One of them is a front-office type, a financial whizbang. Another one is a veteran coach, fired not so long ago by the Los Angeles Lakers. The third one is a newcomer, both a basketball star and a practicing giant. The circumstances that brought them together early this season were tinged with irony, but by last week it was becoming clear that all three were, as they say in the movies, made for each other. Jointly, they are fast building a bright new image for the American Basketball Association in general and the Kentucky Colonels in particular.
The chief irony lies in the fact that all three were spurned at one time or another by the NBA. Mike Storen is the deskbound wizard, the president and general manager of the club. Unable to rise above the level of letter-opener for several NBA teams, he went out and manufactured his own credentials. It was Storen who made the decision to meet the price for the 7'2" Artis Gilmore when the NBA would not, and it was Storen who hired Coach Joe Mullaney shortly after the Lakers cut him loose. At the start of the season Storen and Gilmore and Mullaney merely took each other for better or worse; now the relationship has broadened to richer instead of poorer. Second only to Utah in the ABA race last year (it was Storen's first year at Kentucky after three seasons with the Indiana franchise), the Colonels currently are dominating the Eastern Division. Gilmore and co-star Dan Issel have devasted most of the opposition, so much so that Mullaney, with a sideward glance at the record-setting Lakers, says that his new club would be undefeated if a few breaks had gone its way. As it is, with victories over Pittsburgh, New York and Virginia last week, the team has won 22 of its last 26 games.
Among the firstborn when the ABA was assembled as an expansion league in 1967, the Colonels were eager contributors to early folklore. They had a dog for a mascot and a few dogs on the floor as well, including one frustrated gentleman who made only 25% of his free throws and—eager to offer some kind of contribution—spent much of the season learning to tape teammates' ankles. Louie Dampier, one survivor of that band of original Colonels, remembers journeying to Teaneck, N.J. for a playoff game only to find a converted skating rink was the arena. The playing floor, pock-marked with holes a foot wide in spots, posed a certain danger—but the jagged metal sticking out from the backboard supports impressed the players even more.
In the early moments of the ABA, Storen was one of the few executives schooled in the complexities of basketball, having served terms at promotion in such difficult NBA cities as Chicago, Baltimore and Cincinnati. He listened amusedly at one early organizational meeting as an owner announced that he was rigidly against the concept of doubleheaders, since no basketball player should be expected to play two consecutive games as in baseball. It was the Catch-22 league and Storen was its crafty entrepreneur, accumulating riches in spite of the madness. While the others bombed their own franchises, Storen serenely went about his duties. And whenever a gaggle of owners would despair and threaten to jump from the leaky ship, they found, in effect, that Storen had sold the lifeboats.
Under Storen's militarily oriented methods the Indiana Pacers led the ABA in attendance three consecutive years, then won the championship in 1970. Attendance in Louisville, meanwhile, dropped in the third season, and the millionaire couple that owned the Colonels, Joe and Mamie Gregory, decided to sell. The buyers were five Louisville businessmen who made their money in everything from nursing homes to fried chicken, and after they bought the Colonels they set out to buy Storen. To get him from Indiana they produced a base salary of $50,000 or so, threw in a share of the ownership and added some attractive incentive clauses. "If I owned the team, I would never give out the contract that I have," says Storen.
Mike Storen attacked the Kentucky problems on several fronts. He banished Ziggy, the Gregorys' pet dog and team mascot. Neither Mamie nor Ziggy have spoken to or barked at Storen since. The rest of the kennel also was cleaned out. Storen replaced the team doctor, a pediatrician, with an orthopedic man, shipped off eight of the 11 veterans and signed lucrative television and radio contracts. (Legal documents are nothing new to him. Storen owns the company that holds the license from the ABA to manufacture its official red, white and blue basketball. So far, two million of them are bouncing across America. The league and Storen share the royalties.)
The Colonel coach was Gene Rhodes. He had been a fine high school player in Louisville and also had coached prep ball there for many years. When Storen fired him, the fans rose up in wrath, especially since their hometown favorite had just pushed the Colonels to victories in eight of their last nine games.
But that storm is over. Now the Colonels have Gilmore and there is championship talk. Storen won't say how much it took to sign Artis, the dominating big man in college ball in his junior and senior years at Jacksonville University, but figures up to $2.7 million have been reported. The contract resides in a Louisville safe-deposit box and Storen and Gilmore have the only keys.
Whatever the contract says, Gilmore is probably worth every clause of it. He has blocked an average of six shots a game in his rookie year and leads the league in rebounding—all this despite a few obvious liabilities. He is not overly strong and his hands, small for his size, sometimes fail him. On occasion he approaches the game in a puzzled manner, not unlike King Kong examining Fay Wray in the palm of his hand. Still, in its current stage of maturation, the ABA affords him time to develop. "He's going to be awesome," says Tom Nissalke, who was an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks before taking the head-coaching job with Dallas of the ABA. "I think next to Kareem Jabbar, I might take Gilmore as the most valuable property in the game. They've got the Intimidator."
After the first third of the season Gilmore had scored 34 points on three different nights, grabbed 30 rebounds in a single game and blocked as many as nine shots in an evening's work. Moreover, he has the ability to make the big play and is most dangerous in the fourth quarter when there is little hope of recovery from his flashes of brilliance. And there are signs that Gilmore is losing his rough edges. Coach Mullaney is delighted with Gilmore's shattering dunks, line-drive jump shots, soft hook shots and improving free-throw shooting, the last being part of the reason that Virginia Coach Al Bianchi claims the ABA's prize has more weapons than Wilt Chamberlain. "Gilmore is a very easygoing young man," says Mullaney. "He has a lot of confidence in himself, but not the boastful kind, and he'll do whatever you want him to do."
Mullaney, a former FBI agent who held the third best winning percentage of college coaches after 14 seasons at Providence, was fired by the Lakers when Los Angeles failed to win the NBA title in two years. There also was talk of discontent between the coach and Wilt Chamberlain. One night, miffed because Mullaney was not going to start him because he had missed practice the previous day, Chamberlain announced he was not coming out of the dressing room. He was coaxed out only after a talk with General Manager Fred Schaus.
But the Colonels have full confidence in Mullaney. "He's never at a loss for what to do," says Dan Issel, speaking after Mullaney made up a play in the huddle that produced the winning points in Kentucky's 113-111 victory over Pittsburgh.
The next evening Cincy Powell, the workmanlike forward opposite Issel, made some key plays, including a bust-out down the floor that culminated in an Issel dunk shot, and Gilmore came up with a loose ball and scored on a deft hook as the Colonels came from behind to edge New York by four points. That victory assured Mullaney that he would be the East coach in the ABA's All-Star game on Jan. 29 in Louisville. Ziggy won't be there, but the Colonels expect about 18,000 other supporters to show up, mascot or not.