The world's largest commissioner stands before the proprietors of sport's newest professional enterprise, fondles a red, white and blue basketball and says: "Gentlemen, the game is on." And so it is, at least for this season; and, if all goes according to plan, for many seasons to come. But George Mikan, all 6'10" of him, the chosen leader of the American Basketball Association, uses the word "game" loosely. The fun and frolic may come later—and incidentally-to the 11 franchises of the new league. First comes the grim battle for survival.
Leagues come, flounder and go, unmourned. The American Basketball League lasted a year and a half before it died in December 1962, and the owners of the NBA said, "Tsk, tsk," hardly having bothered to lift a thumb to squash the intrusion into their big time. Pro basketball promotions have had their own built-in suicide mechanisms, a get-rich-quick approach based on the premise that because the high school and college versions of the sport are so popular, the public will pay to see anything if you beat the drum loudly. P.T. Barnum could get away with it. Professional basketball? Not likely.
What does it take, then? Patience—and money? Sound management—-and money? Nerve—and money? Good players—and money? All of that and the willingness to spend and lose the money for a long time. George Mikan will have you know that the ABA has it. He will also tell you he already has the sport's second major league.
Never! cries the NBA, a bit nervously this time, considering the Rick Barry case and several other near-losses of top talent. But just as big George said, "The game is on," and while the NBA puts a brave face on the matter, some of its teams already are paying through the eyeballs to keep their players right where they are. The whole league had better be prepared to cough up plenty for its college draft picks next year.
Meanwhile, the young league will make do with what it has—the slightly too short and too old, the hoped-for sleepers and the discards. It will put them in spiffy new uniforms and give them all the care and promotion money can buy. It will also present that red, white and blue basketball, and referees in white trousers, blue belts, blue shoes and scarlet shirts with their names in block letters across the back. Oh, you kid. "We'll give them more," says Mikan, meaning three points for a successful shot taken behind a line 25 feet from the basket (a leftover from the ABL), 30 seconds in which to shoot at the basket instead of the 24 currently used by the NBA, and an out-of-bounds award instead of a free throw for offensive fouls. These, too, are incidentals, but they deserve study. The three-pointer offers the good long-range shooter some of the advantages now enjoyed only by the seven-footer, There rarely will be more than one or two of them a game, but the possibility gives the defense something to ponder. In the ABA, when the referee sees that a shot is taken back of the magic line, up goes one arm. If it goes in, up goes the other arm and, presumably, the volume of partisan cheers. That's show biz, and it's not bad.
The six extra seconds to fuss around with the ball is supposed to make the pro game less of a run-and-shoot affair. The fact is that even in no-time-limit competition, players rarely use more than 12 seconds to set up a play. This one just seems like a decision to follow the international amateur rules rather than the NBA. As for the out-of-bounds play—the NBA has essentially the same regulation now—Mikan speaks the obvious when he says: "The dreary march to the foul line does less for basketball than anything I can think of."
The ABA, however, is not going to make it on gimmicks alone. Mikan speaks of the 11 franchises as solid, as befits a commissioner trying to sell a new league to a national television network (he hasn't yet) and to the public. If you press the point, Mikan will mention the Indiana Pacers, and smile. He will speak of the Denver Rockets, and smile. He will point to the Pittsburgh Pipers, and smile. He will speak of the Anaheim Amigos, and smile. As for the teams in New Orleans, New Jersey (Teaneck), Houston, Dallas, Louisville, Minneapolis and Oakland, Mikan also has a smile for these, too, but it is all on the outside. Inside, it's "Oh, brother." (What all that talk was a few weeks ago about another New York franchise—Teaneck is really New York, you see, but the only decent place to play in the city is the Knicks' Garden—adds up to a red, white and blue double dribble. Unless, of course, the ABA has decided that it can't beat the Knicks with just one team—so how about two?)
New Orleans, Dallas and Houston have their own problem. They are planted in areas where basketball is an interlude between January bowl games and spring football practice. Only strong teams in a strong league would have a glimmer of a chance. The Dallas Chaparrals have Cliff Hagan to coach them, the Houston Mavericks have Slater Martin. Good. They both have all kinds of players named Nau, Lentz, Stoglin—hoo, boy.
The New Orleans Buccaneers at least have some genuine pro talent. Doug Moe, a 6'5" do-it-all of the Oscar-Elgin stripe, returns from exile in Italy with an urge to show he could star for any team. Larry Brown is only 5'10" (that gets a lot of laughs at NBA meetings) but a first-rate athlete. For 48 minutes Brown's style is hell-bent, nonstop, and any player who does not watch the little rascal is apt to find himself without ball, uniform or sneakers. Jackie Moreland is smooth, and his five years of NBA experience will steady a young team. James Jones, a 6'4" guard from Grambling, is one of the few plums that fell away from the NBA money tree. The Buccaneers do not have the agile giant at center, but then, neither does anyone else in this league, and Babe McCarthy will no doubt find a way to score without him. The question is, will the crowds flock over from Basin Street to the Loyola Field House? It is a dinky little place (6,425 capacity) for a pro franchise, with three known parking spaces in the area. Owner Charles Smither, a man of many enterprises whose love for New Orleans knows no bounds, insists he will keep things going until the new domed stadium stands proud. It will be close.
The Minnesota Muskies are in a similar predicament. They have some players—Mel Daniels, of New Mexico, a No. 1 draft choice of the Cincinnati Royals, is the best—but the Muskies have to sell their product in competition with big-league football, baseball and, this year, hockey. The old Lakers, even with Mikan and that heroic crew, were largely ignored by the paying customers, and it is hockey, not basketball, that is making the town's blood race today.
Mr. and Mrs. Joe Gregory (tobacco money) have promised to spend millions to make the Kentucky Colonels a byword in Louisville. Nice. But Frank Ramsey and Gene Rhodes, an assistant at Western Kentucky, were high choices to coach the team, and when the Colonels would not put a sufficient amount in the kitty, both said, "No thanks." Nor do the Colonels figure to pile up many victories, in spite of such old Kentucky favorites as Larry Conley, Louie Dampier and Cotton Nash. Conley is good, all right, but he is still frail and the season is 78 games and a playoff long.
Oakland has Pat Boone and, possibly, his millions, a beautiful new arena to play in and a couple of guards—Andy Anderson and Lavern Tart—who can score in spurts but who are not named Rick Barry. If the Oaks do not go under this year, and they shouldn't, Barry will fill a stadium or two next season.
So what else is good news?
The Denver Rockets, for a start. Mikan came close to giving up on the Rockets—the owners actually had voted 10 to 3 to move the franchise to Kansas City—when the Ringsbys, father and son, put all that trucking money into the venture, and hired young Dick Eicher as general manager. Very quickly the sick Rockets became healthy.
The Pittsburgh Pipers, playing in one of the niftiest arenas in the country, have successful promoter Gabe Rubin behind them and a solid team. In Anaheim that inscrutable Hawaiian Art Kim, mostly silent at boisterous league meetings, calmly announced that season-ticket sales are going well, and that he has arranged a local television contract more lucrative than a national tie-in.
And then, there are the Indiana Pacers. Rarely has a group of entrepreneurs worked harder for a grand opening. With less cash to toss around than most of their brother owners, the vigorous young men who eventually got control of this team hired a Chicago firm to investigate the area. Back came the report. Football? No chance. Baseball? Maybe. Basketball? Why not?—provided it's top grade. You can't gull Hoosiers with inferior basketball. They see too much good basketball already. General Manager Mike Storin and Coach Larry Staverman decided right off that the only kind of talent they wanted was the kind willing to struggle. Bill McGill and Bill Buntin, two players with All-America clippings, ambled into camp, loafed through a few practices, and were on the next plane out. "We mean to be here for a long time," said Storin. "You can't fool these people with names. You've got to produce."
On the roster is Roger Brown, 6'5", a man of many moves. Brown is in the same boat as Doug Moe and Connie Hawkins, the 6'9" all-everything now with the Pittsburgh Pipers. No NBA team has ever drafted any of them. Brown and Hawkins accepted money and favors from one of the 1961 basketball scandal fixers. Moe had failed to report a similar gift. None was accused of fixing games. The ABA says they were guilty only of indiscretion and is willing to forgive.
So Moe, Brown and Hawkins have a home, and maybe Rick Barry will next year. Some franchises undoubtedly will have to move to survive. A few will go the way of the Sheboygan Redskins (NBA, circa 1949). But you can count on that red, white and blue ball being around for a while.