'' grooved the guide. ''The World Football League's 12 teams are 'where it's at.' '' When the Wheels later went defunct, Detroit was somehow . . . de-funked.
It wasn't just the Wheels. Most of Davidson's teams and all of his leagues would eventually go south, metaphorically emulating the Toronto Northmen of the WFL, who became the Memphis Southmen before playing the first game in their unspeakable ''Burnt Orange and Old Gold.'' But while the leagues lived fast, they also died young, leaving creditors and historians to sort through the bad checks and ridiculous nicknames left behind. (It is doubly instructive that one of the first checks ever written to the WHA was the initiation fee for the Miami Screaming Eagles. It bounced.)
The leagues were sublimely ridiculous from day one, literally from the moment that the formation of the ABA was announced in 1967. Davidson's autobiography is entitled Breaking the Game Wide Open. He calls it ''a terrible book,'' and indeed it has more dead spots than the floor of the Boston Garden. But the book's account of the press conference held to launch the ABA, at New York's ultratony Hotel Carlyle, is enlightening.
''The buffet was loaded with delicacies of every description,'' Davidson wrote. ''The whiskey flowed like water. A free ABA basketball was given to every writer and broadcaster in the place. Naked dancing girls circulated everywhere -- well, they weren't really naked, and they weren't really dancing girls, but you get the idea. I don't know what they were or what they were doing there. . . . We spent $35,000 and we got a circus for our money. Everyone had fun, but no one took us seriously. It was a joke, and it made us look ridiculous.''
It also made them look prophetic. You want to know what the most ridiculous thing was about Gary Davidson and his rebel leagues? It was this: In many ways, they weren't ridiculous at all.
''Gary Davidson,'' noted this magazine in 1975, ''has been one of the most influential figures in the history of professional sport.''
''What man, more than any other, has had the greatest impact on professional sports in America?'' asked an editorial in The Sporting News in 1977. ''You'd have to say Gary Davidson. . . .'' In the months that passed between those two pronouncements, sports were undergoing a Davidsonic boom -- and yet the name Gary Davidson, to hear it now, has little resonance for Joe Fan.
He was a Ted Turner who colorized the games even as he terrorized the existing salary structures. He and a team of fellow attorneys unshackled athletes from their restrictive contracts in the established National leagues: the NHL, the NFL and the NBA, the last a league whose average player salary quadrupled, to $109,000, during the ABA's nine-year life span. In the Davidson lexicon, those leagues and the three TV networks made up the professional sports Establishment. ''Never met Roone,'' Davidson says, ''because I was never part of the Establishment.''
Of course, Davidson also helped professional sport to establish itself, to realize its manifest destiny in North America. He spread franchises like fertilizer to all corners of the continent as he scattered his sales pitches (like fertilizer) to prospective owners in San Antonio and Winnipeg and Indianapolis, cities that became major league the instant a local millionaire industrialist said yes to Davidson's alluring offer of sporting eminence. This is the primary legacy of Davidson's leagues. ''A lot of new cities that had never had teams proved they could carry teams,'' says Tim Grandi, the former associate general counsel for the WFL. ''And certainly, whether Gary intended it or not, players acquired new freedoms and prosperity that didn't previously exist. He wasn't Moses, but he did take control of professional sports away from a clique of owners and opened it up to more people and more cities.''
''Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham are viewed as being extremely important in the evolution of modern pro sports,'' says Max Muhleman, a former vice president of the WFL. ''What they did was induce other owners to view the sporting landscape in much larger terms. I can see a lot of that in what Gary Davidson did.''
''I was probably responsible for more benefits to the players than Pete Rozelle or any other commissioner,'' Davidson says quietly today, ''but I don't think that that will come up much anymore.'' It won't come up because Davidson has been forgotten. His was a colorful streak across the 1970s sky, but one that ultimately fell short, like Evel Knievel at the Snake River Canyon. And yet his improbable story is worth reviving: Raised by a divorced mother, he worked his way through his first year of UCLA Law by picking up freshly murdered corpses at the coroner's office while on the night shift of an L.A. mortuary. Not many years after graduation, having established himself as a tax and finance attorney in Orange County, Davidson got in on the ground floor of something called the American Basketball Association. Once again, and for many years to come, Gary Davidson would be working with stiffs.
''In the 1950s,'' Davidson notes in his autobiography, ''men who had been unable to obtain major league franchises formed the Continental League. It never got off the ground, but the threat of it forced expansion which brought some of the Continental League members into baseball's major leagues.''
Spectator sports never much interested Davidson. Professional leagues captured his imagination only when he realized they could be used as a Hofheinzian financial lever. Only then did he find 50 ways to love his lever.
As the Continental League gave us the New York Mets and the Houston Astros, so are Davidson's rebel leagues responsible for the Edmonton Oilers and the Denver Nuggets and the Hartford Whalers and the Indiana Pacers and the Quebec Nordiques and the San Antonio Spurs and the Winnipeg Jets and the New Jersey Nets; for three-point shots and goalposts in the back of the end zone; for Julius Erving and Wayne Gretzky.
Wayne Gretzky. Davidson had never seen a hockey game until he cofounded the World Hockey Association in 1971. Before the league began play in '72, three potential franchise owners visited California from the hockey Holy Land, Canada. The idea was to get better acquainted with the 37-year-old Davidson and his 45-year-old colleague, Dennis Murphy -- who had founded the ABA -- by attending a Los Angeles Kings game with them.
''I'll never forget,'' says Murphy. ''We're all sitting there in a row, the game is about to start, and the linesman goes to center ice and is about to drop the puck when Gary says, 'What are they doing?' ''
Wild Bill Hunter, a profane, white-haired frontiersman who conjured images of Yosemite Sam, looked at Murphy and barked, ''Who the hell is this guy?''
''Later,'' says Murphy, ''Gary would fall asleep during the game. But in fairness to him, he never purported to know anything about hockey.''
Well, he purported to know something. When the WHA named Camille Henry, a former star with the New York Rangers, to be coach of its New York Raiders, Davidson made the announcement at a press conference in Manhattan. He confidently began, ''I'd like to welcome Henry Camille. . . .''
As waves of laughter washed up to the podium, Davidson reddened like one of his prototype pucks. ''No, no,'' he pleaded with the media hyenas, desperate to correct his mistake. ''I mean . . . Hank.
The whole point was to make money, and to make money you had to make headlines, and for this pursuit Gary Davidson was perfectly appointed. He possessed what imaginative reporters called ''Robert Redford good looks,'' and his habitual speech impediment magically evaporated when the camera lights came on. Davidson was a Skippy-smooth pitchman in a new era of sound bites, an era when there was no government undertaking, however massive, that could not be expressed in an insipid little slogan: Think metric. Whip inflation now. Fifty-five saves lives. . . .
In both the WHA and the WFL, Davidson personally took a franchise as his own, for free, as if by birthright. He then sold them immediately: In the WFL he got $690,000 for his franchise, which became the Philadelphia Bell, whose offices routinely fielded complaints from citizens unhappy with their telephone service. Davidson would also draw a hefty salary to run the leagues from his law office -- that is, once he had sold enough franchises to form a league.
Along the way Davidson was abetted by his old friend and law partner Don Regan, and by Murphy, a former marketing executive and former mayor of Buena Park, Calif., an Irishman from County Flimflammery with a winning smile and a world of energy. Together the trio played magnificently the egos of small- town, big-money megalomaniacs throughout the continent, men who simply couldn't resist owning their own pro team.
''Back then there were guys who had made millions making widgets in Omaha, but the only guys who knew them were maybe their bankers and the guys at the country club,'' says Grandi. ''But with a sports franchise, they recognized an opportunity to be known in L.A. or Detroit. Maybe 90 percent of them were flakes, but. . . .''
''Dennis Murphy would go into a town,'' says Davidson, ''and call an accountant or call a lawyer, and ask if he had any clients who were interested in professional sports. He wasn't saying, 'Do you have any interest in a vinyl-dye factory?' Within two days he would have gotten enough leads for us to have someone to talk to. We would then come in, and the line would be, 'Would you rather be known as the owner of the Detroit Wheels or as a manufacturer of brassieres?' ''
''Pick a city you had never been to before,'' says Regan. ''Say Quebec City. We flew into Quebec City during the WHA days. We had the mayor, the governor, the biggest businessmen in town. . . . We'd fly in, they'd run a bloody carpet out to us, they'd drive us away in Rolls-Royces, they'd treat us like we were the potentates of the world. And the whole reason was, the existing Establishment then was so monopolistic and arrogant.''
The monopolistic and arrogant Establishment of the NHL and the NBA and the NFL drove the rebel leaguers, fueling them with a loony motivational paranoia. ''We fought for everything we got,'' says Murphy, ''to the point where we had bugs in our chandeliers. I'm not accusing the NHL or the NBA, but who the hell else would put them there? Before we'd go into our meetings, we'd have guys go in there with debugging devices. It was war.''
Though it may sound like Murphy has bugs in his chandelier, Davidson corroborates these theories of industrial espionage. ''We thought,'' he says ominously, ''that Al Davis had our office
Installing a surreptitious listening device at any rebel-league meeting would have been a logistical challenge; the league drafts, for instance, always had a quintessentially 1970s mind-if-I-crash-here spontaneity to them. They were held in just about any joint that could provide an impressive dateline. Thus, World Team Tennis -- which Murphy helped found in 1973 with the staunch support of Billie Jean King -- conducted its first draft in New York in the auditorium of the Time & Life Building, home of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. (To this day in our editorial meetings, we mind what we say about Al Davis.)
To be fair, there were grounds for genuine suspicion in the days of the WHA. Gordie Howe, a luminary with that league's Houston Aeros during the 1973-74 season, was a member of Team Canada '74, a squad composed entirely of WHA players. An eight-game series with the Soviet national team included four games in Moscow. ''The Soviets put us all in this real ratty hotel,'' recalls Murphy, who adds that Howe was particularly appalled by two seedy chairs in a corner.
Howe strolled over to the chandelier in his room. ''Colleen,'' he said loudly to his wife, ''I wish these people in Russia would recognize what a great star I am and give us a couple of nice chairs.'' The Howes left to attend practice, and they returned two hours later to a new pair of beautiful chairs. ''Thank you very much, my Russian hosts,'' Mr. Hockey told the light fixture. ''We were known,'' swears Murphy, ''as the Bug League.'' You don't
have the heart to tell him that everyone was bugged in the Soviet Union, that the KGB did not target the WHA specifically -- but then you suspect that Murphy already knows this.
Such self-important self-delusion was vital to the rebel leagues. When Davidson was trying to sell a franchise in a strange city, he arrived with a manufactured air of centuries-old regality.
''You'd created this story, this image, this mirage, but all of a sudden you begin to have value,'' recalls Davidson. He gestures across his office; in a trophy cabinet sits a mounted replica of the check for $1,000,000 made out to Robert Marvin Hull from WHA Properties, Ltd., dated June 27, 1972. Winnipeg owner Ben Hatskin was given the WHA rights to Bobby Hull because he was willing to kick in an additional $1.75 million in salary to lure the NHL's premier scorer. This was an unheard-of sum in 1972 -- Hull's 1971 salary with the Chicago Blackhawks had been $150,000. ''We weren't sure Bobby could even play,'' says Davidson. ''But that check created so much publicity around the world that even though Winnipeg hadn't played a single game, that franchise had value.''
Davidson wasn't sure the Golden Jet could play in Winnipeg because the NHL had filed suit to retain Hull and all the other players who had signed with the WHA. The WHA, in turn, filed an antitrust suit against the NHL and was granted an injunction to play its games while the court cases were pending. In the mid-'70s the NHL abandoned its reserve clause -- the legal absurdity that bound players to a team perpetually after their contracts expired -- and in 1979 agreed to absorb four teams from the WHA. The lawsuits were dropped, but the
WHA was rendered extinct.
By this time Davidson had already resigned from the WHA and turned his attention to his dream of a world football league. He was going to do nothing less than conquer the globe. Says Regan, ''We were young enough and naive enough that we didn't know there were limits, that the world has finite boundaries.''
These men were feeling immortal, the success of the WHA standing as a monument to themselves. Of course, there were other, smaller monuments: In the WHA's first season of existence, Andre Lacroix won the W.D. (Wild Bill) Hunter award as scoring champion, J.C. Tremblay was honored with the Dennis A. Murphy award as best defenseman, and Bobby Hull was the Most Valuable Player and proud recipient of the Gary L. Davidson trophy.
As Davidson prepared to breathe life into the WFL beginning in 1974, athletes' eyes were on a bigger prize. The prize would be won in baseball, the one major sport that Davidson had not challenged. In '73 a former steel-union boss named Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, had secured salary-arbitration rights for his constituents. Two years later an arbitrator's decision would grant ''free agency'' to pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally.
In the year between those two milestones, egregiously ill-timed plans were revealed for a new rebel baseball league, an opera buffa that would have nothing to do with the Davidson clique. Emboldened by the impact of the WHA and by the gaudy promises of the proposed new football league, a man named Sean Downey announced in April 1974 the imminent formation of the 32-team World Baseball Association, to play in the U.S., Latin America and Asia. ''Baseball as presently played and structured,'' said Downey, one of several original owners of the New Orleans franchise in the ABA, ''is a bore.'' He would have known: Sean Downey was himself an insufferable gasbag with an ego like a detonated self-inflating raft. In the 1980s he would create his own abrasive, right-wing television talk show with himself, using his middle name, as the host. Morton Downey Jr. presumably figured that the show was the next best thing to owning a baseball team -- and not all that different, as Marge Schott would one day demonstrate.
There is a remarkable photograph in the May 1, 1974, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Gary Davidson is shown ''discussing matters,'' according to the caption, with tight end Ted Kwalick, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers but newly signed by the Honolulu Hawaiians of the World Football League. Kwalick is indoors, but he is wearing Foster Grant sunglasses. His spectacular dress shirt bears stripes so wide that there is room for only two of them. Two stripes. His shirt collar resembles a pair of pterodactyl wings. The knot in his tie is slightly larger than a baby's head. As for the tie itself, it is simply enormous, as if Kwalick were still wearing the napkin he had tucked into his collar at lunch.
The WFL's promotional literature boasted that this was a ''now'' league, which may explain why the league now looks so ''then.'' Nineteen seventy-four turned out to be the WFL's only full season, but that season somehow began with bold promise in that summer of the Watergate denouement. Play began on Wednesday nights in July, as striking NFL players were printing T-shirts emblazoned with a fist and the slogan NO FREEDOM, NO FOOTBALL. The new league had the look of a high-salaried land of milk and money, flush with the wealth of men like Hawaii owner Sam Battistone, the czar of Sambo's Racially Insensitive Family Restaurants. The future was a grand boulevard, as wide as a Kwalickian lapel, and the King himself blessed the new endeavor: Elvis sat in a skybox on opening night in Memphis. The Philadelphia Bell drew a reported 120,000 fans to its first two home games.
Tax records, however, would show that only some 20,000 tickets in Philly had been sold at full price. John F. Kennedy Stadium was a paper house, filled with fans in free seats. In fact, the entire league was a heavily mortgaged paper house, losing $20 million in its first 20-week season. Members of the Florida Blazers were not paid for the final ten weeks of the season. Paper house? Coach Jack Pardee personally bought toilet paper for the Blazers' home locker room. ''You've heard of hungry football teams?'' his wife, Phyllis, once told a reporter. ''The Blazers really were hungry.''
Somehow the Blazers still managed to make it to the optimistically named World Bowl I, which historians have since renamed World Bowl I-and-Only. Their opponents in that game, on Dec. 5, 1974, were the Birmingham Americans, whose uniforms were confiscated on behalf of a creditor by sheriff's deputies the day after their 22-21 triumph. As for the losers, well, at least they didn't go home empty-handed: Legend has it that following the opening coin flip, a Blazer captain put the silver dollar in his sock.
Gary Davidson exhumes his past from a sad little grocery sack. ''I didn't want to lose all this,'' he says while dipping his hand into a paper bag full of brittle press clippings. ''I don't think too much of this stuff is preserved in people's memories.''
Seated in his Orange County real estate office, he lets his fingers alight on a yellowed piece of newsprint. ''Here's an L.A. Times story about 1974, with pictures of Agnew, Nixon and Davidson,'' he says with a sigh. ''A bad year.'' He lifts his photo to the light, regarding himself as if in a mirror. ''Good god,'' he mutters softly.
Good god. The Me Decade was supposed to have been his, and 1974 was to have been the most glorious year yet for him. He began writing his autobiography that February. He was photographed for the April 15
cover of SI, flanked by Kwalick and Calvin Hill of the Hawaiians. He confided to friends that he was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate in '76. He had everything, and People magazine came to photograph it: The millionaire at home in exclusive Emerald Bay, with four handsome children and a wife named Barbie, a former cheerleader at UCLA.
Trouble was, the man's life was a shimmering mirage. Where to begin? Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, and Davidson was bumped from the front of SI; a copy of that unpublished cover hangs in his office, near the check to Robert Marvin Hull. (Says Davidson's secretary, beholding these mementos, ''He had 15 minutes to evacuate his home during the Laguna Beach fires last fall. What do you think he went back for?'')
The glamorous Hawaiians turned out to be a hollow coconut, struggling to survive like every other team playing the hollow-sounding game of ''WiFfLe ball,'' as sportswriters called it. ''I remember when Dan Rogers was hired to be the first general manager of the Hawaiian franchise, and he was given a lifetime contract,'' says Grandi. ''It wasn't too long after that, the owner called and said, 'I'm sorry, Danny, but I'm afraid you're dead.'
''So Dan came back and worked for the league, and during those final days he was talking on the phone at his desk. The desk and chair were rental furniture, and the league had fallen behind on its payments. Sure enough, the rental company comes by and takes away the desk and chair. But Dan kept right on talking on the phone.''
By the end of 1974 there had been the indignity of World Bowl I-and-Only, Gary and Barbie had begun divorce proceedings, Davidson had wrecked his Jaguar, and he had been knifed in the parking lot of a Newport Beach restaurant, Woody's Wharf, while arguing with some drunk. Our Redford double got 70 stitches in his face from the last two incidents. Nineteen seventy-four literally scarred him for life.
''I turned 40,'' he says, continuing to recite this litany. ''I ended up upside down about $4 million, and that did not make for a good year.'' Nixon was exiled to San Clemente in August. And you begin thinking that maybe that old L.A. Times story got it right, that Davidson's photo belongs on the same page with Nixon and long lines at the gas station and those WHIP INFLATION NOW buttons, just another relic of an America gone bust in the mid-1970s.
If you think it is a stretch to connect Watergate and pro football, consider this: A sign in the war room of CREEP -- the Committee to Re-elect the President -- at the time of the Watergate break-in read WINNING IN POLITICS ISN'T EVERYTHING, IT'S THE ONLY THING. Nixon knew Frank Gifford. He surely knew Vince Lombardi.
Since 1974 Davidson has been as elusive as Bobby Fischer, the chess prodigy who went into his own self-imposed exile that summer. ''I think Gary went to live in Haiti,'' said a friend when asked recently about Davidson. Whispers another friend: ''I heard he tried to commit suicide.''
Even as his autobiography was shuffling off the presses two decades ago, Davidson had begun taking drives into Baja, cruising from village to dusty village in search of a place to start over. By 1976 he was spending much of his time on a sisal plantation in Haiti. Ten thousand people on 40,000 acres. Among his investment partners in Dauphin Plantations was Baby Doc Duvalier, who did not believe in a liberal profit-sharing plan. The plantation was eventually sold to a group of Haitians, and Davidson was back in Orange County -- not far from San Clemente. ''All the people on the plantation,'' says Davidson as a footnote, ''probably ended up starving to death.''
His story was supposed to end here, horribly, but a funny thing happened on his way to obscurity. Unlike his basketballs, Gary Davidson bounced back. He found God and a new wife, and revived his real estate career by developing retirement communities. At 60 he remains the same picture-of-health fitness freak who used to encourage his employees to climb five flights of stairs instead of using the elevator. He now says grown-up things about professional sports, like ''Today's player salaries are a bit distorted'' and ''The owners have let things get out of control'' and ''The fans are paying too much.'' He has become a bona fide millionaire. Like that Screaming Eagles check, it turns out Gary Davidson was made of rubber.
''There's a famous line in Shakespeare,'' Davidson says. ''In King Lear the Fool says to King Lear, 'Too bad you grew old before you grew wise.' And so the theory is, maybe I started to get wiser as I grew older.''
Davidson's Shakespeare is in need of Rust-Oleum, but the important thing is that he got here, that he got to Wise. Some men go their whole lives, can't find Wisdom with a AAA road atlas. Three days after meeting Davidson, you stand in front of a Santa Monica hotel. You are waving goodbye to Dennis Murphy, who now runs a professional roller-hockey league. Abruptly, Murphy comes back to you. There is one more thing.
Smiling, he says, ''You don't think Gary's interested in getting back into the sports business, do you?'' No, you say. No, he isn't. Gary Davidson would rather manufacture brassieres than get back into the sports business.