It has now been two full seasons since professional basketball was proclaimed the Sport of the Seventies. The projections forecast an instant replay of that familiar pattern of success set by pro football in the '60s: TV ratings would climb, attendance would soar, expansion and regional franchises would bring the sport to every city bigger than Boise and a merger between the NBA and ABA would guarantee the pros stability and prosperity clear into the 23rd century. By now the ruffles and flourishes of economic victory were supposed to have been heard off in the distance. Instead, all there is is a loud fizzle. Pro basketball as a business has become the world's largest Alka-Seltzer.
The latest pfffffft came last week at the second annual NBA-ABA All-Star Rip-Off in New York's Nassau Coliseum, where the Players' Associations of the two leagues showed some startling moves on the court and some dubious footwork Off it. TVS paid $175,000 for TV rights to broadcast the game. Advertisers and local stations spent more than that to put it on the air. Fans forked over $6 to $10 for seats—the highest ticket scale in the pros aside from The Forum in Los Angeles at playoff time. All expenditures were made on the Players' Associations' promise of a "confrontation between the greats of both leagues." To back up their claim, they advertised a roster for the game that included Kareem Abdul-Jab-bar, Walt Frazier, Jerry West and Zelmo Beaty. None of them played.
Even little old ladies wearing rose-colored glasses while they watched Beaty in the ABA playoffs last month could have foreseen that his sore knees would prevent him from making an All-Star appearance. The promoters used Zelmo's name in their advertising, then announced a few days before the game that he was scheduled for surgery instead.
Last year Abdul-Jabbar waited until three hours before the tip-off to announce he would not play because he was being married that day. This time he gave NBA Players' Association Attorney Larry Fleisher three days' notice, but no excuse for his nonappearance. Fleisher allowed that he felt some "annoyance" over Abdul-Jabbar's behavior, which was undoubtedly considerably milder than the reaction of fans who had already put down $80,000 for tickets in expectation of seeing the NBA's high scorer and Most Valuable Player battle against ABA MVP Artis Gilmore, who interrupted a European vacation to fly in for the game.
June 4, 1972
Frazier and West simply did not show up for the game, which the NBA won 106-104. Fleisher had announced the previous day that he expected West to play even though only moments before, NBA All-Star Coach Elgin Baylor had responded to a question regarding Jerry's arrival time in New York by saying, "He should get here about the first of October. He's not going to show up for this game."
The game itself was a good one, particularly when it came to the ABA's Julius Erving, whose swooping moves may have made even the most rabid NBA fans forget Kareem's absence. Still, if the Players' Associations hope to run another inter-league All-Star Game, they may need the O.K. of the Better Business Bureau and the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to get up enough public confidence to sell TV time or tickets. The game, largely a project of the NBA players' group, is designed as a declaration of independence from NBA management, which feebly tried to stop the players from appearing in a contest unsanctioned by the league. It also is a vehicle for bringing television receipts directly into the players' hands, an important factor since the sharing of TV revenues between owners and players is now, and will continue to be, a major bargaining question in all pro sports. But the players' forays into television, although they may have been lucrative, have not been successful. The All-Star Games this year and at Houston in 1971 suffered from the absence of top stars who refused to play. The NBA Player Association-supported One-on-One Tournament, which was shown at halftime of nationally televised games, was a flop. The production was badly done and again many of the best players did not participate, most of them because they considered the $15,000 first prize a pittance. The failures clearly point up the fact that the players still need the owners around to run the game as much as the owners need the athletes to play it.
The next question is whether anyone needs the sort of management pro basketball has had the past two years. NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy has provided none of the leadership needed during this critical time, either because he is incapable of it or because the owners for whom he works—and who frequently deride him behind his back—will not let him. Whatever the reason, the basketball fizzle has continued this year over issues large and small:
•On the court, players and coaches, losers and winners, became so distraught over the ineptness of some NBA referees that at one time the Players' Association threatened to withhold payment of fines until changes were made. There are numerous ways to improve officiating, most of which require planning, a little hard work and some money. The NBA has decided to take the easy way out by trying to hire back some of the referees who left to join the AHA three years ago.
•NBA television ratings had risen, as predicted, over the past several seasons. This year they suddenly dipped because fans were no longer interested in watching programs consisting mostly of third-rate Eastern teams such as the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers instead of the Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics. Officials at ABC, which paid $5.8 million for the rights to televise Sunday afternoon NBA games, claim they must broadcast from the East because of time differences and viewing habits—West Coast fans are accustomed to sports on the tube at 11 a.m., but Easterners will not wait until 5 p.m. to watch an event from the West. Most teams, East and West, do not want to play games on Sunday afternoon anyway. They will change their minds soon, however, if the ratings continue to go down.
•Attendance increased modestly in both the NBA and ABA this season—a good indication, but not as good as it looks. A large percentage of the added attendance was limited to those cities, particularly the media centers of New York and Los Angeles, where the spoil was already doing well.
All of those problems are minor compared to the chaos of the NBA-ABA merger and the way players continue to jump leagues. It has been a year since the leagues agreed to seek the antitrust waivers they need in order to complete the merger. The legislation, which was introduced in September, has been bottled up ever since in Senator Sam Ervin's subcommittee. The NBA Players' Association objects to the waiver because it believes that a basketball merger, like the football merger of 1965, will cut into the salary gains made during the five years of competition between the two leagues. Here Fleisher perhaps because he does not have to deal with the selfishness of individual players as he must in affairs like last week's All-Star Game has worked effectively. He has Ervin and, apparently, a large number of other legislators lined up on the players' side. Some owners expected the waiver to be reported out of the subcommittee with a positive recommendation last week. It never came, and Fleisher now says flatly, "I don't expect the bill to be reported out of subcommittee, committee or the Senate as a whole with a favorable vote. I feel confident now that we have the support we need to block it."
Regardless of whether the players or the owners win, both sides agree that no action can be expected from the full Senate until at least after the fall elections. That may be too long for some members of the ABA.
There have been reports that the younger league will be dissolved at the ABA meetings scheduled for mid-June, but notices of the demise are probably premature. More likely the league will shrink from its present 11 teams to perhaps as few as eight. The franchises most apt to fold are Pittsburgh, the Floridians, Memphis and Denver.
A far speedier solution to the merger question could come from negotiations between owners and players. Fleisher reaffirmed last week his association's stand that the players would compromise, backing the owners' request for merger legislation—thus assuring quick enactment—if the owners would agree to a new contractual relationship with their athletes which included an option clause only on rookie contracts. The commissioner also would be barred from compensating a team whose player has signed with another club after his obligations to the first had been fulfilled.
That would represent a radical change in personnel policy, which most old-line owners adamantly resist. However, some younger front-office men are at least considering it. "I can feel things starting to change," says Kentucky President Mike Storen. "I think we can deal on the issue of a one-year option with no compensation and I think some other owners are beginning to think that, too. There are still guys around griping about how they used to pay players $4,500 a year and why can't they be happy with $4,500 now. Those days are over and so maybe are the days when we can keep players with one team on a long-term basis. Those guys are going to have to get used to it."
One thing that may help them become accustomed to it is the recent federal circuit court of appeals decision which held that Billy Cunningham must honor a contract he signed with the Carolina Cougars instead of one he agreed to later with the Philadelphia 76ers—despite the fact that Cunningham had convinced lower courts that the Cougars had failed to pay him the $80,000 they owed.
The Cunningham case is the first significant contractual suit between a player and management in a long time that has gone against the athlete. Whether or not it will become a broad precedent is not yet known, but that issue should be decided soon in the cases of the most recent jumpers, Charlie Scott and Jim McDaniels. If the Cunningham ruling is applied in those suits, it could provide a solid, new basis on which the owners could negotiate with the Players' Associations over the issue of modifying the option clause. Fleisher has consistently maintained that pro basketball teams can operate by signing their best players to long-term contracts without option clauses. The owners have rejected that contention by pointing out the ease with which athletes have broken contracts in recent years. A strong implementation of the Cunningham decision could allay the owners' fears.
Considering basketball's lack of forceful leadership, even the congressional stalemate and the Cunningham case may not be enough to put all sides into a mood to work out an agreement that could send the pros back on the rise. The guidance may have to come from outside, particularly since the interests of amateur players desiring to turn pro and of the NCAA must also be taken into account. The recent proposal to create a national sports commission is a possibility but not necessarily a good one. The history of regulatory agencies has generally shown that commissions quickly become subjects of precisely those institutions they were designed to control.
Ironically, the Seattle SuperSonics, one of the most active and successful combatants in the basketball war, may have come up with a better solution. In the long complaint they prepared for the complex case involving McDaniels' jump from Carolina to Seattle, the Sonics have asked the judge to appoint a "master" to oversee the execution of his decision. A master, often a prominent retired jurist, is used in many equity suits as a rules enforcer and as a referee with wide evidence-gathering powers. He can exert pressure on all parties to work constructively with each other. If a master is appointed in the McDaniels case and proves successful, it could set a valuable example for all of basketball.
In fact, all parties could ask right now-through a consent decree that a master be appointed. Then the game would be in the hands of a strong figure unbeholden to owners or players, colleges or agents. Good candidates for the job include retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and retired Associate Justice Tom Clark. Shades of baseball 50 years ago and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, indeed. But, considering the chaos of basketball today, it might be a perfect time once again to say here comes the judge.