Professional basketball is all aflutter these days about the first prospective addition to the family since 1949. The newcomer is baseball's Marty Marion (backed by St. Louis Millionaire Milton Fischmann), and it appears likely that his team will be playing out of Kansas City, which thereby will have acquired major league status in two sports within the short space of three years.
Joy over this good news, however, is considerably less than unconfined in some NBA quarters. For some gentlemen the prospect of fresh money and new blood in the league is of less importance than the kind of team Marion will field next fall in the Kansas City Auditorium (capacity, 10,500). They anticipate all manner of trouble on this score, and they may be right.
Present plans for stocking the new club call for Marion to put up $100,000 and each of the eight NBA teams to put up three of its players. Marion will choose a maximum of eight players from this pool, no more than one from each team. League officials will then prorate the $100,000 among the teams involved and, conceivably, return to Marion whatever is left. Then, before the regular draft of this year's graduating college players begins, the new club will be allowed five or six free choices—the only condition being that each team, as usual, may exercise territorial rights on one player.
Actually, the college draft part of the plan is of secondary interest to Marion, since even a team composed of the top 10 draft choices in any year would not be in the same class with one of today's NBA pro teams. The real heart of the matter is: What will the eight clubs offer Marion in the 24-player pool? On the surface, it seems obvious that self-interest would demand that they offer at least some of their best players. When Marion brings his team into Boston next year, for example, who will come out to watch if he can't provide solid competition? (In the NBA, it should be remembered, the home team keeps all of the net receipts on single games.)
But there is another side to the question, put to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED by one NBA club owner who insists that many of the others feel as he does: "Why should I help him [Marion] by hurting myself? I've spent years, and lost money too, trying to build a winning team. So have the other owners. Who do you think Boston will offer—Ramsey? Russell? Are you kidding? If it's that easy to get into one of the major leagues, I'm going to petition Ford Frick for a franchise and ask the Yankees for Mantle, the Dodgers for Snider and so on. If he wants to get into the league, Marion should buy a franchise instead of starting a new one. And don't tell me he's tried. I've heard that story. If he has tried, he hasn't offered enough money—or any, for that matter."
On this last point, Marion says, "The first thing we did was to ask Mr. Podoloff [NBA president] if there were any franchises for sale. He said no, so all we could do was try to start our own."
What all this boils down to is that present NBA club management is perfectly willing to let Marion join the fraternity, but the initiation fee—in terms of several years of struggle to assemble a respectable team—may be much higher than even a St. Louis millionaire anticipated.
Aside from players, Marion's prospects in Kansas City are pretty fair (see box). These are representative figures itemizing his probable costs and reasonable income. In some cities rent, travel and training expenses can be higher; on the other hand, income from radio, average ticket sales and special promotions may also be higher. Television is a special case. Some NBA clubs do not allow it at all; some limit it to road games, some televise only a few home games. Marion says he will try to arrange for it at the start as a means of publicizing the new team and take his chances on possible lowered attendance.
The expenditure budgeted for Marion is low in several respects. An advertising campaign in New York's seven newspapers comes considerably higher than in Syracuse's two. And salaries for a team that includes men like Cousy, Sharman and Russell may substantially exceed the figure listed here. Finally, there is no allowance at all for executive salaries (like Marion's) and no return for Fischmann on his investment.
Marion's budget could be balanced, at an average ticket price of $1.50 (plus taxes), by an attendance of 3,500 for each of 30 home games. The accuracy of this figure is confirmed by two facts: first, Rochester, with an average attendance of 2,500 so far this year, will come within $25,000 of breaking even; second, St. Louis, with extremely high travel expenses and no TV income, requires an average attendance of 5,000 to break even.
Marion feels certain that a Kansas City team will attract the gate he requires. He counts on a carryover of the remarkable enthusiasm the area has demonstrated for major league baseball and a continuation of the basketball interest shown by packed auditoriums at recent Big Seven and NCAA college tournaments.
There seems no doubt, either, that pro basketball is ripe for expansion, especially in heavily populated areas. The interest sparked by college competition (which also provides a ready-made farm system), NBC's success with its weekly telecasts and the financial soundness of practically all present NBA teams appear to assure Marion's success. The final problem—and certainly reasonable men should be able to solve it—remains to help him put together a team.
This week, also, another pro team took a step which should improve the league's financial picture. Fort Wayne completed negotiations to move next season to Detroit, another big league city. One item held up the deal for almost a month—a demand by the Olympia stadium (owned by the IBC's Jim Norris) for a rental fee of more than $3,000 per game. The final figure agreed upon has not been revealed, but Norris must have cut his price considerably. With a flock of other cities—including Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville and Chicago—also interested in joining the league, the NBA seems headed for a golden future after only 11 years of existence.
Recent play in the league reaffirms the tendency toward leveling off that seems to take place toward the end of each season. After threatening to run away and hide from the field, Boston has been faltering (although not dangerously), and this despite continued brilliant rebounding by Russell, who is surely headed for a new percentage record in this department. (He is averaging more than 20 rebounds a game.)
At the other end of the Eastern Division, Syracuse momentarily poked its head out of the cellar for the first time since the snow began to fly and may yet edge New York out of a playoff berth. If it does, much of the credit will be due Paul Seymour, who took over as coach at a time when the team seemed on the road to complete demoralization.
In the Western Division, a mere three games separate first and last place, but all eyes here are on the spectacular assault by St. Louis' Bob Pettit on the alltime single-season scoring record of 1,932 points set by George Mikan in 1950-51. The other night, in a game with the Celtics, Pettit fractured the ulna bone in his left forearm and will wear a special light cast the remainder of the season. This will hamper his ball handling and, to a lesser extent, his shooting. With 15 games to go, he had 1,627 points. All he needed for a new record was the equivalent of 11 field goals in each game—an odds-on probability for him, at least before that bone was broken.
Rochester continues to puzzle both its supporters and rivals. The squad can look like world-beaters on any given night. Those nights, unfortunately, have been far too infrequent, and the danger still persists that the team may not make the playoffs. If it does, Rochester could pull the year's biggest surprise by winning the championship.
The NBA playoff system, incidentally, confuses many fans. It works this way: the top three teams in each division are eligible. The second-and third-place teams play each other a best two-out-of-three series, and the winner then plays the first-place team a best three-out-of-five series. Finally, the winners in each division meet in a four-out-of-seven series for the title. Clear enough—although, assuredly, a hectic wind-up for players who have battled all winter through a rigorous 72-game schedule.
WRONG TEAMS IN PLAYOFF?
What disturbs many is the system whereby a team in last place in one division can be ineligible for the playoffs despite the fact that it has a better won-lost percentage than the team in first place in the other division. (At the moment the Eastern's last-place Syracuse has almost the same record as the Western's first-place Fort Wayne.) This surely seems an injustice.
One explanation is that the teams in each division play more games among themselves than against teams in the other division. The ratio is five to four. Another is the league's desire to achieve, eventually, two-division rivalry on a par with baseball. Finally, no one has come up with a better system, short of having each division's teams play among themselves (which would be dull) or in a single big division (which would soon become unwieldy through expansion).
For those presently disturbed, perhaps the best advice is to chalk off the inequity to growing pains, and be patient.