A Celtic rookie Puts it Together

First-year Commissioner Larry O'Brien used his Irish gift of gab to lead the NBA owners into a merger with the ABA
October 24, 1976

We are a nation of brilliant failures," Oscar Wilde once said of the Irish, "but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks." Nowhere do the natives wax more rhapsodic than in County Cork, site of Castle Blarney. There, on battlements nearby in Cork Harbor, once the principal port of departure for emigrants venturing to the New World, is the mystic stone which, when kissed, is said to bestow the gift of eloquence and wondrous powers of persuasion.

It is all fanciful legend, of course. Still....

Talking, always talking, Larry O'Brien rode into Washington, D.C. recently on a white charger. Or so it seemed—one can never be too sure with charmed men. Hailed on the streets and ringed by well-wishers at every turn, the old pol-turned-commissioner of the National Basketball Association was fussed over like a visiting head of state. Even his appearance before the House Select Committee on Professional Sports was more homecoming than hearing; at one point the testimony was interrupted when a late-arriving committee member was unable to contain himself. "Hey, good to see you, Larry!" he blurted.

And it was, except perhaps for die-hards who might have hoped to hear O'Brien lecturing his old Capitol Hill cronies on the necessity of keeping pro basketball players bound to their clubs by ancient restrictive contracts. That, in fact, is exactly what many people believed would happen when O'Brien was named commissioner last year. After all, they reasoned, why else would the NBA hire such a celebrated lobbyist if not for the purpose of gaining Congressional favor for, say, the league's no-budge stand on the reserve clause. At the time, one owner said, "It may take some arm twisting, but I'll bet old Larry can pull it all off in one of those cloakroom deals."

Instead, a year later, here was old Larry telling the House committee that the NBA sought "no special privileges." And for good reason: the long-warring players and owners had fashioned their own peace. Professing an optimism "unmatched in recent years," O'Brien told the committee in his best rumbling baritone that "once again the principles of good faith, hard-nosed negotiating and compromise have carried the day." In sum, he said, the focus of the NBA had at last shifted "from the courts of law back to the court of play."

It was a deservedly proud moment for O'Brien. From a state of bitter intractability, facing issues that rattled the very structure of the game, he had led the embattled parties to settlements that other professional sports can—and inevitably must—aspire to.

Consider all that has happened since he took the job in April 1975: the resolution of the Oscar Robertson antitrust suit that could have resulted in devastating damage claims; the signing of a collective-bargaining agreement with the NBA Players Association that is the most progressive in pro sports; a merger with the American Basketball Association that adds four teams and promises exciting new levels of competition. Toss in a new two-year, $10.5 million TV pact with CBS and enough tough, decisive penalties handed out by O'Brien himself to show who's in charge and, well, let's hear it for Big Larry, rookie sports czar of the year!

O'Brien justice got no complaints from Buffalo Braves Owner Paul Snyder. Four months ago he tried to move his franchise to Miami. "O'Brien blocked it and let me know in no uncertain terms that owning a team is a two-sided deal," says Snyder. "He forced me to face up to my responsibility to the community. And I respect that."

O'Brien's secret? To be sure, the NBA breakthroughs were a joint effort. As the complicated and tedious negotiations ground on, any number of participants could have claimed that week's MVP—Most Valuable Peacemaker—award. As for motivation, the principals needed to look no further than their pockets and the papers. By one estimate, legal fees for just the Oscar Robertson case, which had already cost the price of a new franchise, would have run to an additional $6 million if battled to its conclusion. And based on recent trends in both the courts and Congress, that outcome seemed foreordained: for the players, all the way.

Still....

"Without Larry the job never would have gotten done," says William Alverson, president of the Milwaukee Bucks. A self-described "certified hawk" opposing concessions to players and to ABA teams seeking merger, Alverson now says, "Looking back, I don't know how he did it. I don't know, he just seems to have this special gift of persuasion."

For the record, it is true that Lawrence Francis O'Brien, now 59, special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, former U.S. Postmaster General, two-time National Chairman of the Democratic Party and the son of County Cork immigrants, has bussed the Blarney Stone. Indeed, shortly after his appearance in Washington he left for one of his frequent visits to Ireland to "renew my juices." Mainly, like the ancient Gaelic storytellers who drew sustenance from the myths and musical voices of the land, juice renewal consists of knocking around the countryside, frequenting inns and pubs and, he says, "talking, lots of talking with the people."

Words, lots of words in the form of depositions, accusations, court rulings and agents' demands were ultimately what caused Walter Kennedy, O'Brien's predecessor, to leave the NBA. When Kennedy, a former public relations director for the league, became commissioner in 1963, the NBA consisted of nine teams with hardly a player's agent or a lawsuit to its name.

But toward the end of Kennedy's tenure, like a mounting storm, came the suits, strikes, injunctions, salary wars and cries of "piracy!" Kennedy recalls, "Problems that once were solved by a phone call or a shake of hands suddenly required four lawyers, a court stenographer and eight hours of hearings. It was a harrowing experience." Complaining of a "lack of front-office stability" that saw 44 changes of ownership or principals while he was in office, Kennedy announced in 1973 that he would retire two years hence.

In that year, Mike Burke moved down-town from the New York Yankees and the (then) comparative serenity of American League baseball to the front office of the New York Knicks. He found the contrast between the two operations startling. "Generally, a total lack of order prevailed, with no one to pull it together. League meetings were a mess—everyone talking at once, private conversations going on in the corner, Kennedy pounding his gavel and nobody listening—just chaos."

Typical of the NBA's disordered state was the 21-month search for Kennedy's successor. At one point in 1974, a vote was taken on a pair of candidates, Alan Rothenberg and Henry Steinman, both West Coast lawyers with ties to NBA teams. The owners split into two hopelessly deadlocked factions. "The feeling was," says Milwaukee's Alverson, "that each group was trying to shove their man down the other's throat. We were probably all wrong but it shows you the kind of suspicion that prevailed."

Enter O'Brien, who at the time headed his own management consulting firm in New York. "Things were going along rather well financially, but quite frankly I was bored," he says. "I'd get up each morning, light a cigarette and say to myself, 'Well, what do I do today? Have a long lunch with a friend?' "

One night his answer was to attend a Knick game (he has been a season-ticket holder since 1969) and, met there by Mike Burke, the connection resulted in another question: Did he want to change his life? "No," he said. "I don't think a sport commissioner's job can get the adrenaline flowing."

Nonetheless, a league committee began pursuing O'Brien, and he eventually agreed to read the NBA's constitution and by-laws. "As I looked it over," he says, "I realized that, by God, you weren't fettered as Commissioner, that there is an authority inherent in the office that is wider than in any other sport. There were things you could actually do, decisions you could actually make."

Approved by unanimous vote and signed for three years at $150,000 per, plus the kind of fringe benefits usually reserved for seven-foot centers with 30-point averages, O'Brien flew to a league meeting in San Francisco to be sworn in and make his first decision. It was a sticky one, not only because of the big money involved—Philadelphia, which owned the NBA draft rights to George McGinnis, was contesting New York's signing of the ABA superstar for $3.1 million—but because Burke, the architect of the Knicks' deal, was a close friend.

Bang! After hearing the testimony, O'Brien slammed his gavel and disapproved the Knicks' contract, made them forfeit their first draft choice for 1976 and ordered them to pay Philadelphia's $100,000 legal fees.

A few minutes later, after being separately summoned to a press conference, O'Brien and Burke encountered one another in a hotel corridor. Passing by, O'Brien said, "Even the round ball takes some funny bounces, doesn't it?"

Burke recalls, "Despite our disappointment, it was clear to me that with that one decisive decision Larry had established his authority." Adds Pat Williams, the 76ers general manager, "After handling the Democrats, O'Brien handled that case like it was a shrimp cocktail. It was just beautiful."

Next came the Robertson case. Filed by the all-star guard in 1970 on behalf of all NBA players, the suit contended that the common draft and the option clause, among other things, violated the antitrust laws. Prospects of settlement were bleak. The last attempt at negotiations had come two years earlier when the owners rejected, without bothering to take a vote, a solution worked out by a peace committee. "It was almost like a Vietnam situation," recalls Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the NBA Players Association. "We were all in it up to our necks but no one knew how to get out."

O'Brien's reaction: "I have to get to the hustings." What he found there was a "bitterness and intransigence unlike anything I had ever experienced in all my years in Washington. And let's face it, in Washington we got involved in some very, very hard negotiations. A lot of blood was spilled on the floor, a lot of wounds were inflicted, but afterward there was no meanness.

"I remember sitting with Charlie Halleck, the House minority leader, in his hideaway in the Capitol and having a martini. And he'd say, 'O.K., O'Brien, tomorrow is a biggie. What's your head count?' And I'd say, 'Well, I won't give you the numbers but I bet you we beat you by more than 12 votes.' It was like working with a point spread. And then we'd hit the floor and it would be like the NBA finals. We'd almost always win, but never afterward was there any bitterness. We'd just shake hands and say, 'O.K., fellas, let's try it again.'

"That's why I wasn't sympathetic when I came into this new climate where everyone had their feet in concrete and were suing the hell out of each other. I didn't like it and I was damned if I was going to accept it."

O'Brien arranged a series of meetings between the owners and players and, he says, right in the middle of some heavy prodding, cajoling and shoving, it suddenly hit him: "My God, I've been here before. Except for the bitterness, this situation is exactly like the ones I faced in Washington."

After one particularly unyielding session in New York's Plaza Hotel last January, O'Brien summoned the owners to his room. "When I was in Washington," he lectured them, "there was never a single piece of legislation returned to the President's desk intact. In other words, the art of the possible is the art of compromise. I've never foreclosed on that belief in my life, and if I have to do it now there is no point in my continuing as commissioner. It wouldn't be the end of the world for me. I didn't seek the job. I don't owe anybody anything. And if quitting is what it takes, I'll do it.

"What you have to understand is that professional sports are an integral part of the American system. They can't be separated out. And just as there are many problems in a changing society that must be reconciled, so, too, are there in sports. Gentlemen, we all know there has been a great deal of ferment in this land. We're not immune from that change but part of it. You just can't ignore the quest of Americans for rights long denied."

Pausing, O'Brien then recalled a time in the Oval Office when Lyndon Johnson was considering what he might do about some antiwar protesters in front of the White House. Finally, he dismissed them as just a bunch of misguided youths who would go away. "You've got to read the message in the wind," O'Brien told the owners, "and if you don't, I'm not with you. I'm not going to get involved in anything that is not part of the American way of life.

"For Chrissake, we're no different than anyone else. We've got to prove ourselves. C'mon, let's see if we can do it."

And so they did, forging compromises that paved the way for the merger with the ABA five months later. For some owners the effect has been downright liberating. "For the first time in my memory," reports Buffalo's Paul Snyder, "the press and the people are talking about the team, the players and how good they'll be. They're talking basketball. Before, all we heard about was who's suing who this week. It's wonderful."

Off and on, O'Brien has done his share of talking basketball as well. Sometimes at football games, of all places. Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, recalls, "One day some years ago Larry and I attended a Washington Redskin game together. During the half we were kidding around and I asked him, if you had your druthers, what would be the one thing in the world you would want to be?' And he said, I'd like to own the Boston Celtics.' Now, at the time, he was Postmaster General, so that illustrates a latent basketball interest."

And an odd turn of fate as well, since basketball and O'Brien were both born in the same town, Springfield, Mass. "Just coincidence," he says. "I don't lay claim to anything coming down from the heavens." Though the gym where Dr. James Naismith tacked up his peach baskets has long since given way to a shopping center, the street of Victorian rooming houses on which O'Brien was raised was recently refurbished and declared a historic site—though for reasons having nothing to do with him. When he went back to attend the dedication ceremonies this past summer, the local press heralded it as the return of the Mattoon Street Gunner.

Seems that in his playing days as a chunky forward with a fiery red brush cut and failing eyesight, O'Brien was known to fire away at will. From half court. One-handed. All the time.

That tendency foreshortened his career with the Cathedral High Purple Panthers but did not stop him from launching his ICBMs at the YMCA on the corner of Mattoon Street. "I'd go to the Y at eight in the morning and stay in there throwing it up until I starved to death," says O'Brien. Near closing time he would sometimes hide under the Y pool table and then, when everything was locked up, turn the lights back on and keep gunning away. "I was nuts for it," he says.

Later on he attached himself emotionally to the Boston Celtics, often driving the 200-mile round trip with friends to see a game. "There was no Massachusetts Turnpike then," he says, "so we'd strike out on the icy roads, watch Cousy and Macauley win another one, and then get home at 4 a.m. and think nothing of it." For away games he would get in his car and drive around town until he found the best spot for picking up the action on the car radio. "Oh, I tell you, I was a fan," he says.

O'Brien was also and always a pol. As a boy he had accompanied his father, a rooming-house operator and Democratic organizer, on door-to-door canvassing through the poorer sections of Springfield. Once, as they trudged along together, the elder O'Brien said something his son never forgot: "The votes are here, Larry, if we can only get them out."

Both Larry Sr.—or the Old Red Fox as he was known in the wards—and his wife Myra Sweeney O'Brien, who had worked as a domestic in Springfield before they were married, had come to the U.S. from County Cork in the wake of the potato famine. Inevitably, they encountered and resented the Yankee-bred hostility toward immigrants and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs on the factory gates. "My father ran into bigotry," says Larry. "It made him a strong Democrat. It was one place for him to go. He wasn't wanted elsewhere. It was the old story of the Irish immigrant becoming a citizen, a first voter and a politician at the same time. I can remember my father coming back home from the '24 election convention. He brought us hats in the shape of teapots."

Along with the rooming house the family also ran a poolroom and O'Brien's Cafe and Restaurant. Myra O'Brien did the cooking—her clam chowder, beef stew and soda bread were locally renowned—and Larry did the hustling, standing on a Coke box at age 10 and taking on all comers at eight ball. At home the O'Brien kitchen became a political hotbed where such luminaries as Boston Mayor James Michael Curley and U.S. Senator David Ignatius Walsh held forth. In rapt wonder, Larry listened as they carried on like IRA conspirators. Not surprisingly, in high school his chief interest was debating, which he pursued with a flair that would have made Curley, his hero and the flamboyant archetype of The Last Hurrah, proud.

O'Brien recalls, "Our kitchen used to be the place where some of the boys would meet, and my father would say, 'All right, now we'll get the signatures.' It was organizational politics, signatures on petitions, door-to-door canvassing. He was a great planner—all the things I wound up being involved in myself."

While working at night toward his law degree from the local branch of Northeastern University, he tended the mahogany bar at O'Brien's Cafe by day, chinning for hours with ward heelers and candidates of every stripe. Clearly, lobbying and not law was his passion, and at 22 he became the chairman of his local ward and president of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union. As a neighborhood saying put it, when it came to getting out the vote young Larry O'Brien "could talk a dog off a meat wagon."

As it turned out, the union job was the only elective office O'Brien ever ran for, an ironic turn for the man Jack Kennedy called "the best election man in the business."

Their alliance began in 1951, when O'Brien organized Massachusetts for Kennedy, who was making his first bid for the Senate. Then 33, the same age as Kennedy, O'Brien was a wellspring of political innovations. Things, little things, like teas and Christmas cards and telephone campaigns became his vehicles for shaping big events. And always he followed his No. 1 political dictum: there's nothing like ringing a doorbell.

It was "dog work," he once confessed, but as detailed in a 70-page handbook called O'Brien's Manual, it became the electioneer's bible. In recent years everyone from Barry Goldwater to former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has employed the O'Brien method. Goldwater may have missed the main thrust of the manual when he used it for his unsuccessful 1964 Presidential campaign. O'Brien sums it up thusly: "Keep it simple, avoid the slick, and work like hell."

How well the O'Brien approach works was first demonstrated when Kennedy won the Senate seat in 1952, upsetting the initial heavy favorite, Henry Cabot Lodge. And then it was on to the White House, ringing doorbells all the way, and the heady days of the New Frontier. Along the way O'Brien picked up enough material to pen a bestseller. Patriarch Joseph Kennedy, for example, passed on some sage advice about how to keep from being unduly influenced by prestigious people in or out of politics. "Whenever you're dealing with someone important to you," the old man said, "picture him sitting there in a suit of long red underwear."

As for influence peddling, O'Brien learned early on that it helps to see things from another man's point of view, even if the other man happens to be a hidebound NBA owner. Once, when stumping for Kennedy in the back hills of West Virginia, O'Brien began wooing a local leader with his usual pitch for a New America. The man listened for a while and then said bluntly, "I'm not interested in the White House. I'm interested in the courthouse."

Such lessons have taught O'Brien to be a realist. He doubts there ever was a Camelot, as least not in his terms. "I don't know what I'm doing with this crowd," he once said of the Kennedy clan. "I don't even fit the pattern. I didn't go to Harvard. I don't play touch football. In sports, I am pretty much of a spectator."

Burdened by 20/400 eyesight and a complexion that turns red as quickly as a stoplight if he lingers in the sun too long, O'Brien is no outdoorsman. Or, as one friend put it, "Larry's not the kind of guy you'd throw into the swimming pool." Jackie Kennedy understood. No great slotback herself, she preferred to sit in the shade with O'Brien during all those Hyannis football games. In return, on the campaign trail, where she did not think she should be seen smoking in public, Larry would sneak her a few furtive puffs every now and then.

Back scratching, that is what O'Brien became a master at when he served as Presidential liaison man with Congress. He was described as having the "most whispered-in ear in Washington." The messages he carried to and from the White House opened a bridge of communication that made him one of the most effective power brokers ever on the Hill. In 1965, for instance, he helped push into law 68% of President Johnson's legislative proposals, which is akin to averaging 68 points a game in the NBA. From half court.

"Every day, every hour, it was drive, drive, drive—to use the basketball term, a full-court press," O'Brien recalls. Though, many days, that meant juggling up to 125 phone calls and subsisting on three packs of cigarettes and a Niagara of black coffee, he would not have had it any other way.

Part of the fun was seeing men of great power sitting before him, so to speak, in their long red underwear. One long-running skit was Lady Bird Johnson's attempts to police LBJ's diet. Not only did he keep a box of pralines, his weakness, stashed under his White House bed, but once, when O'Brien accompanied him to a Washington Senators Opening Day game, the President took to wolfing down hot dogs in a crouching position for fear that Lady Bird might spot his indiscretion on TV.

Ah, politics. Does O'Brien miss it? You bet your sweet head count he does. One friend confides, "If Larry were offered the right kind of deal in Washington, he'd go back in a flash." O'Brien disagrees, of course, explaining that "the only good job down there is the Senate, and I've never been convinced that I'm electable." Though twice mentioned as a prospect for the Vice Presidency as well as for a Senate seat, O'Brien suspects that "perhaps I lack the necessary ego for office seeking. I've never felt that my holding public office was essential to the Republic."

No matter. In a Presidential election year such as this, it is certain that a man of O'Brien's vast experience has been tapped on an informal basis. Indeed, he has been in contact with Jimmy Carter at the candidate's request and, as he says, "a line of dialogue goes on." How extensive it is, is anybody's guess; O'Brien is understandably evasive on the subject, saying only that "I don't want to give the impression that I've closed the door on my past."

That a new political era might slowly be closing out Larry O'Brien the commissioner was a thought that came to mind when the Democratic National Convention was held in New York this summer, right at the foot of O'Brien's 20th-floor office in the Madison Square Garden complex. At one point, while involved in negotiating the final details of the ABA merger, he looked out the window at the delegates streaming into the Garden to the strains of Happy Days. "New ball game," he said.

When O'Brien left Washington after chairing the 1972 Democratic National Convention, it was said that the enemies he left behind could meet in a phone booth. Now he says, "I'm not sure how many friends I have anymore in high places in Washington. A lot of people who were once in Washington aren't there now. And I'm not sure they were my friends in the first place."

Partly, that is a twinge of regret stemming from the fact that as the Democratic National Chairman he was the target of the Watergate break-ins, an experience that, he says, "depressed me a great deal because of the harm it did to the public acceptance of our system. What we once called apathy has become cynicism." To counteract "the crisis of truth," he has lately been preaching the virtues of "leveling with the people," a theme he sounded again and again when he was refereeing the NBA negotiations. If Larry O'Brien succeeds it is because he is, by all accounts, a decent man.

Pronouncing his first year as NBA commissioner "an exciting, fast-paced experience," O'Brien says he appreciates it all the more because it helped wash away the Watergate gloom. "Now I'm on the inside of the papers," he says with some relief, "instead of on the front page."

New York suits O'Brien just fine. He has been a theater buff ever since the days when vaudeville troupes used to line up at O'Brien's Cafe for his mother's beef stew. As often as possible, after dinner at Sardi's or Toots Shor's, he and his wife Elva take in a Broadway show, any show. "I can't stand a bad movie," O'Brien says, "but I will sit through almost any play, no matter how inept. If the script is poor, I'm content to study the actors. I've always been fascinated by the similarity between actors and politicians."

Try as he may, O'Brien cannot seem to convince his Washington friends that it is the human element that has made his transition to the NBA so satisfying. People keep asking him, he says, " 'How do you get up for it? How, after being involved in some of the most meaningful and far-reaching social legislation probably in history, do you get up for basketball?' I tell them, frankly, I feel right at home. This position offers all the challenges and responsibility I sought. Hell, the human element is always present."

Except, say, when Dr. J goes one-on-one with Rick Barry. That promises to be superhuman as do some of the other matchups with former ABA stars this season. "It's sort of horizons unlimited for us," says O'Brien. If so, is it also possible that he has been too successful for his own good? After all, without a legal hassle to straighten out, how is he going to keep the old adrenaline coursing?

"It's true," O'Brien says, "our new agreement with the players is a quantum jump forward. But that's just the beginning. What we've secured are the tools for management to operate. Now we have to implement them, franchise by franchise. There is a lot of uncharted water ahead. We won't be idle."

Harry Truman once said that a President spent most of his time trying to persuade others to do things they ought to do without any persuasion. Perhaps O'Brien's greatest contribution as a rookie commissioner is that he has persuaded others to persuade themselves. And, he hopes, never again will he have to persuade himself, as he did when he first took command, to utter a phrase such as: "We will proceed expeditiously with full cognizance of the ramifications involved, including all applicable court orders."

As for those who wonder how O'Brien gets up for the game, well, let them go talk to Dick Bloch, the owner of the Phoenix Suns. Bloch was a scoffer once, too, or at least he pretended to be. During last year's NBA finals, when a lot of business types were nervously shuffling around with the players before a game in Boston Garden, Bloch leaned over to O'Brien and whispered, "What's everyone getting so excited about? What the hell, it's only a game."

Six cardiac arrests later, somewhere between the bedlam of the second overtime and the hysteria of the third, O'Brien cupped his hands and shouted through the din at Bloch, who was sitting a few boxes away, "What are you getting so excited about? What the hell, it's only a game." No one knows if Bloch heard; Bloch seemed to be having trouble breathing at the time.

"And that just about sums up my position on the game," says O'Brien. "Thank you very much."

PHOTOLANE STEWART PHOTOMadison Square Garden is the centerpiece of O'Brien's realm, which he directs from the NBA offices 20 floors above.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)