It has long been affirmed that pro basketball—like all pro games—is not really a sport but a business. However, the events of last week suggest that only generously can it still be considered the latter. First at Philadelphia, where the NBA All-Star Game was held, and then at Indianapolis, where the ABA met, it was simply a madness—with the shrill sound of tight money blowing by in the wind. Each succeeding scene at both sites was a nightmare, and all of them called up memories of another setting. It was all like Stanley Kowalski telling the real truth about Blanche to Stella, while offstage, behind a closed door, Blanche kept singing: "It's a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phoney as it can be,/But it wouldn't be make believe.... "
From behind pro basketball's various closed doors, when the singing would stop, a man would emerge, and an announcement would be made in modified Newspeak. First, the NBA said it was through considering merger with the ABA. "That's stupid," a coach cried out loudly and reflexively to his owner in the hotel lobby when he heard this—and his appraisal covered the subject well. Then the door opened again, and the NBA said it was going to expand, or explode, with quadruplets. The NBA—the National Blackjack Association; it took a big hit at 14. "Everybody's got a franchise now but Colonel Sanders," said Hank Greenwald, the San Francisco TV announcer, and that subject was covered too.
The vote was 12-2 for expansion. Only four votes were needed to prevent it, but in the end—when the NBA kicked up its admission dues half a million to $3.5 million and denied the potential newcomers reasonable draft rights and television booty—greed became so fashionable that even the New York Knicks reversed their well-publicized stand and stood with the expansionists. Only San Francisco and Los Angeles voted the straight, sane ticket. The new franchise conditions were so oppressive that the man from Portland—who was planning a regional franchise for Oregon—left in a huff that night, and the group from Cleveland decided to reconsider. Two groups from Buffalo and one from Houston were, at last reports, still interested.
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, another door opened and it was announced that the ABA was going to let prospective buyers into its lair for $1.5 million a shot. (The area code for Portland is 503; Cleveland is 216.) The ABA's new commissioner, Jack Dolph, speaking with the grim zest of Teddy Roosevelt before San Juan Hill, declared: "The war is on!"
February 2, 1970
In yet another part of the forest, the ABA All-Star players, at last about to enjoy network TV exposure, banded together behind a young Denver lawyer named Arlan T. Preblud and threatened not to play the game unless their incipient players' organization was instantly recognized by Dolph and his owners. After dashing back and forth between the players' meeting and his owners several times, Dolph gave a provisional O.K. Later, the players' president, Denver Guard Larry Jones, said that the All-Stars only "considered the possibility" of not going on. In light of the fact that the players did not leave their hotel rooms till 1:12 for a 2:00 tip-off several miles away, it may at least be said that Arlan T. Preblud has studied John Foster Dulles.
The owners in both leagues have apparently restricted themselves to escape reading. The NBA is resisting merger, the ABA is revamping Al Davis, and both are seeking to water down their product at a time when only a small minority of teams in either league is breaking even. As recently as last summer the NBA's Chicago Bulls—a near-.500 team in the nation's third-largest city—could have been had for $2 million. The ABA's Los Angeles Stars are yours today for $1—and that's negotiable.
Pro basketball is indeed a curious beast now. A recent national poll indicates that it ranks third in popularity after the footballs, pro and college. Its TV ratings overwhelm hockey and continue to rise. The NBA's new TV contract with ABC will triple its take to something like $3 million a year. Readership interest in the sport has grown equally. In New York, at the height of the football season, the Knicks got more newspaper space than the Jets or Giants—perhaps as much as both. And, yet, elsewhere around the country this enthusiasm is not reflected at the box office.
Part of the problem is that the sport is popular on so many levels, whereas amateur hockey, for instance, offers no real competition to the pro game. Another reason is that pro basketball is dominated by black players and viewed by a relatively high proportion of black spectators. This point was at last brought into the open recently in a candid interview with Philadelphia 76er Coach Jack Ramsay by George Kiseda of the Philadelphia Bulletin. In response, some members of the Flyers' hockey fan club, promising to bundle themselves up like so many Christmas gifts for the needy, planned to carry the white man's burden all the way to a 76er game. The truth appears to be that some fans treat pro basketball rather like brotherhood—as something to talk about and read about and watch on TV, but not, personally, to get too close to.
So pro basketball booms, but the turnstiles do not reflect it, and the owners feel that the magic answer is expansion fees. The new franchises are supposed to provide walking-around money for the old franchises for the next few months, and what's left over can then go toward outbidding the rival league for Maravich, Lanier et ah, to pay veterans commensurately higher salaries and to defend and initiate random lawsuits. Since the NBA is well-established and the ABA well-heeled, this can only escalate the war, and there will be more expansion next year and the next year and the next year, and soon the only places left in which to put franchises will be Sheboygan, Oshkosh and Tri-Cities. By then the teams will be stocked with AAU age-group kids. It has already reached the point where very few teams of the existing 25 have the kind of players to draw fans away from high school games.
It was, therefore, even more disappointing when the best players did get together last week that the games turned out to be one-sided bores. The NBA game figured to be easy for the East, partially because of injuries to West stars, but the ABA game should have been closer. Not so—the West won by 30 points, leading all the way after the East came out cold. Some players admitted that the lack of warmups—they were negotiating instead—hardly helped.
In its three years, despite blowing a lot of smoke, the ABA has been unsuccessful in signing top college players. It remains far below the NBA in quality of personnel, and a 20-year-old rookie, recently shifted from center to forward, is the best big man in the league. Spencer Haywood won the MVP in the All-Star Game and is likely to win it for the season—as is Willis Reed of the NBA. In general the ABA also has smaller guards and slower forwards.
Few competent observers are in a position to compare the two leagues' personnel accurately, because it is difficult to shuttle regularly between the two worlds. Three men—a former player, a front-office official and a writer—who are qualified in this regard, were polled to name the ABA players who could play as regulars in the NBA. Only eight were named on all three lists: Haywood and Larry Jones of Denver, James Jones of New Orleans, Rick Barry and Warren Armstrong of Washington, Doug Moe of Carolina (despite his atrocious All-Star performance), Donnie Freeman of Miami and Roger Brown of Indiana. The most notable omission is Mel Daniels, last year's MVP, who was left off one list because it was felt he lacked the ability to score from inside.
Because of the 25-foot, three-point circle—which is the best innovation in basketball since the 24-second clock—there is more guard play in the ABA. Also, the 30-second clock, as opposed to the NBA's 24-second limit, leads to the development of more patterns on offense. New Orleans even uses the old Auburn shuffle. Without the good, big centers, however, ABA teams do not move the ball inside as frequently, and they do not fast-break as readily. But there are many similarities in the two games, and in both leagues a particularly interesting trend continues, as the forwards figure in the scoring totals less and less. Since the backcourt men are shooting better and getting their shots off more quickly, this can only become more pronounced. It has been a slow, almost imperceptible change from the '40s and '50s, when the play went to the big scorers in the corners—Fulks, then Arizin, Schayes, Yardley, Pettit, Twyman and Baylor. Picking a year at random—in 1958, six of the eight NBA teams were led in scoring by a forward. The seven top scorers and nine of the best 15 were forwards. This season, only three of the 14 NBA teams and two of the 11 ABA teams are led by a forward. Only two of the top 16 in the NBA and two of the top 14 in the ABA are cornermen.
The shape of the forwards has changed, too. The prototype today is lean and fast and, in the NBA, only slightly taller than the average guard. "We were like a high school team," Jerry West said of the NBA West's All-Stars. "Everybody was the same size." The vogue for bigger and brawnier cornermen peaked in 1964 when San Francisco often started 6'11" Nate Thurmond and 6'9" Wayne Hightower at the forwards. Dave DeBusschere, 6'6", was being tried out as a guard; now he is considered a big forward.
Next year, assuming the courts permit it, one of the best NBA forwards, Billy Cunningham, and two other former All-Stars, Zelmo Beaty and Dave Bing, will suit up for the game in Greensboro, N. C.—not the one at San Diego. Jerry West has said he will play only one more season. Other NBA superstars are growing old. Wilt, Thurmond and Baylor are hurt. Things can change quickly, as you know if you took Minnesota and gave 13. But the NBA may have an even graver problem—an internal threat. The specter of Lew Alcindor looms larger with each game and, when the evenings grew late in Philadelphia and the singing stopped, there were the first whispers that perhaps by All-Star time next year it would not be a matter of saving the business. It would be a matter of saving the game.