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Original Issue

Don't beat them—absorb them

After trouncing the ABA soundly on all sides, basketball's bigger NBA is moving toward a solution it figures is less costly than victory

There is an old legend about a Chinese warlord receiving reports from the front. Four hundred Japanese dead, he is told, and 22,000 Chinese. The old man nods. The next week: 200 Japanese, 36,000 Chinese killed. Nod. The week after: 500 Japanese dead, 47,000 Chinese. Nod. "Pretty soon," the old man says, "no more Japs." And, approximately, that is the way it has been in this new legend concerning the American Basketball Association, the league of resilient losers.

The NBA has whipped them soundly at every turn. It has signed virtually all their first-round draft choices, including all the big names. It took away Connie Hawkins, one of the ABA's two superstars. The NBA has dominated press attention. The ABA has never even come close to getting a network TV contract, and in the three prestige metropolises where the leagues have competing franchises, the ABA teams have drawn, oh, dozens of people. It has been such a complete rout that one can see NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy waking up nights in a sweat and thinking, "Pretty soon, no more NBA."

By a resounding vote of 13-1 last Thursday, the NBA owners decided they had better start peace talks. Too many more victories could wipe them out. "We simply realized," said Assistant NBA Commissioner Carl Scheer, "that the ABA was prepared and able to take their lickings." Essentially, the NBA was acknowledging the lessons of Silly Putty. If it could not bomb out the ABA so far, it is unlikely ever to.

Once this conclusion was reached it was wise to act quickly. The NBA television contract is concluded this year and, with more cities involved, the new contract should be worth substantially more. Of even greater importance is the fact that the draft next spring involves the greatest collection of college seniors in history. Players like Pete Maravich, Bob Lanier, Rick Mount and Charlie Scott might all command million-dollar contracts in an open bidding market.

The NBA also was obviously encouraged to get real friendly real quick because the ABA already has begun to take depositions in an antitrust suit it is formulating against the NBA. Finally, the NBA has grown more impressed with new leadership in the ABA.

The two men who botched the signing of Lew Alcindor, Commissioner George Mikan and New York Nets Owner Arthur Brown, have both departed the league. Roy Boe, a wealthy 39-year-old Yaleman, bought the Nets and promptly took a high place in league councils along with another newcomer, James Gardner, 36, who is now effectively serving as acting commissioner. Gardner is a former Congressman who seconded the nomination of Ronald Reagan at Miami last year—and then lost a narrow race for governor of North Carolina. Shortly after that he was shown a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story (Oct. 21, 1968) outlining the concept of how a modern regional franchise might be set up in North Carolina. Gardner bought the moribund Houston club and transferred it to his home state.

Searching for a replacement for Mikan, who was eased out, the ABA approached two NBA figures—Red Auerbach and Scheer. Both turned the job down, but clearly they learned enough to come back to the NBA with more respect for their competition. On the West Coast at about the same time, representatives from both leagues—like infantry scouts on patrol—began to make tentative, unofficial contact.

All of this set the stage for the official talks that began at the Waldorf Towers last Friday, the day following the 13-1 vote. The discussions will pick up again this week in California, with Gardner representing the ABA and Sam Schulman, the Seattle co-owner, heading the NBA negotiating team.

However genial and businesslike the discussions may be, and however much both leagues want to expedite some kind of connubial arrangement, there are still two considerable roadblocks. Indeed, the questions of championship competition and interleague play and even future realignment are relatively unimportant. For that matter, they are all but moot. If the two leagues are to enjoy a common draft, they must have a common championship, too. Otherwise they are ascribing second-class status to one league—the ABA—while at the same time coercing some of the best college players to play in a declared minor league.

This brings them to the first big problem—Congress and its persnickety habit of upholding antitrust laws. Larry Fleisher, counsel for the NBA Players' Association, is ready to fight any merger attempt. The players have, in fact, had a lobbyist at the Capitol for four months, warming up for action.

"As it stands now," he says, "the merger would be in clear violation of antitrust laws. All of the players took a position two years ago that they would never be caught in another NFL-AFL situation, where the football leagues got a waiver through Congress permitting the merger. We are alert to the situation, and we are going to point out to Congress that sports is like any other business and you can't have 14 owners getting together around a table and saying, "Let's restrict the players' salaries.' And that is essentially exactly what they are saying when they talk about merging."

The other hurdle concerns the competing franchises in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The NBA already has tacitly given in to the point that both leagues can have a franchise in New York—the Knicks in Manhattan, the Nets in suburbia—but they will not be so benevolent about California.

The two ABA teams involved—the Los Angeles Stars and Oakland Oaks—are crying that they will not play sacrificial lambs, but it is difficult to see any other way out. The problem is complicated further by the individual case of Rick Barry, who jumped the San Francisco Warriors two years ago to take 15% of the Oaks as player-owner. Franklin Mieuli, Warrior owner, is surely demanding that Barry's return across the Bay be part of the ABA indemnity.

If the Oaks (and the Stars) are moved to new prime expansion sites like Portland or Houston, Barry certainly would not mind going back to San Francisco. There is a clause in his contract that he is not bound to the Oaks if they leave Oakland. Also, he quietly tried to unload some of his stock in the team last winter (there were no takers). But would the ABA let their only drawing card go? "Connie Hawkins is a special case, too," Gardner says simply.

Says Barry: "Any merger must be approved 100% by the NBA owners, and I can't see Jack Kent Cooke and Franklin Mieuli approving unless the ABA vacates their territories. And I also can't see us—the Oaks and the Stars—leaving. So the merger talk might sound good, but how do you get around that? I am an Oakland Oak, that's all I know."

The start toward merging may, then, have been promising, but it will require a great deal of backscratching among owners and backslapping in Washington before there can be any substantive results.