To most Americans pro basketball is months away, but to the oil and tobacco, trucking and show biz men whose money has put the American Basketball Association afloat, the critical season is now. It is on these midsummer days that the new league is attempting to sign the players, sell the tickets and fan the publicity fires that could mean the difference between success and early failure. Each owner is working diligently, but in the comforting knowledge that at worst he has made a lively bad investment. Financial disaster faces none of them who remember about tax write-offs and are helped by an expert accountant.
But for 23-year-old Rick Barry, a part owner of the new Oakland Oaks, the risks are somewhat higher. The money he has invested is real basketball money and the gamble is his basketball life. He has left the security of the established National Basketball Association and the San Francisco Warriors to go across the Bay to the Oakland Oaks, and he is the only NBA star still left in the ABA. All the other big names who jumped have jumped right back.
This means that Barry is the ABA's only legitimate claim to big-league status, its only lure for national attention, for the TV contract it has found so elusive, for the fans in all 11 of the league cities, and for the future. But as lonely as Barry is in one sense, in another he is crowded into the middle of a rough legal fight between the two organizations. There is a real chance that Rick Barry, pride of the ABA, will not be able to play at all in the league's first season.
As the week ended, Judge Robert J. Drewes of the Superior Court of California was deliberating whether to grant the Warriors the temporary injunction they have asked to deny Barry to Oakland. Touchy questions like the sanctity of basketball's reserve clause could get a controversial legal airing, but any fundamental shake-up would be months in the making. Today the real ABA story is the human one behind the legal maneuvering, and so far it has not been told.
August 13, 1967
Rick Barry is the leading actor in a drama involving the attractions of money, dreams of athletic glory, shattered friendships and ties of family. His supporting cast includes Franklin Mieuli, owner of the Warriors; Oakland Owner Pat Boone, the pop singer; Bruce Hale, the Oakland coach, who is the father of Barry's wife; and Nate Thurmond, a former Warrior teammate of Barry's.
Barry left the Warriors on June 19 to sign a personal services contract with Boone—one giving him $75,000 a year in salary and 15% ownership of the Oaks (although Boone holds him contractually liable for a cool $750,000 if he should return to the Warriors). Barry will also receive 5% of Oaks' gate receipts above $600,000—receipts that are not just around the corner. Mieuli sued for the injunction June 23, declaring that Barry's 1966 contract prohibited him from playing for another team before 1968. The Oaks say the NBA reserve clause violates antitrust laws and thus is invalid.
"I know what a lot of people think of me," says Barry. "They call me a traitor. Is that fair? If they would just look at it the same way they do their own businesses. This is the way I support my family. Why should I be called unloyal? They change their jobs and nobody says they're unloyal. If everything was based just on loyalty, no one would ever make any money."
Franklin Mieuli says: "There is just the chance, I guess, just the slim chance that Rick could come back and say he was sorry, say he knows now his head was turned, he made a mistake, he really did leave his heart in San Francisco. Maybe then we could rehabilitate his image and we could catch that lightning in the bottle all over again. Maybe then we could get back that dream we were building together."
Mieuli is a frenetic sort and a shrewder man than most people give him credit for being. But, now, perhaps for the first time in his life, it is frustration that dominates his mind.
"Where did I go wrong?" Mieuli asks himself, pacing the familiar rugs of his lawyers' office. "My father—he was a florist—always told me, 'Don't worry about the other guy's store. Just mind your own.' And the Warriors had everything. I went to Europe on May 19 to see my daughter Holly. The last thing Rick said to me before I left was, 'Have a good time, say hello to Holly and get Nate.' Now why should I be scared when he said that? It never even occurred to me that Rick was boxing me clever. How could I know that suddenly, like that, the strange and wonderful world of Franklin Mieuli would come cascading down over my ears?"
The son of an Italian immigrant, Mieuli went to work after college as a PR man for Burgermeister Beer. He has come a long way, and a lot of people in San Francisco are jealous of him. They say he was lucky: "I knew the guy when he was pushing Burgy," that kind of thing. What they really mean is, how did this guy do it and I didn't?
How Mieuli did it was to see the sports boom coming and ride it. First he tried but failed to talk the brewery into buying the 49ers. But that led him to 49er Owner Tony Morabito, and in 1953 Morabito let Mieuli have 10% of the club at an advantageous price. Mieuli, who was not making $10,000 a year at the time, had to scrape for the money, but he got it up and was off.
Within a decade he had constructed his own radio-TV sports production company with broadcast rights to the 49ers and the baseball Giants. He had bought in for 10% of the Giants, too, and being an incorrigible buff he even took a little piece of the Warriors when they came West from Philadelphia in 1962. When the big money in the Warriors vamoosed after one bad season, Mieuli increased his holdings to a majority share. There was no fan interest and it was a pretty bad team. Now, they said, that little son of an immigrant is finally going to get his.
But Mieuli is nothing if he is not resilient, and in the years that followed he managed to bounce back to successively higher peaks after periodic disasters. People were always saying, "Well, you did it again." He laughs, repeating the remark, but it seems to hurt him a little because it has been spoken more often in surprise than in acclaim. His success has always been muted by insinuations of luck and happenstance.
Mieuli's outstanding quality is a kind of nervous enthusiasm. He is a pacer and a talker. He talks too much, rat-a-tat-tat. He drives his lawyers berserk. Most of the time, though, his judgment is good. Occasionally it is not. Early in May, for instance, he offered $10,000 to Bruce Hale if he would stay at home and coach University of Miami basketball. It is true that Barry's father-in-law—a dear friend of Bob Feerick, the Warrior general manager—was practically a member of the Warriors and was often on the phone discussing his negotiations with Oakland for the Oaks coaching job. But it was nonetheless naive for Mieuli to make such a proposition, however "jocularly" he says it was intended.
Similarly, Mieuli's firing of Alex Hannum last spring made little sense. Hannum, the best pro coach there is, was let go supposedly because he would not stay in San Francisco during the summer and run clinics. The real reason was a clash of two strong personalities—Hannum's and Mieuli's—and the decision has come back to haunt the Warriors.
But when Bill Sharman coached San Francisco to the finals against Hannum's Philadelphia 76ers, Mieuli had done it again. Sometimes it seemed that Mieuli was more the embodiment of the American dream than Rick Barry or even Pat Boone. The Warriors were clicking—everyone, even Alex Hannum, said a new dynasty was in the making. The town loved the Warriors. The dream had come true.
"I could feel it," Mieuli says, "because I had seen it before with the 49ers and Frankie Albert and with the Giants the year they won the pennant. We had it all last spring: the crowds, people talking everywhere, a TV rating of 52. It was just so great to be a part of it." He walks over to the wall and pulls down an autographed team picture. The Warriors, in the rococo uniforms he designed, are posed in front of the Golden Gate. He names the players now gone. His finger comes to Barry, and he just stops and smiles. "Look at it. Just five months ago. To have the dream go just like that—that hurts more than losing just one great basketball player."
Pat Boone, the man who got Mieuli's star, is all of 33 now but his face remains apple-cheeked, ample-toothed and without a crease. His white shoes are still on his feet. His good-guy image has been unscarred by the vicissitudes of business striving. His firm is called Cooga Mooga, Inc., and is situated on Wilshire Boulevard down in Beverly Hills. The receptionist trills "Cooga Mooga" as a greeting on the phone, and a caller is tempted to respond, "And Cooga Mooga to you." Boone looks serene and remains gracious, but he is harried. He must devote almost all of his time to the Oaks, and he has already given up one lucrative state-fair singing gig because of the demands of his new job.
Boone originally came into the Oaks "for a couple points" but later lent money to the club, and eventually took it over to protect his investment when ABA Commissioner George Mikan said he could have control for a song. "I really haven't decided yet," Boone says, steepling his hands, "how much of the club I want to own. One of the big things is just the fun of it. It can be such a lark." He says he is trying to sell 30% of the franchise right now (leaving himself with 55% and Barry his 15%). Boone says that associates of his in L.A. are clamoring for shares but that he wants to get Oakland money into the project. However, the present capitalization plan of 20,000 shares at $100 each apparently has made Bay buyers balk.
Boone's original offer to Barry included a real-estate deal, but Barry's advisers in New York (one of whom played ball for Hale at Miami) counseled Rick to accept the club ownership alternative instead. Barry visited with Nate Thurmond in his apartment just before signing with the Oaks, in an effort to get him to come along, but Thurmond was not swayed. A few days before, in the brief time it takes to share one beer, Thurmond had agreed with Mieuli to a long-term contract with salary and benefits that might add up to $80,000 a year.
The reward Thurmond got for only standing and waiting impresses Barry, and he talks of it wistfully. Barry at first appears as self-assured and direct as ever, but it soon becomes clear that he has permitted an element of doubt to breach his confidence.
"There is no way—no way—that I could have turned that down if Mr. Mieuli had offered it to me," he says now. Then he quickly adds, "But I don't have any regrets, and the reason is—and I never told Franklin this—if Franklin had come up with the right money, the whole thing could have been averted. All of it. The whole thing could have been entirely averted."
For Barry, the greater irony is that Mieuli had always assured both his stars that they would be paid virtually the same. Not only that, but it was Barry, before he caught the ABA fever, who urged Mieuli to go high for Thurmond so that the ABA would not tempt him. At one point Barry even told Mieuli: "Franklin, since I make all that money on the side, and Nate [being Negro] will never get it, don't ever worry about paying him a higher salary than I get. That's only fair." Mieuli was so touched by the gesture he "almost choked."
Barry has also had to face the embarrassment of admitting that he was familiar with neither the full range of his contract responsibilities nor the funding of the franchise he had so blithely gambled his future on. He had not even discussed the possibility of being liable for losses as well as a receiver of profits. He says he does not know where the $750,000 no-return liability figure came from ("I was advised to sign...I had no idea"); he never bothered to ask Boone how much of Pat's own money was invested. More embarrassing to Barry, however, is the fact that he will make no more playing in a shaky new league than he could have earned in the NBA. A refreshing, seemingly clever young man, whose confidence and assurance were the trump qualities that helped him to the scoring title and to $48,000 in salary and bonus and another $20,000 in related endeavors last year, Barry has been credited with a maturity and acumen far beyond his 23 years. Now, looking back, Barry shakes his head with chagrin. "I should have had a lawyer the whole time. It wouldn't have happened if I had had a lawyer with me."
Mieuli also is quick to admit that he, too, made a vital error. His mistake was a carryover from the previous contract he had given Barry—the one Rick signed after his rookie season, in the spring of 1966. When the two met to discuss terms, Mieuli told Barry he had a deal for him. "Rick," he said, "you're special to me and to San Francisco. We're lucky. You came at the right time and to the right place. Timing is luck, and you have it. I don't ever want to dicker with you. The special ones—Mays, DiMaggio—nobody ever dickers with them, because they're above that. That's the way it should always be with us."
Barry was quite willing to agree. He had come into Mieuli's office only a short time before and said he would like a Porsche. Mieuli got him a Porsche. Now Mieuli calls it "a $6,000 Porsche." Barry says: "Big deal. It cost him $128 a month to lease." But at that time it was just a nice Porsche to them both, and Barry listened closely to Mieuli's plan, which involved a percentage of the gate.
"Everyone told me that it never worked," Mieuli says. "But I've succeeded doing things differently, and I thought it was in keeping with how special Rick was. I wanted him to have a real pride, a part in what we had here, so I went ahead despite all the advice." He shrugs, mad at himself. "Well, it was wrong."
Mieuli began the '66 talks with an offer of a $25,000 base salary. Barry, who had been advised by his father-in-law to seek $50,000, asked for $30,000. Mieuli agreed without dickering. Then he spelled out the bonus deal, which was to be 5% of any increase over the previous season's gate for Barry. Rick agreed—profitably, it developed. The Warriors' gate jumped approximately $260,000 last year, which gave Barry an additional $13,000 for a $43,000 salary, plus $5,000 from the playoffs and the $6,000, $128-a-month Porsche.
So this spring, on May 12, Mieuli offered Barry the same kind of deal for 1967-68, but with the base raised to $40,000. Barry says now he was shocked that the figure was so low, but at the time he did not complain, merely asked that it be raised to $50,000. Without argument, Mieuli complied. Then he took out his pencil and estimated that with that base and the same 5% gate-increase scale, Barry should earn at least $60,000 and possibly as much as $75,000. Barry agreed to think it over.
But his pride was wounded, Barry says. He told Hale about the original $40,000 base salary. Hale was shocked. "He must be kidding," Hale said. "I didn't tell Franklin how disappointed I was," Barry explains, "because if I had and then came back I would be pressuring him into a bidding contest. When I went there the main thing I wanted was to find out exactly what he thought of me, and I sure found out, didn't I? For me to make $75,000, the gate would have had to go over a million, and only the Lakers and the Knicks ever did that." As it turned out, he and Mieuli never had serious negotiations again. On June 20 Mieuli was ready with a contract offering a straight salary deal at the high figure he had mentioned—$75,000. But he was too late. Barry walked in, said hello, and informed him he had signed with Oakland.
Barry is taking the chance that his more tentative exposure in the ABA will cost him endorsements, but there is just a possibility that Barry could make hundreds of thousands of dollars if Oakland survives. The odds are not locked against the ABA, because basketball is a sport that requires few players and the balance of power can shift quickly—particularly with UCLA's Lew Alcindor available in two years. In two years Rick Barry will be 25 and an owner. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West will all be in their 30s. The ABA, if it keeps Barry and can land Alcindor, would be in a reasonable position to force a merger with the NBA.
That interesting speculation aside, the general reaction has been one of astonishment at how little, relatively, Barry settled for. This leads immediately to the question of how large a part Father-in-Law Hale played, subconsciously and otherwise, in influencing Barry. Many say that Hale was the persuader, and Barry himself is frank to admit: "Of course, my father-in-law was a factor."
However, it must be made clear that Barry is not just related to Hale. He has a genuine respect and love for the man. Searching once to explain his feelings about Pat Boone, Barry paid him what he obviously felt to be the ultimate compliment: "The best I can say about Pat is that he is like my father-in-law."
Hale, however, is embarrassed, and when he begins to suggest that he and Rick hardly even discussed the ABA, he manages only to give a greater substance to his alleged influence on Barry. "I truthfully believe that God played a part in bringing me back to California." Hale says. Boone was backstage at a casino in Reno on May 16 when Hale agreed by phone to coach the Oaks. Boone turned to Barry, who was also there, and told him the news. Shortly thereafter Barry visited Hale in Florida, and shortly after that he agreed to sign up with Boone, too.
But however anxious Barry was to play for Hale, he was apparently as strongly disposed not to play for Sharman. This conflict surfaced when Barry was under oath giving a deposition in the current litigation. "...I disliked playing for Bill Sharman," he said. "I had a run-in with him in Philadelphia.... And it was something that just completely turned me against Mr. Sharman."
Barry adds now: "I don't want to rip the man. I really don't. I won't say what he said to me in Philadelphia, but it was really awful. Paul Neumann, who is an easygoing guy, was standing there next to me, and he heard it and it even upset him. I didn't enjoy last season. Not at all, I'll tell you that. There were a lot of things. I wouldn't like to go through it again. And you can't tell me that if Mr. Mieuli hadn't fired Alex Hannum that we wouldn't have won the championship."
Barry remains undecided whether or not he would report to the Warriors if Judge Drewes bars him from playing for Oakland (in which case the $750,000 penalty would not apply). Mieuli could trade Barry. Or, presumably, Boone could step in and pay Barry $75,000 to sit out the whole dance. In any event, the Warriors have no claim on him past this season. Various and sundry damage suits could top things off. Mieuli's legal bill has already soared past $100,000. The cost of Barry's defense is probably comparable.
It is a high price for recrimination and anguish, and enough has already happened to dim the memories of the glorious season that was to have been the start of a Warrior dynasty. Mieuli takes the autographed picture down from the wall, and the smiling, familiar faces look out again. But already, somehow, it seems like a relic found in the attic among old wedding portraits, outgrown army uniforms and Christmas tree ornaments. Mieuli handles the picture that way, as something historical and from a long-ago winter, and surely it is.
Rick Barry, the pragmatist, knows as certainly as Franklin Mieuli, the sentimentalist, that even if the Warriors should win the injunction and Barry should decide to come back for one more season, there would be neither the time nor the inclination to catch lightning in a bottle again.