If there can be said to be a genuine tragic hero in the limited world of sport, it is Franklin Mieuli. Until a day almost four years ago when he got on a plane and began a journey back to his family home in Italy, there seemed nothing he could do to escape bounty and good fortune. He had the longest good-luck streak in the history of sports—including a franchise, the San Francisco Warriors, that seemed one of the most gold-plated in pro basketball.
Since then, by contrast, nothing has gone right. He has been caught in a succession of bewildering misfortunes, some of them so original that he seems to have become a kind of involuntary prototype: every time something bad came along, it happened first to Franklin. He made his money and then his name in pro football and television, those dual Golcondas of sports, but now he stands battered and shaken by the excesses wrought by their boom.
In the councils of NBA owners Mieuli is third in seniority only to Ned Irish, the Knicks' sachem of Madison Square Garden, and Fred Zollner of Detroit—a position of seniority comparable to that held by Philip Wrigley in baseball. This fact alone offers more than a little insight into the turbulence that has tossed pro basketball and Mieuli in the last decade. There is no question that for this immigrant gardener's son—popular, unpredictable, loyal, philanthropic—things have moved fast. And yet, curiously, he is a traditionalist. His Warriors have made money only once in the nine years since the team moved West, and last year they dropped a cool $900,000. But Mieuli rails against expansion or merger and the quick easy cash they can bring.
His resistance has infuriated NBA colleagues. Irish stormed out of one league meeting recently while the newer owners cowered before the confrontation. Sam Schulman, the Seattle owner who was the NBA's Dauphin before he signed Spencer Haywood, calls Mieuli "eccentric," and considering the contrast in styles, this is not surprising. "He's erratic," Schulman says of Mieuli. "I think he acts from emotion rather than logic."
February 15, 1971
Mieuli, bearded and bizarrely dressed, looks like a madman to the other owners. At their most charitable they dismiss him simply as vindictive and say that he must have been affected by all he has suffered. Or they figure him as a spoilsport or perhaps merely naive. What kind of up-to-date owner is it who won't take the money and run? Mieuli is an irritant, like the tedious guy on the Titanic who kept bugging everybody about getting some binoculars up on the bridge.
The day he began his trip to Italy, when everything around Mieuli began to bend out of shape, he owned, obviously, the one great basketball team of the future. The Warriors had lost respectably in the championships that year to the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Philadelphians were an older team. The Warriors had much more before them. In Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry they had both the best young center in the league and the player who was the leading scorer and best young drawing card. They had depth, a good coach, and the city had absolutely taken the Warriors to its heart. The team made money and there was more where that came from. People in San Francisco shook their heads and said that Franklin had done it again—frequently adding, "lucky son of a gun."
Mieuli had heard that refrain before, and he doesn't dispute its truth. For years, he admits, he moved with the style of a leprechaun disguised as a four-leaf clover. It began in 1949 when, despite his family's advice, he opted to leave the Mieuli nursery business in San Jose and get a job in advertising in San Francisco. Before long he wangled a flunky post in the ad department of Burgermeister Brewery, where the ad budget went from $350,000 to $1.5 million in a few years and where Franklin's career tagged right along. "Just by evolution I had to move up," Mieuli says. "Of course it was luck." He also chanced upon a newspaper item about the 49ers being for sale. The clipping was erroneous, but in checking it out Mieuli was led to a meeting with Tony Morabito, the 49ers' owner, and that led to Burgie sponsoring the games, and that led to Mieuli's own TV-radio sports production company, and that led, for a mere $60,000, to a 10% share in the 49ers that turned out eventually to be the collateral that Mieuli put up to gain the controlling interest in the Warriors when the Diners Club, as he puts it, "wanted outski right now" in 1963.
In between, there was more. "Everybody credited me for my clairvoyance at first," Mieuli says. "I didn't know anything. When I majored in journalism at Oregon, there was one paragraph—one paragraph—in the whole textbook on the subject of television. It was all trial and error. I was just always in the right place at the right time." He paused and shrugged, and the stars came out in his eyes. "And people believe in me. I have that faculty."
The Giants moved West, and because Mieuli had established the Golden West Network, which was something with sound effects that re-created major league baseball games, he ended up with the baseball rights, too. "Here again—luck," he says unashamedly. "So I meet all these New York types, and when Mrs. Payson has to sell her stock in the Giants because she's buying the Mets somebody says, 'Hey, how about Franklin?' and I end up with an interest." Approximately the same thing happened a couple of years later when a legman for the Diners Club was dispatched to get some local owners to go in with the credit card company. Gene Autry supplied Mieuli's name, and he came away with a small piece of the action and the production rights. Suddenly this wacky Italian florist from San Jose was the only guy in San Francisco who owned a part of every team in town—and he also had a virtual monopoly on all the sports TV-radio production that came out of the Bay Area. Still, until Mieuli took over the Warriors—really until he traded Wilt Chamberlain early in 1965—nobody knew who he was. Somebody once asked Oscar Levant where he lived. "On the periphery," was the reply. Franklin Mieuli had the same address in those years.
One of his early acquaintances—and still a close friend—was Pete Rozelle. Mieuli would televise 49er games home from Los Angeles and Rams games back to L.A. when they played at Kezar. The two young men thought it was a good idea, with broad possibilities. "I used to see Franklin around when he'd come down to L.A.," Rozelle recalls. "He was actually a lot straighter then than he is now, but he has always done unusual things. I could never understand, for instance, why he kept living in San Jose. That's a long ride into San Francisco. But he still makes the trip every day.
"He's always been the kind of guy—well, he just sort of crops up. He's always been a floater. I'd see Franklin somewhere in L.A. and we'd go out to dinner, and he'd end up staying the night and then he'd be gone. He'd leave his socks and I would get them laundered and mail them back to him in an envelope. He still floats. You're in a group with him and all of a sudden he's disappeared. I guess Franklin just doesn't like emotional goodbys."
Mieuli's more prolonged disappearances have earned him the name of The Phantom. He fades away for two or three days at a clip, and nobody—his wife or his secretary or anybody—is given the slightest clue either when such a seizure will come upon him or where he will vanish to when it does. "I can't tell you anyplace I hide, because then it won't be a secret anymore," he says. "Well, all right, I'll tell you one place, because I haven't gone there recently. This place I used to go to a lot was down in Santa Cruz. I'd visit some Italian fishermen up there, the Carniglia boys, and work with them. I'd put on the outfits, the rubber boots and all. It was very unlikely that anyone would think of looking for Franklin working with the Carniglia boys.
"I'm very judicious about my hiding. Usually, if I'm going to hide, I'll hide someplace where I also have some business to take care of. I'm not going to go all the way to Chicago just to hide."
Mieuli has two reasons for hiding. "The first one is that conditions are such that I know I will be asked some very pointed questions—and there is no way for me to answer them without either saying something that is not for the good of the team, or else lie. I don't want to do either, so I take off and hide. The other time is when I'm just over my head and need time to think so that I don't blow the whole banana stand. Those are the kind of days I start thinking about Utopia. Utopia is the day when everything runs your way, only you don't have to run it. When I get to thinking like that, that's the other reason for hiding. I call that my therapeutic escape."
In fact Mieuli devotes a deceptive amount of time to thinking things out. "My image is shoot-from-the-hip, but that's not so if you know me," he says, and all his close associates agree.
"Yeah, Franklin," says Harry Jupiter, his PR man. "Screw-ups that others manage on impulse, you produce after great thought."
"Exactly right," Mieuli says, banging the table, delighted at such an audacious and succinct characterization.
Yet Sam Schulman and others who appraise Mieuli as an emotional flibbertigibbet can hardly be faulted, since Mieuli has—by design, it seems—set out to construct exactly that image for himself. "Make no mistake," says Hank Greenwald, the Warriors' announcer, "Franklin is the one man in the world who works hard at having people underestimate him."
It is not uncommon, for instance, for Mieuli to call someone up and then absently begin the conversation, "Hi. Where are you?" In the Warriors' office there is a special file labeled "Franklin's Follies," chock-full of all the mistakes and harebrained schemes he has championed. He bought a cable-car bell once and rang it madly at Warrior games as if he were some dimwit Mets fan. On another occasion he climbed aboard a motorcycle in the Oakland Arena and rode it across the polished floor while the building guards had apoplexy. Guards are so officious there that they have literally come up to a coach during a timeout huddle and told him to get off the court in his street shoes. Franklin not only rode the motorcycle all over the floor, he crashed it.
When he appears, he usually brings along fruit as a gift—dispensing grapes, oranges, apples or kumquats. He drafted a girl player two years ago—his best draft selection in years. He hung chandeliers in the Cow Palace and he puts on an annual charity black-tie dinner party. Though he prefers escape, he has also been known to affect a complete disguise. A few years ago, when he was trying to duck people, he showed up at a game in a Henry Higgins outfit, cape, hat and all. He topped this off with pink wraparound sunglasses, a fake mustache and sideburns (and this was back when nobody was wearing either). Bob Feerick, the team's general manager, walked up to Mieuli's companion and asked where Franklin was. He keeps a basket and backboard outside the Warriors' office, on busy Golden Gate Avenue, and when things get dull he goes right out on the sidewalk and takes a few shots with whoever happens by.
None of these procedures invest Mieuli with that dreary propriety that owners, and students of owners, believe owners should possess. Until recently, though, these bits were transitory things that his contemporaries learned to tolerate. After all, they put up with owners who get drunk and break things in public and get messy divorces. Franklin's more original peccadilloes were overlooked until he started dressing the role every day.
Mieuli favors wild pullover outfits with angled three-quarter sleeves and attendant accouterments. In the last year or so he has permitted himself to become involved with a coat and tie only rarely. Yet there is no evidence that the new attire has cluttered his mind. "The farther out he gets in things like clothes," says Broadcaster Greenwald, "the more sense he makes in the more important areas."
"I can indulge myself in a few things," Mieuli says. "You know, I could have something like a limousine, but that's not for me." So he bats around San Francisco on a Honda CB 75. "And I just don't happen to like coats and ties." Rozelle takes it in stride. He says: "Franklin tells me he doesn't think he's totally liberated yet." Mieuli is 41, with grown married children and a ball team that runs up a lot of bills—facts that may be slowing the normal liberation process.
Nevertheless, to speed these juices Mieuli grew a full beard this summer when he took off on a 1,300-mile trip to Baja California in his trimaran. Like the clothes, the beard is in concert with the whole man. Swarthy, with dark eyes and olive skin, Mieuli now appears almost biblical and, indeed, his language is full of the visceral imagery of the Old Testament. In what he likes to call "The Strange World of Franklin Mieuli"—in better days it was "The Strange and Wonderful World, etc."—the denizens are forever rattling sabers, girding loins, goring our ox, boxing him clever, taking blood oaths, sizzling the steak, going back to the soil and baying at the moon.
They do all these things with more vigor when Mieuli recounts their adventures while he is in his office. Everything about the man is more vivid in his office. He permeates the place. First of all, although he is the boss of the operation, he has an inside office without windows, a dark cave with a primeval atmosphere. Mieuli used to burn incense there regularly, and although that phase has passed, the room is still rich in mystery and confusion. It is all dominated by hands. There is a hand mobile and pictures of hands and sculptures of hands. There is God's hand from the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo's hand of David, too, alongside the hand of a member of the Medici family. Mieuli has no convincing explanation why all the hands are there, but it may be significant that nearly all of the hands are fine Italian ones.
There are bottles of wine and whiskey. Italian veals hang in naked disharmony with jars of brandied cherries. There are plaques and pictures, and the shelves are filled with basketballs and footballs and even more arcane objects. There are portraits of Rudolph Valentino and Albert Einstein displayed prominently. Placed more demurely is a special engraved memento signed by the Warrior wives from a team of a few years ago. The engraving reads simply: "Franklin, your Italian temperament is surpassed by your kindness."
Filed about are newspapers and magazine clippings, and in the corner, by a door, there is a single golden Warrior uniform—No. 24—hanging limp. On the wall opposite, a Christmas card from four years ago is pinned up. It reads:
The [No. 24] family sends holiday greetings to all.
Hope this year brings happiness and Everlasting peace,
Blessed with good health
And good fortune. Time for
Remembering family and friends,
Recalling the memorable times and hoping
Season will be a merry and bright one.
San Francisco was a shining never-never land to Franklin Mieuli as a child growing up in San Jose, 40 miles down the peninsula. His mother came from there, and they would often board a train and go to visit his grandparents and sometimes to shop. It was a highly impressionable experience for a child. "It was always 'The City' to us," Mieuli says reverently. (He had the words THE CITY stitched on Warrior uniforms some years ago. It apparently never occurred to him that to a kid growing up in, say, Chester, Pa., Philadelphia was The City and to one reared in Eureka, Mo., St. Louis was The City.)
Although he has lived all his life in San Jose, a young metropolis of slight distinction, Mieuli keeps his trimaran docked beside a San Francisco pier, and nights when he must work late in town he sleeps on the boat. It is the only real home he has ever had in The City: Mieuli perhaps figures that he must avoid full-time contact, that the romance between him and San Francisco would be too volatile as a full-time affair. Nevertheless, his every major action seems based on how it might benefit his favorite metropolis. He wants to give San Francisco something, and if it were in his power to do so, he would give it Rick Barry.
It is easier to understand his obsessive pursuit of Barry if Mieuli is viewed not as the owner of the Warriors but as a deputy keeper of The City's honor. Then the chase is obvious for what it is: a crusade.
It was Mieuli's sense of tradition that was jarred when people started putting sports teams in Oakland and inviting Rick Barry to come over. Oakland, like San Jose or Hayward or Orinda, is only another part of the Bay Area outback to Mieuli. "I just never looked at this as competition between Oakland and San Francisco," he says. "And now San Jose," he adds with some bewilderment. When he was born that community had barely 50,000 people. Today it boasts the 31st largest metropolitan area in the country and before long it will surpass both Seattle and San Francisco in population to become the third largest city on the whole West Coast. Everything is getting upside down. But Mieuli still commutes home to "the country," to San Jose, where the family nursery is a going business. His father bought him out so that Franklin could indulge his city tastes. "My family always believed in the soil, natural things," Mieuli says. "I came to them when I had the chance to buy into the 49ers and they were baffled by the idea. How could I make them understand that I wanted $60,000 to buy 10% of a lot of used jockstraps?"
Ultimately, of course, they agreed, and he obtained the money that eventually brought him control of his own basketball franchise. The first year Mieuli took over the Warriors, 1964, they promptly climbed from next to last to first, and even their plunge back to the cellar the next year took on the glow of Mieulian luck. It gave the Warriors an excuse to unload Wilt Chamberlain, who was not exactly the most popular object in San Francisco, and it provided them with the top draft choices that secured the future. The team began to come back the next year, which made it all the more shocking when Mieuli fired Alex Hannum as coach after the 1966 season.
Hannum was generally recognized as the best coach in basketball, but for Mieuli it was not enough; Hannum would not spend the summer in San Francisco and work with the team. So Hannum, the man who would not stay in The City in the summer, was banished from it. Even today, while Mieuli does not meddle in personnel business, he is reluctant to approve trades because they mean that a player must be exiled from San Francisco.
What criticism he suffered when Hannum was cut loose was quickly dissipated when Mieuli hired Bill Sharman, who won the Western Division championship. Then it all exploded. With his wife and daughter Holly he visited the home of his forefathers, in Costalona, near Florence, in May of 1967. While he was gone the Oakland Oaks of the American Basketball Association reached across the Bay and persuaded Mieuli's prize package, Rick Barry, to sign. Nothing has been the same since.
From the moment he saw Barry play, Mieuli had been taken by him. Quickly he sized up the kid as more of a partner than an employee, and he leased him part of his dream to bring San Francisco its first world championship. Despite all advice and the lessons of history, in only Barry's second (and last) year Mieuli signed him to a contract that featured an escalator clause based on attendance. Mieuli likes to tell the story, because the contract did work, and no matter how often he relates the tale, the word unique always keeps popping up. Barry was unique; the deal was unique; the situation was unique; the team was unique; The City, of course, was unique.
Barry jumped to the Oaks shortly after Mieuli returned from Italy, and the question that will always haunt Mieuli is whether he could have stopped Barry if he had been there when the negotiations were going on. Rick's father-in-law, Bruce Hale, had been signed as the Oakland coach, and it is generally accepted that family pressure would have won out whether Mieuli had gone to Europe or the corner cleaners. Mieuli always thought otherwise, and he has chased after Barry fitfully from the moment he crossed the Bay. The pursuit has cost the Warriors about $400,000 in legal fees and court expenses. At one point Barry actually signed with the Warriors again, but the courts kept him from rejoining them. Meanwhile, Barry keeps moving on, from Oakland to Washington to Virginia, and now to the New York Nets on Long Island. Everybody else involved in the Battle of San Francisco Bay—except Mieuli—has also moved on. Pat Boone, the Oaks' owner who signed Barry, is singing for Cooga Mooga Inc. Bruce Hale is back coaching college ball. Hannum, who succeeded him as coach of the Oaks, is coaching at San Diego and Sharman has gone to Utah. Only Mieuli stays, struggling to reorder the past.
Whatever Barry does (and most recently he admitted blithely under oath that he had told outright lies to the press in order to help get his way), Mieuli always seems prepared to forgive. He will not speak harshly of him. "I try to explain the syndrome of the prodigal," he says patiently. Maybe he understands the modern athlete best. Barry is not necessarily less principled than most of his breed, he has just had more opportunities. He is consistent in one thing. Ever since he realized that his deal with the Oaks could not be profitable—he now owns 15% of a hollow corporate shell—he has professed a desire to return to the Warriors.
But even before the courts approved his contract with the Nets he had put his house up for sale and moved East. The New York Knicks hardly waited for the ink to dry on Barry's contract before opening negotiations with the Nets to bring them and their new star and the new league into the Garden for some games. When merger talks first began last year Barry was the prime bone of contention. The first two drafts of the merger agreement specified that he was to be returned to the Warriors. In the third draft, as the other ABA owners smelled the loot to be made in a merger, the Barry clause was dropped. Let Mieuli solve his own problems.
In the fiefdoms and franchises that have been gerrymandered out of the sports world in the last decade, there is no room for traditional values. Everything is measured in terms of cash and expediency, and Franklin Mieuli is awash in this world. His fellow owners stick it to him. Perhaps his favorite coach, Bill Sharman, found a loophole in his contract and walked through it to the other league. "That hurt more than I would care to say," Mieuli admits. His beloved Rick left him. A guy he personally probably likes even more, Nate Thurmond, tried to gouge him. Thurmond this year demanded more money than the whole team got only four years ago. Beaming, Mieuli says, "I don't ever want to think of my players as so many pieces of meat. They're my children, and I'm like a proud father. If the other children on the block are getting bicycles I want my children to have bicycles, too. That's the way I felt when I found out that Wilt and Russell were making $100,000 and Nate wasn't. The coach's job is to coach the players; my job is to spoil them."
"Franklin is too good to the players, whether they put out or not," says George Lee, last year's coach, who must know all about that subject. In August, though, in the midst of Thurmond's hold-out, Mieuli took a local columnist aside and put a blast on Thurmond that seemed to shake the Warriors' owner as badly as it did the player. Upon reading his statement the next morning, Mieuli raced to the offices of another newspaper, contrite and bewildered, and tried to explain. Thurmond finally signed for $125,000.
Thurmond has been known to complain, rather like the brother of the original prodigal, that not enough heed has been paid to the sons who stayed home—and certainly he has a valid point. Part of the reason probably stems from the limited visibility—and box office—the Warriors are enjoying around the Bay Area these days. In a sense, there have been no San Francisco Warriors for the last three years. Oh, they occasionally infringed on the public consciousness when Thurmond got hurt or coaches were changed or Jerry Lucas obtained, and once they led the Lakers 2-0 in a playoff series. Otherwise, their existence has been a formality, confirmed in whispers of the sort usually reserved for discussions of dotty uncles in attics. Nobody in town got particularly exercised, for example, when Mieuli hinted recently that the Warriors might have to start playing half their home games in St. Louis. The City in Missouri, that is.
The trouble is that for so long the Warriors have been dominated by Franklin Mieuli and his futile quest. He is like Holden Caulfield, who said that the one thing he wanted to be in life was the guy in the song who stood and tried to catch people as they came through the rye. Mieuli has been like that, standing in the rye, lunging this way and that as the bodies dash by—and all the bodies are Rick Barry. The incumbent Warriors have too often been forgotten.
The 1970-71 ticket brochure is the most recent example of this whole deteriorating situation. It features a cartoon. There is one character in the cartoon. It is Mieuli. He is labeled only "Franklin." He is well enough known to require no more identification. Franklin is shown washing and hanging up Warrior uniforms. The uniform of the player-coach, Al Attles, is stuck off in the back row in a corner. The two uniforms featured in the foreground with Franklin are those belonging to Barry and Zelmo Beaty—who, like Barry, is the property of the Warriors but a star in the ABA. These are the ticket brochure attractions: an owner and two guys in the other league. It is like the manager of a supermarket standing out on the sidewalk and telling housewives what is not in stock today.
Mieuli has heard the complaint before that he directs too much attention toward himself. He refutes it systematically, if not very convincingly. The truth seems to be that he likes the role and the fans approve. "Sure, the best thing would be if the publicity was devoted solely to the team," he says. "If not the team first, a player on the team. If not a player, the coach. If not the coach, the general manager. If not the general manager, then Franklin. I know the players can put more sizzle in the steak than I can, but if it can't be that way I'm not afraid to use myself in the limelight to get the Warriors publicity."
But if Mieuli's excessive visibility hurts the Warriors, he remains a tremendously popular owner. Other owners who are controversial, like Charlie Finley and Jack Kent Cooke, usually earn the public's enmity. Mieuli, overexposed and outspoken, with a team that doesn't play well or merit much popular support, maintains a very high degree of acceptance. He has a magnificent press that opposed him vigorously only when he fired Hannum. Writers can't fathom his paean to Barry but they accept his aberration because he is altogether decent and trustworthy.
When the recriminations began to simmer out of the Thurmond negotiations, most fans actually appeared to side with the owner. Thurmond, easygoing and genial, was not necessarily singled out as a villain; he just had the misfortune to present his case to public opinion at a time when the acquisitive athlete was becoming a pop villain in America. The response was certainly significant; maybe the tide in sports is beginning to turn.
Actually, the Warriors would appear ready to come back because Mieuli finally seems willing to abandon his sad chase and apply his considerable energies to the club for a change. Even before the latest court decision—which ordered Barry to remain with the ABA and New York—Mieuli swore that he would give up on Barry forever if the decision went against him. He figured that if Barry ever got a taste of New York idolatry he would never come back. "Even I learn," he declares wearily.
His experiences have worn and shaken him but, at the same time, they have stiffened his will. He still does not acknowledge that the Warriors are a kind of extension of his own personality. But where once Mieuli was razzed for being lucky, now he is mourned. The fans know that his fellow owners have denied him and that the town has not supported his team, and now the players are down to stealing the rings off the corpse.
They wonder why he bothers. "Goddammit," he cries out in anguish, "there's a flaw in my image somewhere, that so many people would think that I would ever just put on my hat and walk away." He lowers his head and makes little distraught noises. He mumbles something about overplaying the role of "the suffering virgin." He moves in jerks and starts like some Stanislavsky novice doing his first improvisation. He can't think about anything else. At dinner he looks, alternately, all around the place and down at his glass.
His friends try to get him back. They console him, advise him, tell little stories about other misunderstandings and about success against long odds. Doesn't he understand that people talk to him about these things because he is the one owner in pro sports they really care about? Franklin will have none of it.
"I don't see why everyone I meet thinks this," he says. Distracted, he decides to head for his boat. He will spend the night in his city, The City, and scheme for it. A man who is clever enough to go hide every now and then is certainly too resilient ever to let himself be altogether consumed by the despair of a futile chase.
Perhaps what he needs most is a new quest. It is surely appropriate that his favorite lyrics are those sung by Bloody Mary in South Pacific:
"You got to have a dream—
If you don have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?"
Mostly, this is his whole trouble. Nobody Franklin Mieuli works with has any dreams these days. Their basis of operation is deals, while he is a man who goes every day of his life dressed up for dreams.