The rumors of August have become the guns of September in pro basketball, and the explosions could easily lead to chaos in October. The established National Basketball Association and the struggling American Basketball Association are at war. The barrages of real and false charges, the salvos of press releases, counterreleases and threats of multimillion-dollar suits have generated so much smoke, heat and bitterness that the head of the ABA. James Gardner, has gone so far as to say of his opposite number in the NBA: "Walter Kennedy is a bigot and a hypocrite" What NBA people are saying about those in the ABA is hardly less inflammatory
Considering what is going on, though, it is not surprising that even the more sensible people in the sport, are losing their heads. For example:
At the same time that an ABA spokesman was telling a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondent in Los Angeles that the Atlanta Hawks' Zelmo Beaty had just signed a contract with the ABA. the general manager of the Hawks was telling another SI reporter in New York that Beaty had made an appointment to sign his NBA contract the next day. (At week's end Beaty had not signed with anyone.)
•In North Carolina an ABA coach told a reporter that Bob Cousy told him that John Havlicek of the Boston Celtics had contacted the ABA and was prepared to jump because he was mad at Bill Russell and didn't want to play in Boston anymore. Bob Cousy said he never said any such thing to anyone and that as far as he knew Havlicek was too secure with the Celtics to contemplate such a move. (Havlicek said he was leaving his home in Columbus, Ohio to talk contract with Red Auerbach in Boston.)
•In New York the chief of officials for the ABA, Sid Borgia, who had once been supervisor of officials for the NBA, helped arrange for four NBA referees to jump to the ABA. Their move was announced last Thursday—and the ABA fired Borgia on Friday.
•That same Thursday, in Philadelphia, the NBA's 76ers called a press conference to confirm the security of their star center, Luke Jackson, while—at the same moment—the ABA was announcing that Luke Jackson would play for the Carolina Cougars starting next season. At 3 p.m. that day SI Correspondent Smith Barrier got on a plane leaving Philadelphia for Greensboro, N.C. and sat down several seats from Jackson. When they reached Greensboro, Barrier walked up to Jackson and asked, "What are you doing here? The 76ers are looking for you in Philadelphia."
"Yes, I know," said Jackson. "People have been trying to reach me all day. My wife took all the calls."
"Why did you switch leagues?"
"Well, I don't know yet. I haven't signed a contract with the Cougars."
"What? It was announced by the ABA this morning in New York."
"Yes, I know. Isn't that funny?"
The next day the ABA fired the biggest gun in the war so far. Scarcely heard by many shell-shocked observers, it made a powerful impression among NBA officials, and rightly so. The ABA declared that Luke Jackson would not bother to play out his one-year option with Philadelphia but would start performing for the Carolina Cougars this season. Until then the ABA had at least made the pretense of honoring NBA contracts, signing players with the understanding that they would play out their options before jumping. Now all rules were off. Left with no choice, the NBA will try to force players who jump to abide by their contracts. In the Jackson case the NBA appeared to have the last word. After he signed with the ABA, the NBA persuaded him that his NBA contract had precedence and was still valid, and he then signed a new three-year contract with Philadelphia. Still, if either league goes to court over such matters, there is a strong possibility. that some of today's pro stars will be playing basketball in their backyards for a spell, as Rick Barry did when he jumped from San Francisco (NBA) to Oakland (ABA) two years ago.
In all the confusion a few other facts were clear. The ABA, borrowing the book of the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis, who helped force pro football's merger three years ago, is determined to bring about an immediate pro basketball merger or at least agreement on a common draft beginning next spring, when a glittering cast of college players will be graduated. Talks of a merger had, in fact, started back on Aug. 7, only to be broken off abruptly when Walter Kennedy charged the ABA with "a breach of good faith in the negotiation procedures." The NBA, said Kennedy, could not condone the ABA's failure to name the player that one of its teams had allegedly signed off an NBA roster. Furthermore, he said, the NBA had not been informed of the possibility that the ABA's Oakland franchise would be moved to Washington, D.C., which is Baltimore territory, according to the NBA.
The ABA, on the other hand, was still miffed at the NBA for stealing one of its star players, Connie Hawkins, who had played out his option with the Pittsburgh Pipers. More important was the ABA's discovery that one of the requirements for merger was an NBA bid for indemnity of $11 million, similar to the NFL's demand of the AFL. "So the price is $1 million per club, is it?" snapped one ABA executive. "Well, let's take that money and go out and buy $11 million worth of top-drawer, superstar, NBA talent. Then we'll merge, and we'll do it on our terms, not theirs."
"For two years now," said Jim Hardy, general manager of the ABA's Los Angeles Stars, "the NBA has looked upon the ABA as a minor skin irritation that would dry up and go away. Well, now they must realize it's genuine cancer."
Until last spring the ABA really had been little more than an irritation as far as the NBA was concerned. Under the erratic leadership of Commissioner George Mikan, the ABA was, in fact, just sitting there waiting to die as the NBA signed up every college star that came along. With few bright spots, attendance was miserable, and the quality of play was not much better. Then the ABA owners fired Mikan and, in the absence of a commissioner, gave most of his authority to Gardner, a new guy on the block who had just bought the ABA's floundering Houston franchise and moved it to his home state, North Carolina.
Young, rich and persuasive, Gardner, a former Congressman, brought the ABA drive and ideas. The drive was his own, but the ideas were borrowed. "Al Davis wrote the book when he raided the NFL," Gardner admitted. "We've read the book, and we'll follow it to the letter." Gardner succeeded in getting the ABA moving, in spite of what those who claimed to know him called "his inconsistency." (He had a similar problem during his political career. Once while running for governor of North Carolina, he appeared in an industrial town to push a state tobacco tax—a popular stand in the area—only to oppose it a few hours later, in tobacco country.) Today support of Gardner within ABA ranks is still sharply divided. "Those who resent Jim are those who aren't being realistic," says Richard Tinkham, an attorney and part owner of the Indiana Pacers. "They are the people who want a merger at any cost. All of us want to merge someday; Jim just wants to make sure the terms will be fair and equitable."
Gardner first shook the NBA by signing Philadelphia star Billy Cunningham (that unnamed player). He infuriated the rival league—and college coaches across the country—by allowing the ABA's Denver team to sign Spencer Haywood, a University of Detroit All-America and Olympic star who has two years of college eligibility remaining, as a "hardship case." Sitting in his modest office in the Tarrytown Shopping Center in Rocky Mount, N.C., Gardner surveyed the war zone. "All that's holding up a merger is Walter Kennedy," he said, a soft, sugary accent coating each word. "I'll tell you why he's throwing up this smoke screen, yelling about our procedures and all. He's being hit and hit hard, that's why. Kennedy is a bigot and a hypocrite. He acts so pious, when the truth of the matter is that the NBA had Lew Alcindor signed, sealed and delivered long before he graduated. [Alcindor denies this.] We didn't have a chance in the world at Alcindor. The NBA has done everything it could to kill off the ABA.
"Contrary to what you've read or heard, we are not trying to sign college players before they graduate. None of that crop of seniors—Mount, Maravich, Murphy and so on—will play in our league this year, because I, personally, wouldn't allow it. The only reason we haven't clarified this particular point earlier is that at our stage of the game a knock is as good as a plug." [All of the college players allegedly contacted by the ABA had already said they would stay in school.]
Last Thursday, shortly after Dave Bing of Detroit and Luke Jackson had confirmed their jumps to the ABA, Walter Kennedy sat in his office, 23 stories above Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station. It is a big office, paneled and thickly carpeted, and it says Establishment. Kennedy is 56, he lives in Stamford, Conn. and catches the 5:09 home whenever he can. For the past several weeks he has been staying overnight in the city much more often. "You see what we're up against," he said. "This is a war in which we can't attack. If we did, what could we gain? There's nobody in the ABA we want. Gardner is leading a harassment program designed to pressure us into merging cheap, and there's no way he will succeed. You never know when to believe him. I have a few friends in Washington, and I've made myself familiar with his track record. He keeps running around, insisting there's going to be a merger in two weeks or three weeks. Well, I say there isn't going to be any merger for three or four years—if then. What Gardner is trying to do is sell stock in ABA franchises. He's saying, 'Buy into the Pittsburgh Pipers now at $3 a share, and when the merger comes along you'll be in great shape.' He was trying to scare all those college kids into signing by telling them there wouldn't be any money around after a merger. Then he stopped for the first time and considered the weight of public opinion building against him."
The college coaches, led by Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, had led that charge. "I'm the guy who first blew the whistle on the ABA," said Rupp. "My attention was called to the fact that, all over the United States, one of the leagues was making an attempt to meddle with boys who had competition remaining. We've always had an understanding with the NBA about that, and it's worked out nicely. The ABA said the Haywood case was hardship. Well, many other cases are hardship, too. They've fooled around with Calvin Murphy; George King [the Purdue coach] says they've fooled around with Mount; and they've fooled around with Maravich, too. They've made all kinds of crazy, fantastic offers. It's time for this league to adhere to the rules. The NBA always has."
Echoing Walter Kennedy's thinking, many NBA officials also believe that standing pat in a defensive posture is their best bet. They arc secure in most of the big cities and large arenas that are essential for the financial health of any major league franchise, and they have a lucrative network TV contract, while their rival does not. Says San Diego's Pete Newell: "No doubt there will be problems with competitive signing of players, and it's common knowledge that not all NBA clubs are in the black. But the advantages of merger aren't that significant as opposed to keeping the NBA intact. The NBA has always signed most of the players it wants. Competition has had an effect only when we are negotiating with a big star. In most cases, however, salaries are escalating because the economy is escalating."
Ben Kerner, former owner of the St. Louis Hawks and one of the sport's best brains, says of a merger: "The NBA would be doing the ABA a favor, lending it stature it doesn't have. Let's say the ABA does get two or three of the NBA's stars—the NBA has 50 of them. It would take them years to gain parity. They have no name players, no major cities, no experienced management personnel. In their contract talks they haven't had to pay out anything yet—it's like the Broadway show, Promises, Promises. As for their stealing referees, there are some I wish they had stolen a few years ago when I was in business."
Gardner, meanwhile, was warning that at least 50 NBA players had been in contact with the ABA and that 15 to 20 were involved in "serious" negotiations. "The timing is right for us," he said. "Next year we will have a shot at 20 topflight ballplayers and six superstars. We think we can get four of those superstars for one big reason: the NBA couldn't afford them 'cause it's strapped financially. Ned Irish of the Knicks told me he has players making $50,000 to $60,000 sitting on the bench, and he just can't afford a bidding war. Why stay in business, he told me, when players' salaries soak up 110% of the gate? On the other hand, our people can afford one year of aggressive bidding—and most of them are willing to do it. Our money will be on the table next spring. If Mount and Maravich and Murphy don't pick it up, then it will be there the year after and the year after that—or until somebody is smart enough to take it,"
"Before they will consider merging with us," says Walter Kennedy, "the ABA people say they want the first six choices in next year's draft, plus half of our existing TV contract—out of which they will pay their indemnity. Well, those demands are foolish, I repeat: there will be no merger with the ABA in the foreseeable future. And as for all this stuff about NBA owners being unable to afford a bidding war, that's nonsense. We have always paid top dollar for our talent and will continue to do so.
"Several years ago the NBA said there was room and talent in this country for 20 professional basketball teams. We still believe that, and whether or not those 20 teams are achieved through expansion or merger with some other professional league remains to be seen."
With this mood prevailing on both sides, and the fury of battle taking possession of the protagonists, the prospects of peace are no better than they were when the guns of August 1914 opened fire.
Defender Walter Kennedy worries that NBA stars like Atlanta's Zelmo Beaty will jump.
Attacker James Gardner is accused of trying to sign collegians like Purdue's Rick Mount.