Anaheim Amigos, Houston Mavericks, Minnesota Muskies, Washington Capitols, Pittsburgh Pipers, Dallas Chaparrals, New Jersey Americans, Denver Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, New Orleans Buccaneers, Oakland Oaks, Miami Floridians, New York Nets, Los Angeles Stars, Minnesota Pipers, Pittsburgh Condors, The Floridians, Carolina Cougars, Virginia Squires, Memphis Pros, Utah Stars, San Diego Conquistadors, Memphis Tarns, San Antonio Spurs, San Diego Sails, Memphis Sounds, Denver Nuggets, The Spirits of St. Louis, Baltimore Claws, Utah Rockies. R.I.P.
There they all are, together again for the last time. Hartford, Birmingham, Cincinnati and possibly Buffalo were on tap when the American Basketball Association was mercifully put to sleep last week in the Cape Cod Room at Dunfey's Resort, Hyannis, Mass. Mourners in search of appropriately strong potables could find them downstairs in a saloon named The Last Hurrah.
Age at death was nine years, four months and 15 days. Survivors are the Pacers, Nuggets, Nets and Spurs. In lieu of flowers, please send certified checks to these parties, as they are required to scrape up $3.2 million apiece, cash on the barrelhead, by Sept. 15, for the privilege of moving into the NBA. "We did these people a favor," revealed the ever-benevolent Sam Schulman of the Seattle SuperSonics as he strode down the steps from the newly historic Cape Cod Room. Some people call this merger. Some people call it expansion. Some call it madness, some call it love.
June 27, 1976
The ABA was appropriately initialed; it might as well have been invented by the American Bar Association, inasmuch as its prime function always seemed to have been to keep lawyers knee-deep in money. It is estimated, by estimable official estimators, that the league lost $40 million, all told. So the ABA could go to its grave smiling; at least it was big-league in red ink. Otherwise, it was bush. Oh, there were a number of great players, great coaches, even a few fine teams, but the ABA was, perforce, always a bush entity, because nobody took it as seriously as it asked to be taken. Not once did it make it in a big market, except as a distant second team in the Long Island suburbs of New York. No wonder the networks wouldn't touch it and most newspapers printed bowling tips or NASCAR crashes instead of ABA standings.
The seminal problem with the ABA was that it was created to merge instead of to play. So, no matter how well it played, it wasn't doing what it was supposed to do. Only a few wanted it to stand alone. To the end, John Y. Brown, the Colonels' boss, publicly called his pro-merger colleagues "dogs in heat" and employed rather more sexually explicit metaphors in league meetings. Brown and Ozzie Silna, the owner of the new Utah club (it was in St. Louis last season), will both be paid around $3 million each in walkaway money by the four surviving NBA-bound teams. Hurrah.
It is indicative of these times that the four clubs that made it safely into the NBA are all owned by groups of investors, mostly local boosters, rather than by one wealthy individual. The only excuse for the ABA's creation back in the halcyon loose-money days of the mid-'60s was to provide some warm places for the nouveaux riches to lay off money the IRS wanted. But at Hyannis, the ABA petitioners appeared to be much more subdued civic, sporting types—from Bill Eason of Indiana, who looks like a kindly neighborhood Hoosier druggist, right on up to the Nets' Roy Boe, the Yaleman who wore his Guccis Darien-style, without socks. It is the NBA that now boasts the flashy types, the bottom-liners, including one who found an excuse to whip out his roll of $1,000 bills at the bar. Commissioner Larry O'Brien and the owners made it clear that any expansion would be strictly business. Basketball—sports—had no proxy in the Cape Cod Room.
The ABA supplicants came in offering $4.5 million apiece, with a long-term payout, but they were advised early on that the NBA wanted all long green up front. Then the ABA foursome had to fly in Prentiss Yancey, the handsome black Atlanta lawyer with the magnolia name who is general counsel for the ABA Players Association, and assure him that they would guarantee to fulfill the contractual obligations of all ABA players who do not make the expanded NBA. Also, they agreed to provide the moneys to bring the ABA players into the NBA pension program. Then it was up to the NBA to scrap amongst itself over how to distribute the leftover ABA players, who include such bona fide performers as Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas and Marvin Barnes.
Yancey would accept no deal unless the NBA gave up all pretensions to draft rights in perpetuity (Chicago had drafted Gilmore years ago, for example). Since the Knicks would be letting the Nets into their market area, they required special reparations. They finally agreed on something like $4 million paid out long-term, but they hoped for the first draft pick as well—i.e., Gilmore. In the end, the Knicks lost, and the time-honored old system of drafting in reverse order of finish was accepted.
As late as 5 or 6 o'clock on the morning of Thursday, June 17 this compromise package, the best available, looked utterly doomed. Then O'Brien, who has been a spectacular sports commissioner, carried the day. A commissioner has certain practical advantages over his owners (or Board of Governors, as the NBA pretentiously prefers). For one thing, most of the Govs have other businesses to attend to. "A commissioner doesn't have to be smarter than the owners," an NBA aide once explained. "All he has to be is like a substitute teacher—stay one day ahead of the class." Also, Thursday was getaway day for the meeting. The Govs all had planes to catch, which meant they didn't have time to be selfish. O'Brien dressed up the rejected plan, virtually unchanged, and gambled that his Govs would play team ball in the closing seconds instead of playing me-first, as usual.
First, O'Brien tapped the Knicks' articulate Michael Burke for what the commissioner termed "some opening remarks," or what Burke characterized as a "preamble." Burke, more and more resembling an artist's creation of what the Dutch Boy would look like if he lost the job as a paint company symbol and grew to middle age, set the perfect stage for Abe Pollin of Washington, ever the soft-spoken gentleman, most respected by his colleagues. Pollin spelled out yesterday's plan in this morning's language. O'Brien reminded everyone they had planes to catch, and then put it to them—"up or down." Well, since you put it that way, they voted themselves about $700,000 each by the count of 17 to one. The whole meeting took 44 minutes, and soon everybody rushed for planes, the ABA guys going first, presumably to get to the banks back home before 3 p.m. closing.
Counter-signatures aside, there are many other details, loose-endwise, to be settled. In the new divisional alignment, the Nets and Knicks will surely be placed in the same grouping, but all else depends on whether or not Paul Snyder, the abrasive Buffalo mogul, can spirit the Braves away from the loyal fans of Snowbeltia to something that sounds like a massage parlor—a new arena called the Sportatorium, said to be located in Hollywood, Fla. in the Greater Jai Alai area.
Then there is the dispersal draft. Chicago has first pick and takes Gilmore, and then the next three teams—Atlanta, Kansas City and Detroit—will presumably divvy up the three top forwards, Barnes, Lucas and the adolescent Malone. New Orleans, with seventh pick, is crazy for Malone and might seek to deal up. Portland, which has fifth pick, is being remodeled by its new coach, Jack Ramsay. Would he take a big, experienced guard, Don Chaney, to give his young, exciting team some defense and leadership? If so, the Knicks, next, could end up with Mike Green, a mobile 6'10" beanstalk who is touted as the sleeper of the lot. Or maybe the Knicks will try again to buy their way in closer to the top of the draft, passing on the Nets' indemnity down payment to indigent Atlanta.
No disposition has been made of ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere, his staff, or a number of unemployed red, white and blue basketballs, but, in any event....