Any day now American Basketball Association officials will begin passing a collection plate among their owners. They figure they'll need $1 million, give or take a stack of 50s, all of which will be heaped at the feet of 7'1½" Lew Alcindor. Then the big fellow gets his choice of the 11 ABA teams. "That's right, any team," says Alex Hannum of the Oakland Oaks. "Just so long as he plays in the ABA. The league will split the cost, then we'll ask him where he wants to play. We're flexible." The thinking, of course, is that Alcindor will be to the struggling ABA what Joe Namath is to the American Football League. At least.
It's sound thinking. Brilliant. Daring. Why it's...it's.... "It's a lot of garbage," says Wes Pavalon, the outspoken young chairman of the board of the rival NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. In recent weeks this big, bearded financial wheeler has been watching, with public amusement, the ABA and its plans for landing Alcindor. "And just how," says Pavalon, "do these people think they are going to outbid the whole state of Wisconsin? If all they can come up with is $1 million, they had better save it to buy themselves a one-eyed 5'6" center out of Humpty-Dump State."
The Bucks have a secure lease on last place in the Eastern Division of the NBA, which, this season, is an extraordinarily delightful place to be. The lowlies of the West are the Phoenix Suns, and when the season is over the Suns and the Bucks will flip a coin for the rights to Alcindor—with the residents of Wisconsin standing by for action.
"And there'll be action," says Pavalon, who last year created such a broad financial base by insisting that the NBA allow the Bucks to join the league as a public-owned company. Stock in Milwaukee Professional Sports and Services was offered to Wisconsin residents only. Something like 500,000 shares were sold. "I felt the Bucks would have a better chance of success if everybody had a piece," Pavalon says. "Now, if we can just win the right to draft Alcindor, we'll say to the people of Wisconsin—O.K., it's going to take X dollars to get him, do you want him? The ABA is talking about $1 million. I'd say a more realistic price will be whatever the ABA offers plus what we have to add to get him. And I'm sure the people of Wisconsin will say they want him, whatever the cost is going to be. As a public company, the Bucks have a dozen ways of coming up with the money." He began to laugh. "How about this?" he said. "Convertible debentures for Lew Alcindor?" But should Pavalon feel so moved, he might just dip into his own pocket, sort out the loose change and buy the UCLA giant himself. If the mood should take him, he might even make a down payment on UCLA.
February 24, 1969
At 35, Wesley D. Pavalon is thumpingly rich, multimillionaire rich, and all but the first $1,800 has been earned since 1954. He has so much, in fact, that he says he long ago stopped counting it. "Thirty or 40 or 50 million, or more," he guesses rather grandly. "After you string together all those zeroes, the numbers up front aren't that important." Recently, an associate mentioned that a stock in which Pavalon owns a million or so shares had climbed almost 20 points in 1968. "You made close to $20 million last year," said the associate. "Yeah," said Pavalon, absentmindedly. "That's nice. Now where the devil are the plans for...?"
Pavalon is also:
•A 10th-grade dropout who has a degree from Wright Junior College. When the registrar at Wright asked for his high school diploma, Pavalon went out and bought one for $50. "Fortunately," he says, "no one at the college ever checked. But I sweated a lot while there."
•Founder (with that $1,800), president and chairman of Career Academy, a $200 million-plus international complex of private trade, technical and home-study schools.
•Author of many of the schools' textbooks. "I used to keep the books just one lesson ahead of the classes. Like our course for medical technicians," he says. "I'd spend all day talking to doctors and then spend all night writing for the next day's class. I just took what the doctors said and translated it into layman's terms."
•Holder of a franchise commitment in the proposed professional boxing league, when and if that dream of jack Drees gets off the drawing board.
•Leader of a vigorous fight, with the blessing of Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles, for an $8 million sports arena in Milwaukee which, he believes, will bring a franchise in the National Hockey League. For starters, he pledged the first $1 million and recently jumped that to $2 million. (His fight for the arena has led him into a conflict with Robert E. Dineen, chairman of the board of Northwestern Mutual Life, who is pushing for an exhibition hall. "I look at Pavalon the way a surgeon views an appendix," says Dineen. "Strictly impersonal. He says he has all this backing, but in the end the mayor says the city is broke, the county is broke and the governor has put the state on an austerity program. Now, with all this, if the politicians want to throw away $15 million or $18 million on something we don't need, then to hell with it.")
•A noon-to-5-a.m., seven-day-a-week worker who can't understand anyone who isn't. He lives on pizza and low-calorie colas; was just named by the U.S. Jaycees as one of the nation's top 10 young men; is an avid fisherman, duck hunter and art collector, and within the last few weeks has become firmly hooked on yachting.
One Sunday recently Pavalon was riding in his limousine, a 1968 dark green Cadillac just one block shorter than Broadway, along a twisting narrow road in central Wisconsin a few miles from a 200-acre deer preserve and farm he bought last June. His public-relations people say that he bought the limousine after deciding he was wasting time driving when he could be in the back thinking. He listens to that version, then grins. "I got the car and chauffeur because the state was getting ready to grab my driver's license," he says. "Too many speeding tickets. But I didn't wait until they came for it; I mailed it in."
As he talked, Pavalon maintained close note of the limousine's progress. Every two or three minutes he would lower the window between himself and the driver, bark out an instruction, then raise the window. He is a domineering backseat driver, "Joe's a terrible chauffeur," sighed Pavalon, moodily staring at the back of his driver's head. "Always falling asleep at the wheel, always taking a wrong turn, always getting lost."
"Why do you keep him?" asked a puzzled passenger.
"Because I keep hoping that maybe someday he'll become a good chauffeur," said Pavalon, frowning. "If not, he's still a loyal guy and I'll find another place in the company for him. Too many people are ready to write someone else off too soon. Some people just need more time. I hate to see the little people get kicked around."
Wes Pavalon once was one of the little people himself. His divorced mother ran a tavern on the North Side of Chicago, where he was born. Home was an untidy, cheerless tenement flat over an ice-cream parlor, The Razzle Dazzle. From age 7 he went there only when there was no other place to go.
"Home for me was just kind of a place I got to by accident," said Pavalon. "It wasn't really a place that was there. It was—I guess—just an address to give somebody. But I never felt like I belonged home, and I'd delay as late as possible calling an end to the day. I'd get a friend of mine and we'd walk all the way from the north side of the city to downtown, and we'd go to the Clark Theater. It was open 24 hours a day. They had a motto, 'Hark, hark to the Clark.' You ran into all kinds of odd people there. You'd sit and talk to these people and find out what it was that made them tick."
Pavalon leaned forward in the big limousine, pulled down the jump seat and used it as a footrest. Then he settled back and stared at the passing countryside. He is a big man (6'3", 210 pounds), with thick black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His upper lip is clean. He grew the beard on a duck-hunting trip, almost shaved it off, then decided he liked it. He had worried that his stockholders in Career Academy might not like the beard. "But," he declared, "if they only bought stock because of my clean-shaven cheeks, then they had better sell." His face is long, wide and strong, dominated by a rather large nose slightly bent and a pair of dark brown eyes that are very warm or very cold, depending upon his mood. Usually the eyes are warm, for he smiles a lot. But not always. "He is," says an old friend, "one tough, crazy SOB."
The limousine came to a fork in the road. The two lanes swept left; the way to the right was a single, rutted dirt track. Joe touched the brake. The window went down. "For Pete's sake," Pavalon shouted, "follow the main road." Then his voice gentled. "That's good, Joe. That's good. Joe, did you go to bed early last night like I told you?" Joe nodded. "You sure?" Joe nodded again. Pavalon grunted, settled back. He put his feet on the jump seat and stared at them.
"You know," he said, "it's a funny thing, finance. People know I never went to school. It's no secret. And they ask me where I learned finance. They think you have to go to the Harvard Business School before you can make a dollar. Nuts! I tell them I learned my finance out in the streets. I mean you can either learn by being taught at home, and I sure wasn't getting any there, or you have to learn it yourself. My father had left, and mother, well, she was working the tavern. I guess I had a great feeling of inferiority, of hating that kind of life. After all, most mothers are home taking care of the family, cleaning the house and going away with their husbands on vacation. And my mother is running a business, and that business mostly caters to men, and, you know—she's alone."
Pavalon started learning finance by stealing bottles from the cellar of his mother's tavern, cashing them in and using the money to buy a newspaper stand. Winters he kept from freezing by burning wood and paper in an empty 100-gallon oil drum. Then he discovered that if he used his brain there were some easier, quicker ways. He was 9 years old.
First he discovered football parlay cards. He found that while one parlay card might be giving, say, Notre Dame's opponent 12 points, the card of another company might be giving six, or—a bonanza—only three.
"I'd run all over Chicago collecting the different parlay cards," he said, "and all week I'd read the papers, looking for injuries, watching the weather, figuring the statistics. Then I'd sit down and figure out my best bet and work from there, matching the points on one card against another and juggling my second and third teams until I found the best combination on one card." He laughed. "People now name some team that played in the '40s and I start rattling off the starting lineup, the records, who got hurt in what game. They are amazed. Well, I had to know those things."
Before long he graduated to a profitable, if illegal, partnership with a friend named Beetlebomb. They sold chances on the biggest, best-playing, most beautiful nonexistent radio ever offered in a raffle. Summers they sold sponsorships for a real 15-man Softball team. For $15 a sponsor bought a commercial on the back of one softball shirt. One summer Pavalon and Beetlebomb collected 217 sponsors. Rarely did a sponsor come to a game. If one did turn up, he always learned that his player was home sick. The shirt with the sponsor's name on the back, of course, was home with the sick player.
"That Beetle was unbelievable," said Pavalon. "He's a legend in Chicago. He came from a broken home, a lot of neglect, just tremendous disadvantages. The war was on and Beetle quit school to join the Navy. And then the Army. And then the Marines. All three threw him out when they found he was underage. When he came home the last time he wrote to every major college telling them what a great football player he was. And he was, too! He got scholarship offers from everywhere, even Notre Dame. But because he hadn't finished high school he first had to take a General Educational Development Test. I took the test for him. He actually played football at several colleges, and he was a great defensive end and a fine barefoot punter.
"When Beetle got tired of college, he came home and went to Roosevelt High School under one name, and he went to Wright College under another name. And he played football for both of them at the same time. He wore the first set of contact lenses I ever saw. Big as eye-cups. We had to hold a raffle to get the money to buy them, so you can see the raffles were for good causes."
If football was Beetle's game, basketball was Pavalon's. "Wes was a gym rat," says a good friend, Ed Kelly, who then was the athletic director at Green Briar Park, just across the street from the Pavalon flat. "He couldn't shoot a basketball for nothing, but he sure was tough under the boards. Big and strong, and clumsy. He'd half kill anybody who got between him and the ball. And he was always dirty. Holes in his pants; holes in his shoes."
"Ed Killer Kelly," says Pavalon softly. "This man is a priest, a rabbi, a psychiatrist, a physician, a coach, a friend—everything. He's spent his whole life in the park district keeping kids out of jail, keeping kids away from narcotics, keeping families together. He fed me. He was a father to me."
"There was an awful lot of hate in Wes," says Kelly, now an assistant superintendent of Chicago's parks, as well as committeeman for the 47th Ward. "Hate for life itself. He was always ready to rebel. Always ready to fight. What a bunch of screwballs that gang had. Always being chased by the coppers. Always in some kind of trouble. I'd look out in the street at night and there they'd be, pushing some car down the street. I'd yell, 'Wes, put that damn car back.' And he would. But I'll tell you something—Wes was smarter when he was 10 years old than I am right now. He didn't join me, I joined him."
The big green car came to an unmarked crossroad and slowed. Pavalon hit the window button. "Turn right, Joe," he ordered. The car began to turn left. "Joe, right. Turn right." Joe made the correction. Pavalon sat back, shaking his head. "We'll be at the deer farm in a few minutes," he said.
"That Kelly—he never would let me take a shot during a game," Pavalon resumed. "He was always telling me to wait. I'd get so mad I'd feel like kicking the basketball out of the gym. But, you know, I was learning, and I didn't even know it. I mean, when I played center it was my job to pick, to rebound, to pass off, and it was my job to understand my inability to score, based on the percentage of shots taken, as compared to my two guards and two forwards.
"That's how Kelly psyched me. He was training me to know that you should give a person the opportunity to work up to potential, to appreciate people for their competence at the level of their talents. The Packers don't expect Henry Jordan to be a quarterback. They expect him to be a defensive tackle, and the best. It's the old thing of teamwork. I was trained in that at Green Briar Park. Kelly trained me. You don't just learn that. You're not born knowing that if you can't shoot from the outside, you damn fool, pass the ball off to someone who can, because the name of the game is win."
One year Kelly's team battled its way to a park championship final, and, with two minutes to play, it had a 30-point lead. Pavalon was begging Kelly to let him take just one shot.
"Not yet," said Kelly. "Hey, you other guys, keep the ball away from Wes. Wait a bit."
"Kelly," Pavalon pleaded. "Now there's only 30 seconds left. Let me take just one lousy shot. This game is going into the newspaper."
"Not yet," Kelly said firmly. "I'll let you know when."
And time ran out.
Pavalon chased Kelly into the dressing room. "For Pete's sake, Kelly, why didn't you let me take one shot?"
Kelly, who is 5'7", reached up and patted Pavalon on the shoulder. "Kid," he said, "I don't want you to get no bad habits."
Pavalon was still laughing, talking about never getting to shoot and discussing Kelly's ancestry when the car reached the farm. The large main house sits just off Route W in Fond du Lac County, 50 miles from Milwaukee.
"Come on," said Pavalon, leaping from the car. "I want to show you the golf course and some of the biggest rainbow trout in the world."
"Golf course? On a farm?"
"Sure," he said, pointing. "Right up on top of that small hill. Come on, we'll take the train."
The train is a tiny open car operated by motorized pulley that runs almost straight up on a pair of rusting 30-foot rails. At the top is the golf course: 110 yards in length, three holes, each one with three different tee locations. Pitch-and-putt. "Great, isn't it?" said Pavalon, standing on the mount and surveying his private links. "Someday I might even try playing the silly game. Let's go back down. I'll let you push the button that starts the train."
At the bottom, 50 feet behind the house, is the first and largest of a series of clear pools, spring-fed and bountiful with fat rainbows. A handful of feed brought better than two dozen of the monsters thrashing to the top of the pool.
"One day," said Pavalon wistfully, "I'm going to come out and spend a whole day fishing for these beauties. Come on, let's look at the deer."
The deer were just a few yards away, 10 of them, in a combination icehouse-fish hatchery, strung up, very dead. They all looked as though they had been on severe starvation diets. "Stunted," said Pavalon, frowning. "I hated to see them killed, but the conservation department said it was the only way to build up the herd. Weed out the weak; leave the strong. We left just one big, strong buck."
From the farm the limousine sped on toward Green Bay, where in a few hours Pavalon was suffering while watching the Packers lose to Chicago. Henry Jordan, the defensive tackle, is a close friend, and, because of the friendship, Pavalon has taken on the role of unofficial financial adviser to some of the other Packers.
"You know," Pavalon said, "it was for people like Henry Jordan, for all professional athletes, that I wanted our basketball team to be a public company. I want an opportunity for everyone, and I mean the players and the coaches, to share in the equity. The way things are today, a ballplayer just can't build up his net worth. You can't do it on a salary; the government grabs most of that. It was important to me that we have a public company so that we would be able to think in terms of stock option plans, of stock bonuses.
"I've got a guy working as a clerk who's worth close to $1 million. He got it through our stock options. Why shouldn't a Henry Jordan or a Bart Starr or any athlete have the same opportunity? Now, I'm not talking about an indiscriminate bonus. Remember, a stock option can be set up the way we did at Career Academy and the Bucks, where an option is given to buy—well, here's how it works:
"An option is granted to buy 100 shares of XYZ Corporation at the market value at the day of grant. So if the market value on the day of grant is $10 a share, what you're giving is the option, for $1,000, to buy 100 shares. Now there are restrictions in an option that say, for instance, in order to exercise that option you must stay with the company or the team for a period of three more years, or five years, or whatever.
"Say you have the right to buy 100 shares after a period of three years. Now, if during that time the value of the stock appreciates, and you have met the obligation of doing your job with the degree of excellence required to stay employed, then you can exercise your option. Say the 100 shares of stock are now worth $10,000, or $50,000, they are still yours to buy for $1,000.
"Now, if a Henry Jordan has done his job with enough excellence to be employed for the last 10 or 11 years, why shouldn't he have the opportunity to exercise a stock option? He's done his job. It's not really a bonus. It's additional compensation. Now, I'm not saying, why don't the Packers do this? They can't. They're not a public company. I'm not saying how come it wasn't done, either. I'm saying that if we have public companies involved in sports in the future—and it's coming to that—a public company can give an athlete opportunities that he does not have now, opportunities to gain in liquidity and net worth.
"Last year Henry asked me if I would spend some time with Starr and Fuzzy Thurston and Lionel Aldridge and some of the other Packers that were in town. I did, and this only reinforced my belief that we are on the right track in pro sports. Athletes are interested in equity. Athletes are smarter today, and they are just as concerned as anybody about their future.
"I mean, here's an athlete, say age 35, my age, and he has to go into an entirely different field in almost all cases. A good example would be a Packer I never met, Bill Forester. A great linebacker. Just great. I asked Henry about him the other day. He said, well, he's working. And his wife is working. Why? He put in enough years, he should have some equity now. After all, a corporate executive is given an opportunity to have equity. He doesn't start looking for his equity in a strange position at the age of 35."
Pavalon understands net worth, and also will never forget the lack of it. He was 14 when his grandfather died. A poor unlettered cobbler who had emigrated from Grodno, Russia, the grandfather's last ride was to a county hospital in a police ambulance. Pavalon rode with him. For hours the old man, bleeding from the ears and mouth, lay in a hallway untended. He died there. A few months later Pavalon watched his grandmother die in the same hospital in a dirty, cluttered, overcrowded ward. He buried both of them with money made from selling phony raffle tickets. "I swore to myself," he says, "that no relative or friend of mine would ever again go to a county hospital. Never. I was going to be able to pay that hospital bill somehow."
He took his first real step in amassing the "somehow" in 1951. He was 18, fresh from a quickie course in TV repair and out of work. He read an ad in a Chicago newspaper. It said, "TV repair technician wanted." What it meant, he discovered later, was: TV repair teacher wanted. He answered the ad.
"We need an older man with plenty of experience," said the man who had placed the ad. "How much experience do you have?"
"Plenty," said Pavalon.
"How old are you? You look a little young."
"I'm 24." Then Pavalon laughed. "You should see my father. He's almost 50 and he looks only two years older than me."
"Can you teach?"
He got the job. Within six months he was running the school. Two years later he raised $1,800 by selling his car, moved to Milwaukee and opened his own TV school. He was 21. His first daughter, Marcy, was five days old.
"How I hated to give up that car," recalled Pavalon. "It was a brand-new convertible. It was beautiful. I polished it twice a day. It was the first good thing I owned in my whole life. But I sold it and I took the money and went to an auction in New York City. Some electronics company had gone out of business, and there I was, a scared kid, bidding against big-time surplus dealers. But they were looking to make fantastic profits, and when I outbid them by $5, they stared at me like I was out of my head. But they let me have the stuff. I bought a tremendous amount. And I took it all right back with me to Milwaukee. I didn't dare let it go by itself. I was afraid I'd lose it.
"Then, after the school opened, I went to auctions in Chicago, cleaned up the equipment I bought and sold it to my students. They had to have it when they graduated, so I figured why not make an extra profit? I even worked out a deal with a finance company to make loans on the equipment if a student didn't have all the money. Finance is only logic. I didn't have any money. So it was a question of how you do it. You figure it out. You've got to be self-reliant in this world. If you can't stand by yourself, you're sunk."
Pavalon soon found himself running out of TV repair students. There are only so many. He added two courses: one in air-conditioning and refrigeration, the other in appliance repair. He knew nothing about either, but he knew how to find out. "I went to technical people who knew. If I can make you tell me so I can understand, then I can put it in words so other people can understand. I was a translator, a screening device."
He sat down with draftsmen, with dentists, with physicians. He spent hours with experts in appliances, in refrigeration, in air conditioning. "Dentists and doctors," he says, "they are so darned technical-minded. They can't go right to the students. They go way over their heads. I bet I know more about taking out an appendix or casting a gold inlay than any layman alive. I love reading medical journals. My dentist says I'm the only guy who gives him a grade after he cleans my teeth. But I'm nuts about my teeth. I'm afraid I'll lose them, and I don't know what the devil the fear is from."
Later Pavalon added courses for radio and television broadcasters and for hotel-motel executives. Today there are 15 resident schools, in 12 major cities, and 11 home-study courses. In 1968, 18,293 students were enrolled, paying fees of close to $15 million.
In 1967, Career Academy went public on the American Stock Exchange.
"Your ticker symbol will be C-A-R," said the ASE to Pavalon.
"I don't want C-A-R," said Pavalon. "I want R-R-R, for Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic."
A polite cough. "Sorry, but the ticker symbol always is the first three letters of a company's name. That is the tradition."
"Zap the tradition," said Pavalon.
The ticker symbol for Career Academy is R-R-R.
The sun, the temperature and the Packers had fallen, and now the limousine sped through the predawn darkness, returning to Milwaukee. After the game, Pavalon had rounded up some of the Packers—Jordan, Aldridge, Jerry Kramer, Ray Nitschke—and their wives and had taken them to dinner at the Left Guard, Max McGee's and Fuzzy Thurston's swinging restaurant in Appleton, Wis.
The limousine rolled on through the night. It was 4 a.m. Pavalon had been up since 6 the morning before. So had the chauffeur. A half hour out of Appleton, Pavalon leaped forward, lowered the window and shouted: "Joe, pull over. Pull over right now."
The long green car slowed, pulled over to the side of the road. Pavalon got out. "Joe," he said, "get in the back and go to sleep." The two changed places, and for most of the trip Pavalon—perhaps because he had mailed back his driver's license—hardly exceeded the speed limit.
"You know, it's funny," he said, steering the big car almost as an afterthought with one hand while holding a cigarette with the other. "But this night reminds me of another one a long time ago. A night a week before Christmas. I was in the seventh grade. There was this Christmas tree lot not too far away from my mother's tavern. A friend of mine, who's now a distributor of educational books in Chicago, and I were passing this lot, and all of a sudden I got this idea that we should give a tree to our school. Maybe it was because Christmas wasn't too much at home, or maybe it was just because I spotted the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen in my life and I just wanted to steal it. It seemed like it went 50 feet in the air. It was right in the middle of the lot.
"Well, we stole the darn thing and dragged it through alleys to the school. It was snowing like crazy. The people at the school were delighted. Then the guy came looking for his tree and found it. Somebody squealed on us, I guess."
He sighed. "It certainly didn't win me any points, because a year or so later they transferred me out of the place. I never did have much luck with holidays as a kid.
"There was one Halloween—I was only 8 or 9 and hardly in a position to afford a costume. And I didn't want to be.... I was always different than the other kids, I felt, because my environment at home was different. This Halloween, trying to be like the rest of the kids, I wore long red underwear I borrowed from my grandfather. I put a pillow inside and had a great mask with a beard on it. I wore it to school—and the principal sent me home because she said that was...you know...that I looked like...that it was immoral or something because the underwear had a trapdoor.
"You think she'd have looked at me and said, oh, the poor kid, and tried to understand. She didn't. She sent me home. I hated her. But I got even. I shot her right in the fanny with a B-B. And she got even with me, too. She gave me my walking papers, shipped me off to a strange school, right away from my group. So in the end, she had the last laugh. Funny, how you remember things like that."
The limousine reached the silent outskirts of Milwaukee, barely slowed, then, at last, came to a stop in front of a downtown hotel. The chauffeur was still asleep. Pavalon and his passenger climbed from the car, stretched, yawned and shook hands. The passenger started into the hotel, turned and came back. "Wes," he said, "we've been together for almost 24 hours, and one silly question keeps popping into my mind."
"Well, ask it," said Pavalon.
"It's foolish, but if you were, say, 12 or 13 or 14 again, and you had all the money you have now, would you trade all those millions for the ability to put a basketball through a hoop?"
"You've got to be kidding," said Wes Pavalon, leaping and twisting in the cold air and firing off an imaginary one-handed push shot. Then he burst into laughter. "For Pete's sake," he said, "don't tell Kelly I just took a shot."