Labor pains of a new league

Conceived as a public relations package and born amid confusion, the American Basketball Association has solid financial backing
February 13, 1967

Constantine Seredin is a lean, smooth Yaleman whose favorite words are "divine" and "concept" and who prefers to discuss "national media contact" rather than publicity. His Professional Sports Management Co., Inc. specializes in bringing together athletes and ad agencies. John McShane is a plump, congenial public relations man who used to be an all-night disc jockey on Gene Autry's radio station KMPC in Los Angeles and once ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress. Last week, after more than a year of intrigue, planning and recruiting, McShane and Seredin gathered 18 men—mostly young and mostly Californians—at New York's St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel to launch the American Basketball Association and to hire former pro star George Mikan as commissioner.

Naturally, a league hustled up by two PR men needs a snappy Great Society slogan and the ABA's is The Lively League, the liveliness presumably supplied by owners, because there are no players as yet. But there is much more involved than promoter's subtitles—rumors of the ABA's impending arrival helped prompt the entrenched National Basketball Association to grant franchises to San Diego and Seattle. The ABA is the first rival of the NBA since the American Basketball League folded on the last day of 1962 after slightly more than one season. In the ABA there is just one holdover ownership from the ABL. Art Kim and James Ackerman, who operated in Honolulu and then Long Beach, Calif. in the unsuccessful league, will try again in Anaheim, across the street from Disneyland in a soon-to-be-completed convention center.

Anaheim is a part of Orange County, the booming area just south of Los Angeles which practically controls the new league. ABA President Gary Davidson, an owner of the Dallas entry, has a law practice in the Orange County seat, and one of his law partners, Donald J. Regan, is part owner of the league's floating franchise, which could settle down anywhere from Atlanta to Phoenix. Dennis Murphy, an Oakland owner along with Singer Pat Boone, is a former mayor of Buena Park in Orange County (and so is PR Man John McShane, who will probably be "league administrator," whatever that is). John Klug of the Dallas club lives in Orange County, L. P. Shields and Fred Jefferson of the Minneapolis team live and run a development company there, Kansas City Owner James Trindle (an L. A.-area resident) has an engineering firm there which employs Murphy of the Oakland team, and so on. Plainly there will be a depression around Disneyland if the ABA flops and, just as plainly, there will be some bloc votes at league meetings.

The organization meetings in the St. Regis were run by McShane and Mark Binstein of the New York franchise (which hopes to make a home court of the Singer Bowl, located at the site of the World's Fair, by putting a roof on it). It was all slightly confusing. Houston did not show up the first day but sent a representative the next day with the $6,000 entry fee. The Indianapolis group arrived just before the Thursday deadline, after which the price was to shoot up to a minimum of $25,000. Two men from Cleveland were there the first day, left that night, sent a telegram the next day saying they wanted in, were accepted by return wire and were never heard from again. Pittsburgh's Gabe Rubin, a theater owner, put in his money with the proviso that another Eastern team would be added, hopefully Cleveland (Indianapolis satisfied him). A St. Louis group wanted in but was stymied when Ben Kerner, owner of the NBA's St. Louis Hawks, decided to keep his team there. (The ABA is bucking the NBA in only three metropolitan areas—Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland and New York.)

Sean Downey, 34, son of Singer Morton Downey, put in his check for the New Orleans group he heads. A few weeks earlier he was involved in trying to get the St. Louis Hawks for Louisiana, and the deal seemed closed when a $25,000 check, not written by Downey, bounced. A good check was quickly submitted, he said, but too late to save himself and New Orleans some embarrassing national publicity. Anyway, none of the other ABA owners seemed worried about his financial stability.

Connie Seredin, carefully watching over each business session, read a proposed publicity release for the owners' approval, and it listed himself and McShane as the ABA's "founders and organizers." The owners said no. Then Seredin suggested an "assisted by Constantine Seredin and John McShane" phrase, but the owners killed that, too. Neither man complained, but neither was pleased.

In one of the first bloc votes, the Orange County contingent, with the help of Pittsburgh, elected Gary Davidson president of the league. By prior agreement, the Californians then joined en masse to put Gabe Rubin of Pittsburgh in as vice-president. New President Davidson had one arm in a cast, the result of an injury suffered while playing basketball (by gosh, the owners are lively). But who was president was not nearly as vital as who would be commissioner.

Despite earlier rumors about such diverse people as Sandy Koufax and General Curtis LeMay, the commissioner committee considered hardly anyone but Mikan, a 6'-10" Minneapolis attorney who was first-team All-NBA for six straight seasons with the Minneapolis Lakers in the late '40s and early '50s. Committee members phoned Mikan right after the first general meeting in the St. Regis Tuesday afternoon and persuaded him to fly to New York. He presented his terms Wednesday—a three-year contract at $65,000 per year. The owners' opening bid was $50,000. They settled on a figure somewhere between, and Mikan got his three years' tenure.

Mikan actually did not give his answer until late Thursday morning, the very day of the press conference that was to announce the league's existence. James Ware, one of the New Orleans franchise holders, got him on the phone in the morning, and Mikan said, "Call me after 11, and I should know something." Ware called back, but he is a politician (he recently ran for state comptroller in California) and he did not want to apply any pressure, so he dillydallied around, asking for advice on cities with good potential and telling Mikan that an Indianapolis group was hot to come in. Finally he said:

"What is your decision?"

"James, I'm your new commissioner," answered Mikan.

"God bless you," said Jimmy Ware.

When Mikan showed up at the meeting room in the St. Regis, he was surrounded by owners anxious to congratulate him and be photographed shaking his hand. Some of them, like Rubin, barely came up to his tie clasp. Mikan also stood tall at the subsequent press conference, which would have been a public relations fiasco without him.

The extravaganza was staged at the Hotel Carlyle, Harry Truman's and the Kennedys' favorite in New York and thus a logical choice for image-conscious Connie Seredin. The room was too small and was cluttered by nonnewsmen, and some of the young owners, most notably President Davidson, 32, clearly had had little experience talking to the press. The announcement was made for television cameras while newspapermen unhappily waited for their chance behind the hot lights. Some announcers returned the favor by being downright nasty. One of them cornered Mark Binstein of the New York franchise, could not elicit any straight answers about raiding the NBA and finally snarled, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." A TV cameraman felt it was his right to walk out with one of the new basketballs used for decoration and was indignant when a Pittsburgh owner would not give it up. The atmosphere was so hostile that one owner said, "I'm going to get a pad and pencil and pretend to be writing so I can get out of here alive!"

Things became saner when the floodlights dimmed and TV went home. After two or three false starts, a press conference got started in an adjoining room and Mikan was impressive despite being just a few hours on the job. His answers were straight and reasonably complete. He said there would be no raids on the NBA, but "we hope, of course, that some big stars and others will be in a position to come to us; if they are free, we want to talk to them."

Thus, a league was born—a divine package of community-penetration concepts and national-media contact, not to mention consumer preference. With George Mikan's help, perhaps the package will contain basketball players and profits, too.

PHOTOBOSS GEORGE MIKAN, BEST PLAYER IN THE ABA, ADDRESSES OWNERS AND PRESS

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