In a move apparently designed to prove that one man's progress is another man's outrage, professional basketball last week departed Buffalo, returned to San Diego and stepped on the toes of a lot of folks in Boston.
That was the result of a two-hour NBA Board of Governor's meeting Friday in Chicago, where, by a 21-1 vote, the league owners approved a franchise swap between the Buffalo Braves' John Y. Brown and the Boston Celtics' Irv Levin, who also got the O.K. to move his new club to the West Coast city.
But even before the deal was approved, with an accompanying realignment that shifted the champion Washington Bullets to the NBA's Atlantic Division and Detroit to the Central, Boston fans had excoriated Brown, the 44-year-old wheeler-dealer from Lexington, Ky. While new owners are hardly foreign to the Celtics (the team has had seven since 1964) and Levin himself was unpopular in Boston, Brown's acquisition of one of the NBA's most celebrated franchises was viewed as a damnable irony and, worse, it might result in the Celtics losing their most durable constant—Arnold (Red) Auerbach.
The legendary general manager and former coach led Boston to nine NBA championships in 16 seasons. Since the crusty Auerbach went to work for Celtics' founder Walter Brown in 1950, he has become the soul of the franchise. In John Y., however, Auerbach has inherited a Brown of a different stripe. For one thing, the Celtics' new owner came from the ABA, that upstart league scorned in the premerger past by Auerbach. For another, John Y. Brown in word and deed already has declared himself an active owner who will be involved in details of the operation of the club.
July 16, 1978
What really got Brown off on the wrong foot in Boston was a controversial six-player trade Brown and Levin claimed was necessary as a condition for swapping franchises. Brown could not have angered Celtic fans more had he traded Dave Cowens for Lloyd Free. He acquired Nate Archibald, a playmaking and scoring guard who sat out all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury; Forward Billy Knight, the Braves' No. 2 scorer; and Marvin Barnes, potentially one of the best power forwards around, from Buffalo/San Diego. Levin got Freeman Williams, Boston's No. 1 draft choice; backup Center Kevin Kunnert; and Forward Kermit Washington. It is likely that Sidney Wicks also will go to San Diego as part of the deal.
The trades, which neither Brown nor Levin discussed with Auerbach, had been reported in the press a week before the league approved the franchise shift. In particular, Celtic fans were galled because Kunnert and Washington were highly regarded as crucial to the team's rebuilding efforts.
"If there's a trade, any kind of trade, I'll really be aggravated," Auerbach said on Wednesday, just two days before it was made official. "I don't care if it is part of the ownership deal, apart from it or whatever. If there's a trade and I'm not consulted, it will put me in a very difficult position. I'll have to ask myself, 'Can I work for this new guy?' "
Brown, who turned Kentucky Fried Chicken into a $300 million business before selling it seven years ago, got started in pro basketball at about the same time, as part owner of the ABA Kentucky Colonels. He subsequently folded the team rather than pay the $4.5 million it would have cost him to join the NBA at the time of the merger. He is no stranger to tough decisions.
"Red is 61 years old," Brown says. "He's got a lot of good years to give and he's part of that Celtic tradition, but I don't think we're going to kid each other about hoping to put our arms around each other and get along. It's either going to make sense to both of us, we'll feel comfortable with it, or we won't do it. It's going to take some time. We've got to get to know each other. I need him. He is the Celtics, but at the same time, if he wants total control—which pretty much he's been given—I've got to ask myself, 'Why should I have a team?' I don't want to own a team and just be a fan in the stands. I want to be responsible for my own destiny. If we fail, I want to be part of that failure, and if we succeed, I want the self-satisfaction that I made a contribution. Hopefully, we can both be part of it. If we can't, then I think we might as well face up to it and say it doesn't make sense for what we both want out of life."
Toward that end, Brown and Auerbach met twice on Friday before the NBA meeting, and by the time it was over the ball was back in Auerbach's court. At a press conference announcing the franchise trade Brown said, "I made him what I think he would say is a very attractive offer. At this point in his life, Red says he's got one last contract and he's going to give it some thought. In the next two weeks we'll have a chance to meet again and he'll make a decision as to what his future will be." Brown also said he had offered Auerbach a multiyear contract but had given him permission to talk to other franchises.
Auerbach is hardly without options, the most intriguing of which would take him to the New York Knicks under the employ of Sonny Werblin. CBS also is eager to add him to its stable of broadcasters. There were signs, however, that Auerbach had softened somewhat and that the prospect of an involved owner might not be too much to bear.
"As far as I'm personally concerned," Red said, "John Y. Brown made me a very good offer. Whether I'll accept it or not remains to be seen. If we can agree on terms, whatever, I think we'll have to sit down and find out the basic responsibilities that I'll have in order that our personalities don't conflict."
Could Auerbach work for Brown? "I don't know," Auerbach answered. "I've had a lot of owners in the last 12 years. Some of them didn't know the difference between a basketball and a hockey puck. I got along with all of them. Sure, I've got my own personality and my own feelings and sometimes I like to have my own way, but usually I think it's only fair to discuss situations with the guy who owns the ball club. It's his money, he's entitled to know. I don't have an ego that I want to do it all myself."
As for the big player trade and other deals Brown alluded to—acquiring a new backup center for Cowens, for instance—Auerbach said, "It depends on what else is involved. We were trying to build one way, he wants to do it another way. I got to sit down with him and go over it. Those players? Who the hell knows how good they are? The guys were injured. I was going to build in a different way, but at the same time he's bringing in some great scorers. Archibald, Knight and Barnes represent a lot of balls going through the hoop. If those other deals go through, then this trade might look real good. That's why I say it's hard to knock it at this point."
For his part, Levin was asked why he would want to put a franchise in San Diego, where the NBA Rockets and ABA Conquistadors both failed.
"That was another era," said Levin, a motion-picture packager and producer who lives in Beverly Hills. "San Diego in the last few years has grown tremendously. A lot of people who have moved in are from big cities back east like New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, and I think they will support a pro basketball team. One of my personal problems with the Celts was commuting 3,000 miles. I realize I'm giving up an awful lot, but that's the price I have to pay to get a team back in California."
At the end of last season, Levin was booed mercilessly at the Boston Garden while Auerbach got a standing ovation. Brown may go through the same thing but could probably stand it if he works things out with Auerbach. As Auerbach left Chicago, he was asked, "Was this change a disappointing thing for you, winding up working for an ABA guy?"
"Yeah," he admitted. "It was. At the beginning it was, but that's life. Things change. Progress. It's like my championships. You can't live in the past. You've got to live now."