HAVING A BALL WITH THE ABA

In his first season, Commissioner Mike Storen has been charging happily around the league talking up the need to have faith in the future. Tenet One: we really can land Bill Walton
March 17, 1974

In 1963, when he decided to pursue a career as a front-office man in professional sports, a choice his schoolmates had foreseen years earlier, Mike Storen was a young, Chicago-based Marine captain nearing the end of a five-year stint in the Corps. Though his only previous experience in big-time athletics—a feeble attempt to play defensive halfback at Notre Dame—had hardly prepared him for the pros, Storen wrote letters of application to every baseball, basketball and football franchise and, typically, remained undiscouraged when the teams that bothered to answer turned him down. Next he seized on a newspaper story that said the National Basketball Association's Chicago entry, then known as the Zephyrs, had sold only 600 season tickets. Storen called the team and hornswoggled an appointment by introducing himself as "Captain Storen of the United States Marine Corps" and assuring one of the Zephyrs' owners that he had weighty (national security?) matters to discuss.

Of course, the only question of security Storen wanted to talk over was his own. "I marched into his office and told him I had read where he had sold only 600 season seats in the entire city of Chicago," Storen recalls. "Then I guaranteed him that if he'd hire me I'd sell 600 new ones all by myself."

That bold promise impressed the owner enough to offer Storen a job. "I went back to finish my time with the Marines confident that I was all set," Storen says. "Then one morning I read that the Zephyrs were moving to Baltimore. I called to ask where I stood, and was told the team planned to hire all local people in the new city. I asked for another appointment, and when I got there all three of the owners were sitting in a row behind a table and they put me in a straight-backed chair facing them. It was just like a court-martial. "Baltimore is the Catholic center of America,' I told them. 'This is a Jewish-owned team with absentee ownership. What you men need is a good Catholic boy to sell tickets. Besides, I'm local because my wife's local and very well known.' I didn't bother to say that Hannah had lived in Baltimore only in 1944 when her father spent a year there working for G.M."

Storen, the owners decided, was just the good Catholic boy they needed. They named him promotion director of the team, now called the Bullets. Since then the Bullets have marched on—to Land-over, Md.—and Captain Storen has marched much farther. After Baltimore, he became promotion director and business manager of the Cincinnati Royals. Next he was in on the beginning of the American Basketball Association as vice-president and general manager of the Indiana Pacers. In 1970 he became president-general manager of the Kentucky Colonels. And last September he was named commissioner of the ABA.

Still, no event in the 38-year-old Storen's swift rise to the top better illustrates the reason for his upward mobility than that campaign for a chance to start near the bottom. He was—and is—audacious, nimble-minded, intuitive, ambitious, inventive, aware of demographics, tenacious, self-confident, attuned to what his listeners want to hear and, some say, not entirely unwilling to fudge the truth to give it to them.

The last of these attributes is not among the cardinal virtues as Storen learned them in his Baltimore Catechism, yet it hardly makes him unique these days in pro basketball. Interleague squabbling and double-dealing agents have made a certain flexibility with facts as commonplace as behind-the-back passes. What makes Storen rare among today's pros is that he also has all those other things going for him.

Even Storen's detractors—among them members of the Louisville press who claim he was not forthright with them during his tenure with the Colonels, and Gene Rhodes, a coach whom Storen fired and who later successfully sued him for "libel, slander and breach of contract"—agree that, as commissioner, Storen is the best thing to happen to the ABA since the invention of the red, white and blue basketball.

A widely praised commissioner is unusual these days, but then Storen is a pretty unusual commissioner. He is neither an ex-lawyer, an ex-general nor an ex-mayor. In fact, he is not an ex-anything, since his sport is the only profession he has ever seriously pursued. He does not have the year-round suntan of football's Pete Rozelle or the Eastern Establishment appearance of baseball's Bowie Kuhn, who comes complete with a touch of dignified gray about the temples. Storen has very little gray at his temples and even less hair on top. He is built thick and low to the floor, as any Michigan City, Ind. high school football player is apt to be 20 years later. He has beaverish front teeth, which he flashes when he lets loose with one of his frequent yuk-yuk laughs.

Storen's wife Hannah, a forceful, striking-looking woman who married him while he was still a Marine, says, "I didn't marry Mike for his looks or his money. I married him because he's so decisive, because he's a brilliant salesman and because he's so lovable."

Lovable? He has fined franchises and coaches, suspended referees, ordered protested games to be replayed, snarled at owners and aired nettlesome problems that most commissioners would choose to ignore. But, however prickly he is, the ABA is finding that it, too, can love Mike Storen, largely because he offers the league something it seemed to have lost just a few months ago: the chance, perhaps even the will, to survive.

The qualifications of the four commissioners the ABA has had in its seven years have paralleled the changing needs of the league. George Mikan was the first and, as one of basketball's most renowned figures, was able to persuade wealthy investors of the potential in ABA franchises. But as soon as the league began operating, Mikan was out of his element. The ABA wobbled along for two seasons under his direction before the owners decided that a different sort of specialist was needed. Recalling the American Football League, they figured a lucrative national TV contract would prop up the ABA until other factors—primarily battles over players and the resulting drastic increase in payrolls—would compel the NBA to agree to a merger. And a merger is what the ABA has always been about.

So the owners hired CBS Director of Sports Jack Dolph. Five months after he took office the ABA presented its first nationally televised games. But what the owners did not realize—although Dolph most certainly did—was that the networks were not about to pay anywhere near as much to televise a basketball league whose market areas included Hampton, Va. and Raleigh, N.C. as they were to telecast AFL football, a more popular sport played in more populous cities.

Disappointed by the low TV income, the ABA's owners eased Dolph out in 1972. Their next choice was dictated by two considerations. One was Storen's unwillingness to take the job then and the other was an event that had occurred during Dolph's tenure. With payrolls soaring and the NBA facing a multimillion-dollar antitrust suit filed by the ABA, the two leagues agreed to seek congressional approval of a merger. So New York corporate lawyer Bob Carlson, a man with close ties to the NBA and a Kuhnesque appearance likely to impress Senators, was named commissioner, mainly to handle the ABA's complex legal affairs.

In September 1972, only a short time after Carlson took office, a merger bill was reported out of a Senate committee. It was put together to please the owners, ended up not pleasing the Senators or the players and died without coming to a vote. When Congress reconvened in 1973 another merger bill was presented to the Senate. It also died, and Carlson resigned last August.

When Storen took over he found a league with no merger prospects, no TV contract, not enough income and even less morale. His only assets were teams which, although not as good as the NBA's best, were more closely competitive. Storen also had five fairly solid franchises, ownership so distraught that it was willing to accept strong leadership, and his own skill as an operator.

Operating has always been Storen's business. As a youngster he was pitched out of the Boy Scouts after the basketball team he organized won the local Scout championship. Storen had not been satisfied to field a squad of knot tiers, so he picked up a few outsiders who were great going to their left but did not know a tenderfoot from a tenderloin. In each of the ABA's seasons either Indiana or Kentucky, the two teams he built, has led the league in attendance. The Pacers have won three of the six ABA championships and the Colonels were in the playoff' finals two of the three years Storen was in Louisville. He accomplished this by organizing tightly and spending freely, while many other ABA teams tried to scrape by with a minimum of both.

Storen's expansiveness in competing for talent cost Indiana and Kentucky dearly at first, but both teams may break even this year, no small feat in the debt-ridden ABA. He is so strong an advocate of spending to start a franchise rolling that in the ABA's second season, when the Pacer directors refused to come up with the $100,000 needed to buy Center Mel Daniels' contract, Storen and two of the club's other officers were prepared to raise the money themselves. Impressed, the board reversed its decision.

That, in fact, is just about the only kind of decision Storen would allow his teams' owners to make. Pacer and Colonel investors were not allowed in the dressing rooms, were barred from the press table, could not talk to the coach about personnel, were prohibited from fraternizing with the players except at parties thrown for that purpose by Storen and were not allowed to speak for the organization.

All of which left Storen to run things as he pleased. And he pleased not only to make decisions such as which players to sign, but to delve into minutiae as well. His staff was told precisely how the statistics distributed to the press should be typed and how the ball boys should be dressed. There was an edict for this and a system for that, all designed to enhance the game, to make sure it went off like clockwork and, maybe, make fans feel better if the contest itself was inept. If his aides did not do everything just the way Storen wanted it, he let them know about it on evaluation forms he obtained from the Marine Reserve.

The system worked, but only in those areas which Storen could control. One that he could not was the Kentucky press. Coming from Indianapolis, where the newspapers had been cheerleaders for the Pacers, Storen ran head on into the Louisville Courier-Journal, one of the nation's most respected and independent dailies, its sister paper the Times and their executive sports editor, Earl Cox. A cool early relationship became downright icy two months into Storen's first season with Kentucky when he fired Gene Rhodes as coach. The papers backed the coach, a local favorite who had been doing a moderately successful job, and began to present a generally villainous image of Storen to Colonel fans. Storen began getting obscene calls and letters. One day Mark Storen, then seven years old, answered the phone and heard an anonymous caller threaten his life and the lives of his sister, brother and dog.

At first Storen claimed he dropped Rhodes because he did not have a "big enough name." Later he said he did not want to give his real reasons because they would do the coach "irreparable damage." (Rhodes eventually sued Storen and the Colonels for $2,050,000—asserting that this innuendo itself had damaged him—and won the case in an out-of-court settlement.) Throughout this period Storen had been telling the press off the record that he had had to fire Rhodes because he was a "bigot," a charge Rhodes denies, although Storen surely believed it to be true.

Storen's battles with the Louisville press continued throughout his stay in Kentucky. Last year, for instance, Cox wrote to Colonel star Dan Issel offering him space for an expose on what was wrong with the team. Storen, in turn, invited Times Reporter Jim Terhune to do a story in the Colonels' program on what was wrong with his paper's sports department.

Cooler heads in the local press viewed these shenanigans with amusement until last spring when rumors of the sale of the Colonels were heard in Louisville. Instead of admitting that the transaction was in the works or simply not commenting, Storen denied that any sale was being considered. "That's when the bloom came off Mike's rose as far as I was concerned," says one Louisville reporter. "This is one case where he clearly wasn't telling the truth."

The franchise was sold in April to a Cincinnati group, and a few weeks later controlling interest was resold to a former Louisville owner, John Y. Brown Jr. Brown put the team in his wife's name and, in Storen's view, indicated that he intended to run the club his way. "There was no use fighting it," Storen says. "He owned the team, and if he wanted to run it, he'd run it. Since I can't work under those conditions, I decided to quit." Storen, who still regards operating a franchise as the most interesting job in sports, thus was free to become commissioner and, to no one's surprise, accepted the post less than two months later.

Predictably, he has approached his new job with zeal. He has a corned beef on rye at his desk every day instead of taking the long luncheon breaks of his predecessors. He has remained accessible, steadfastly refusing to get an unlisted telephone number (nor did he even after the threats in Kentucky). And he has appeared unconcerned about whose toes he treads on.

He began his commissionership by threatening to seize the Memphis franchise from the grasp of no less than Charles O. Finley. With a general manager and coach of his own choosing ready to swoop down the Mississippi, and with the backing of the league's other owners, Storen told Finley to begin operating his team in a "viable" manner or the ABA would take it away from him, something no league has ever done on grounds other than bankruptcy. Charlie O. promptly hired a coach and office staff, and when the exhibition season opened a few days later the Tarns were, in a manner of speaking, ready to operate. By that time Storen had embarked on a 24,000-mile jaunt around the league, visiting every franchise, talking to every player, meeting with every front-office person from presidents to radio announcers and secretaries, letting those working in the ABA know that the league was alive and that he intended to make it livelier.

Since then no one in the ABA can be in doubt that Storen at least is alive. He removed the numbers from the referees" jerseys and eliminated pregame introductions of officials, hoping to reduce the volume of personal insults and to remind the officials, many of whom came from the NBA at substantial cost to the ABA, that though they are highly paid, they are still mere adjuncts to the game. His league memo No. 572 outlined—complete with a diagram—the formations in which players, coaches and trainers should stand during the national anthem. "Each individual will stand at attention at a 45-degree angle facing the flag," it reads in part. It has since been enforced by fines against teams that risked more casual postures.

Storen seems to enjoy making those high-visibility decisions that most commissioners apparently shun because they are edgy about public relations. In November he suspended Indiana Coach Slick Leonard, a penalty that had never before been levied against a pro basketball coach. He suspended Referee Jimmy Clark for overreacting in a tense game and ejecting a player without sufficient cause. He ordered the replaying of the closing seconds of a Spurs-Pacers game that had been protested by San Antonio. The NBA had existed for 24 seasons before its first protest was honored.

In the Leonard case—he had rolled a ball rack at an official during a game in Indianapolis—Storen had received word of the incident, personally accepted the referees' reports, talked by phone with other witnesses, tried to hunt down films or videotapes of the game, which ultimately proved unavailable, ordered Leonard and the Pacer president to fly to New York, held a hearing and pronounced sentence ($1,000 fine and a two-day suspension) all by 11 p.m. on the day after the game. By contrast, when NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy fined and suspended Chicago's Dick Motta in January, he waited nearly two weeks to render his decision and chose to announce it before the assembled media at his league's All-Star game in Seattle. Kennedy then told the press it could no longer call him a wishy-washy commissioner, an epithet that is never likely to be applied to Storen.

Recently Storen vetoed Virginia's sale of high-scoring George Gervin to San Antonio on grounds that the Squires, which are up for sale, would be rendered almost talentless and fanless by the deal. Virginia partisans already were disgruntled over the number of high-salaried players—Rick Barry, Julius Erving and Charlie Scott among them—unloaded by Owner Earl Foreman. But, as in the case of the Kentucky papers, Storen was up against forces he could not control. The Spurs challenged his action in a Texas court and it ruled Storen had overstepped his authority, a most uncommissioner-like faux pas. Last week an injunction was issued that ordered Gervin to remain in San Antonio.

Unfortunately, in the struggling ABA energetic leadership in day-to-day operations is not enough. Storen's chief accomplishment has been to persuade the owners to forget merger and big TV money for the moment and at least pay lip service to the idea that the ABA must upgrade its product and be ready to go it alone indefinitely.

"It really hasn't been very hard to do," Storen says. "In the last seven years all our owners have at one time or another tried to work out a deal with the NBA. Each of them has walked around dreaming of the big story naming him as the man who made the merger. Now they know it's not easy. The NBA's not going to do us any favors and there's no benevolent TV network waiting to finance us. They know that our product is the only thing we've got going for us and that we've put it together without outside help. We've shown that we can sign good players without a lot of TV money and that the only way we can get better is to do more of the same."

While Storen talks of improvement for improvement's sake, others in his league view the implications differently. "The most important problem he has is still the merger with the NBA," says Denver's Alex Hannum. "And I believe his approach is just right for us. Storen wants to build our league to be the strongest. Then he can negotiate with the NBA as an equal."

Indeed, the tactics Storen says the ABA will employ sound a good deal more like those used by AFL Commissioner Al Davis in the last days of the football war than a plan for peaceful coexistence. The ABA has reinstituted its $300 million antitrust suit against the NBA. It also may move some franchises into better TV markets, an ill-advised maneuver that will mean going against established NBA teams on their home turf. And for the first time since 1970 the ABA will go after established NBA players. "We will have exploratory contract talks with lots of their men," Storen says. "Whether we'll sign none, six or 10 of them will depend on how things work out. But you can be sure of one thing: we'll do this in a serious, orderly way."

Another thing the ABA will be going after in an orderly way is the best college talent, specifically UCLA's Bill Walton. According to Storen, the pursuit of good rookies will be orchestrated from the ABA office, and that could make for some very interesting music. The last time a "league-saving" player became eligible for the pros (Lew Alcindor in 1969) Storen and several of his associates set up a research project that included sending psychologists posing as newspapermen to interview Alcindor to determine the best way to sign him. Their report, a startlingly accurate assessment of Alcindor's character, was ignored. When the ABA made a grandstand play instead of a serious offer, whatever chance the new league had to sign Alcindor—and it had a good chance—disappeared.

Although the fact that no top UCLA player has ever signed with the ABA puts the league at a substantial disadvantage in Walton's case, it has some advantages beyond Storen's savvy. Walton has already stated that he does not want to play for a team outside Southern California. The ABA has reportedly offered him the option of playing in his hometown, San Diego, or for a new team that would be set up for him in Los Angeles. It is also rumored that Walton would be able to bring along several of his teammates in a package deal.

The NBA draft rights to Walton most likely will go to Philadelphia or Portland. Already people close to the Lakers have confidently decided that if the NBA hopes to prevent Walton from signing with the ABA, it will have to find some way to slip his draft rights to Los Angeles. This could be a two-edged solution. Since it dropped the territorial draft in 1965, the NBA has attempted to project the image of a mature nationwide league that makes no special accommodations for local stars. If the NBA breaches that policy for Walton, even under the guise of trading his rights for several Laker players, the team for which he was supposed to play would face a serious public relations problem. In addition, other players, including veterans, might demand similar concessions. The NBA also could be in trouble because of the ABA's antitrust suit. The suit alleges that NBA teams have violated their own drafting procedures (by pooling resources, for example) in order to recruit players who otherwise might have signed with the ABA and that they therefore have acted in illegal concert to run the new league out of business. Evidence of any concerted action in the Walton case would be Exhibit A for the ABA when its suit reaches court.

If the ABA were to sign Walton—and its chances are not good—the new war could turn into a brief skirmish, with merger to follow. This would make Storen's commissionership, like Al Davis', a brief one. It might even make his mother stop asking, "When are you going to quit fooling around and go to work for a real company?" and oblige her to accept the adolescent wisdom of Storen's 1953 high school yearbook, which said of him: "Sports are his meat." Maybe his potatoes, too.

PHOTOSTOREN DID NOT INVENT THE TRICOLOR BALL BUT HIS PROMOTION CHANGED THE ABA SYMBOL FROM NATIONAL JOKE TO BESTSELLER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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