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Original Issue


They laughed when this former fruit and nut salesman bought a basketball team. Now it's the Nets who are chock-full of chuckles

Roy Lars Magnus Boe is a businessman plain and simple. He does not describe himself as a promoter or a financier or an entrepreneur, magnate, market analyst or wheeler-dealer. He is a little bit of all those things, but he calls himself a businessman just like folks used to do before the fancier terms were invented.

When Boe recounts a conversation about anything less mundane than the score of his lunchtime squash game at New York's Yale Club or his 15-year-old son Sam's love life, he usually describes it as "doing business." In fact, when Boe assesses the talents of other businessmen he never feels the need to bestow any admiring adjectives on those he regards with esteem. It is enough of an accolade for him to blurt out in his machine-gun style: "The man knows how to do business."

The fact that Roy Boe also knows how to do business is very good for him, since it is probably the thing that has saved him these past 3½ years since he put himself into a very unbusinesslike mess. In May 1969, Boe purchased the New York franchise of the American Basketball Association. The team had been known at various times as the New York Freighters and the New Jersey Americans. When Boe bought the club it was called—as it is today—the New York Nets. The Nets in May of 1969 were doing no business at all.

The Nets also were not doing much business in May of 1970 or even May of 1971. It was not until a Friday night in the spring of 1972 that, with one extraordinary victory, they became successful. The groundwork for that win and the fortuitous circumstances surrounding it were so well set that the Nets did not become merely successful, they became hugely so. Now there are few teams in pro basketball—and none in the ABA—that arc doing business like the Nets.

Boe's only recent contact with basketball before he bought the Nets had been as a season ticket holder at Madison Square Garden, where he watched the Knickerbockers. Before that—way before that—he had played one year of varsity basketball at the Englewood (N.J.) School. The son of Norwegian immigrants, he spent most of his time playing hockey during the winter. He was captain of the Englewood team as a senior, which by his criteria gives him unusually good credentials for his latest venture, owning a National Hockey League franchise. More pertinent qualifications are niceties Boe has routinely ignored.

At 42, he looks like the corporate man of the '50s in dark-hued suits and TV-blue shirts. His light-brown hair is close-cropped and sideburnless, and he keeps his 200-pound body in trim with squash and bowling during the winter and tennis in the summer. But appearances aside, Boe is not the Organization Man; he has worked only briefly—and unhappily—for others during his business career. In an earlier era he might have been a tough operator with a wagonload of elixir. In his own time Boe has plunged into food brokering, women's apparel and sports, and has been successful, to varying degrees, in each.

"I'm not a ponderer," he says. "I like to make fast decisions whether they're right or wrong. People tell me I'm impulsive and I guess they're right. I'm lousy at detail but I think I'm good at delegating authority, buoying up morale and convincing people to do things."

Boe was fresh from college and Korean war duty in 1953 when he met a tall, dark-haired young fashion designer named Deon Woolfolk. Neither was particularly impressed with the other. "I was interested in another guy when somebody introduced this boy who said he was a fruit and nuts salesman," Deon recalls. "I didn't pay much attention; it sounded like pretty dull stuff." Boe was enthused enough to get the girl's phone number. Still, he put the piece of paper in a pocket and forgot about it until a couple of weeks later. 'I vaguely remembered who she was," he says. "I gave her a call and asked her to ride out to Jones Beach with me and we were married at City Hall a couple of months later."

"When I got to know Roy a little I became very impressed," Deon says now. "He told me he planned to be a millionaire by the time he was 35. I didn't care about the money; neither of us had a sou at the time and I couldn't imagine that much money. What got me was that he had a purpose." Boe remembers no such precise plan but he very nearly fulfilled it nonetheless—with considerable help from Deon.

A couple of years after they were married the Boes moved to one of the wealthier enclaves of suburban Connecticut. They still live there with their five children in a huge, old, white wooden house that would look like an immense wedding cake if it were not surrounded by all manner of athletic gear. Deon, doubling as a housewife and young mother, ran a small fabric shop, designing and making her own clothes. One of the items she put together was a simple wraparound madras skirt. One day another shopkeeper saw the skirt and told Deon that if she could make more he could sell them. Within a couple of months the Boes had hired a manufacturer and were selling skirts to department stores in New York and other cities, and Roy had quit the food business. By the end of the first year, Mrs. Boe's wraparound skirts in madras and tweed had grossed $200,000. Four years later, after expanding into other sportswear items and swimsuits, many of them designed by Deon, the firm, called Boe Jests, was sold for several million. Roy Boe, who naturally ran the business side of the operation, was 36 years old.

To help him negotiate the sale in 1966, Boe hired New York Lawyer Bob Carlson, a litigation expert who had done some work for the New York Knicks. Carlson became a close business associate and personal friend; he recalls that even then the restless Boe "wanted to get into sports in the worst possible way."

He chose the worst possible way. Early in 1968 Boe purchased a New York Giants' farm team, the Westchester Bulls of the now defunct Atlantic Coast Football League, for about $50,000. The Bulls played their home games at a tiny high school stadium in Mount Vernon, N.Y., 23 miles from Boe's house, and he enjoyed attending practice several times a week, watching games and rejoicing with members of his squad who were called up to the parent team. "I was just like any guy would be in that situation. I was a fan," Boe says. One thing he did not cheer about was the $75,000 in losses it cost him to be a rooter that year.

At the close of the 1968 football season, Boe received a form letter from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., advertising for rent the school's newly lighted and AstroTurfed football stadium on Long Island. Although Boe had been born in Brooklyn, he, like other New Yorkers, did not consider that area of the city and the adjacent borough of Queens as part of the Island—even though both are located on the geographical entity called Long Island. To Brooklynites, the Island meant the suburban counties of Nassau and Suffolk, and Boe knew little about them or their potential for supporting a sports franchise. He also knew little about the basketball team called the Nets, except that they played somewhere "out on the Island." He had never seen any of their games nor could he name any of their players.

For the 1968-69 basketball season, Arthur Brown, then the owner of the ABA's New York franchise, had shifted his team from Teaneck, N.J. to Long Island. In a piece of fine homonymic footwork he changed its name from Americans to Nets—just about the only good move made in the franchise's first two years. Brown had settled the team at Commack in Suffolk County, a community 60 miles from midtown Manhattan, where some folks still follow the traditional Long Island occupations of raising potatoes and ducks. A few cows and chickens and—by the most liberal estimates—an average of roughly 1,000 people saw the Nets' games that season. The team won about as often as the Commack arena's heating system worked. Both the Nets and their oil burner finished last in the division.

Meanwhile, Hofstra had managed to sign Roy Boe and his Westchester Bulls. Boe was impressed by the college stadium and particularly by the fact that it was surrounded by a parking lot. The next step seemed businesslike enough: Boe arranged an appointment with Nets Owner Brown to discuss setting up a jointly operated ticket sales office in Nassau County. But when Boe arrived for the session, he quickly found that Brown was not interested in selling tickets. He was interested in selling the team. Within 10 days Boe bought it.

In the best business tradition, Boe was making a hedge bet on the future. A proposed new Nassau Coliseum was in the planning stage, and while the project was caught up in political crossfire, Boe says, "I called around on the Island and became convinced that the place would actually be built. Also, I could become a tenant if I stayed around until it was ready for the start of the '71-72 season."

Boe checked further and learned the size of his risk: "I was told the Nets had lost $500,000 in the season just completed. I figured that if I increased expenses and put together a better team we'd get much higher attendance and more income. I estimated we'd lose $500,000 the first year, $300,000 the next and we'd make some money our third season, which would be our first in the Coliseum."

"I told him he was crazy to buy the Nets," recalls Lawyer Carlson. "Then I told him a few more times he was crazy before I finally realized that he had made up his mind. So, I just had to be his lawyer and help him make the best possible deal. We started talking to Brown at two o'clock in the afternoon and we signed a formal, 20-page contract at two o'clock the next morning at a table in the Brasserie restaurant. For an investment of about a million bucks, Roy got five players. Only one of them, Walt Simon, who is now a possible starter for Kentucky, played for the Nets the next year. The deal also included the final year of Brown's lease in Commack, which we had to buy because Roy knew the team had to be moved to someplace where people lived. He also got a portable basketball floor, which was warped."

Over the next two years Boe and partners he acquired lost approximately $100,000 a month, the sort of situation that would make any investor grit his teeth a bit. And never mind the basketball—one ABA executive insists that Boe's best sporting accomplishment during that period was in keeping his money sources open. Boe actually owned one-third of the team; he had taken in some New York investment bankers and—before the team started to operate on its own revenue—he brought in another 12 Long Island businessmen.

The Coliseum was still a long way off, so Boe signed a lease on Hempstead's Island Garden a month before the 1969-70 season opener. A moldy, 5,000-seat wrestling arena tucked behind a fast-food restaurant and accessible only through a narrow driveway, the Garden was not only crummy looking, it was nearly impossible to find. Not surprisingly, the Nets sold only 42 season tickets in Boe's first year.

He had almost as much trouble selling men on taking jobs in the organization. It took a month and more of constant telephoning, three-a-week meetings and Boe's personal guarantee on salary provisions of the contract before he could get Lou Carnesecca, the highly successful St. John's coach and a very popular man with the New York press, to come in as general manager and coach. At that Boe gave the coach a year to fulfill his contract with St. John's. But even a big-time coach could not fill the arena. Mike Manzer, the team's 34-year-old sales and promotion chief, spent the first two seasons trying to build attendance. How about Turtle Night? Sure enough, the fans got the little critters in boxes and, sure enough, it wasn't long before turtles were crawling all over the stands—and the Nets heard about it from the ASPCA. Another time, Manzer uncovered a band of St. John's students who wanted to honor one of their old grads, Nets star Sonny Dove. There was a flourish from the band and the P.A. announcer heralded the launching of a real live dove in Sonny's honor. The students opened the box and the real live dove flew out. It took roughly two flaps, died and crashed right into the stands.

The worst fiasco occurred when the Nets finally made the playoffs at the end of Boe's first season. The home opener against Kentucky was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, a day and time when the Nets had drawn their best gates of the season. The owners were hoping for a sellout, but someone forgot to tell them about the weather. It was mid-spring, there were leaves on the trees, birds were chirping, and baseball was in full bloom. That Sunday afternoon was the day when Little League tryouts were being staged all over the Island. Fewer than 500 paying customers showed up, and just before game time Boe put his arm around Manzer's shoulders and said, "It's all right, Mike. Why don't you go over to Whitey's snack bar and get those people in here? We gotta try something to make this look good."

The Nets themselves were gradually starting to look good to perhaps the most important people in Nassau County's bedroom communities: the kids. The team ran a Christmas tournament for peewee players and a summer clinic for high school boys; a basket was rigged on the back of a truck and in two summers the team's players and coaches gave free instruction in shopping center parking lots and schoolyards to 100,000 youngsters. Any pretext to give a Nets ticket to a child was pretext enough.

Boe was also busy building a team. After an unsuccessful run at Bob Lanier, now All-Star center for the NBA Detroit Pistons, and Geoff Petrie, an NBA co-Rookie of the Year for Portland, he heard about Rick Barry. In the summer of 1970 Barry was involved in another of his interminable contract hassles, this time trying to wriggle free of an agreement with the ABA's Virginia Squires in order to return to the NBA's Warriors. In the course of an interview Barry made some uncomplimentary remarks about the Old Dominion, and suddenly one of the very best pro players was anathema in Virginia. It took Boe only a few minutes on the phone with Squire Owner Earl Foreman and Barry to decide that he would pay the huge sums both wanted to make Barry a New York Net.

The Barry deal marked a turning point. The Nets refused the opportunity to sign Julius Erving because he was still an undergraduate at Massachusetts, but when the team was awarded the draft rights to Marquette star Jim Chones, Boe quickly landed him with a $1.5 million contract.

In their first two years in Island Garden the Nets generated an aggregate income of $400,000. Last season (when they were supposed to play all their games in the new Coliseum but played only half of them because of construction delays), the Nets earned nearly five times the gross of those other years. And the team's power began to become evident: once the Nets were in the Coliseum, it was routinely accepted in ABA circles that New York would become the league's strongest franchise. In fact, there were immediate questions about how that strength would be used. (In the NBA, the Knicks had dominated the league's finances and politics for years even though they had rarely been on top in the standings. It is not mere coincidence that the NBA Commissioner's office is in the Madison Square Garden complex.)

The same was being said of the Nets last spring when ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph resigned before his contract came up for renewal. Boe was one of two men assigned to find a replacement—and his friend Bob Carlson was the man. Carlson was well known to ABA owners before his election. He had done legal work for the league office and had attended trustees' meetings for several years, yet, as one ABA insider says, "I think Carlson is a heck of a choice and a fair man, but I have to believe that if I were a Memphis or a Carolina man I'd watch myself carefully around him, particularly when I'm dealing with the Nets."

It will always be Boe's special pride that when the Nets—the team and the franchise—finally grew up they did it with a bang. They burst out all at once during a playoff game with Kentucky last April, in an evening of wild, vocal explosion. There were sudden new vibrations, fan with fan, player with player and crowd with team. The Nets' winning basket that night, tossed up by John Roche amid the pleading screams of 15,000 Long Islanders and the silent blinking of the time clocks, was an unreasoned and unreasonable shot. Because it was, it brought absolute, roof-blowing excitement. Boe could not have hoped for a more apt triumph.

The setting for Roche's shot had been slowly pieced together since the Nets had moved into the uncompleted Nassau Coliseum two months earlier. The players adapted quickly to their new floor and rallied from a poor first half of the schedule to finish third in the Eastern Division. Even though they had compiled their best record ever, they still finished 24 games behind division-winning Kentucky, and New York faced the Colonels in the initial playoff round.

Surprisingly, the Nets won the first two games in Louisville before returning to the Coliseum—which finally had almost all of its 16,000 seats in place. They lost that midweek game. When Boe arrived at the arena for the Friday game that followed, he already knew that the house was sold out and that his franchise would gross approximately $100,000 that night, a total roughly equal to the team's entire income the first season he owned it. What he did not know was that Barry, who had scored 50 and 35 points in the Nets' wins over the Colonels, was home in bed with the flu.

A full house is not necessarily an unmitigated boon to a young franchise. For this game the Nets would have many new customers, potential fans who might never return if New York were blown off the floor, a distinct possibility with Barry out of the lineup. The crowd seemed angry after the announcement of Barry's illness, but the Nets played a brilliant, intuitive game that kept them on even terms with Kentucky throughout the first half. It was not until Rick's replacement, NBA reject John Baum, scored seven consecutive baskets early in the third period that the spectators began to sense that New York could win. Through the final 24 minutes, right up until Roche's desperate, game-clinching three-point basket in the closing seconds, the clamor grew, first surpassing anything ever heard in Indianapolis, home of the ABA's previous hysteria champions, and then approaching the noise level of Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks play to the most vociferous crowds in pro basketball.

But there was a distinct difference in the timbre of the crowd noise at Nassau Coliseum. There were high-pitched shrieks and squeaky wails and falsetto chants. For the first time in recent years in New York, large numbers of children were attending a major professional sporting event other than baseball. The scarcity and expense of tickets had kept kids away from football, hockey and Knickerbocker games, so the children brought their parents to see the Nets. All those shopping-center clinics and all those free passes to sit in the grimy end-zone seats at Island Garden had put the Nets over the top.

How far over is still debatable. Boe has claimed the Nets will be third to the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers in attendance this season, but he also admits his estimates have been consistently too high ever since he bought the franchise. Manzer projects attendance will fall slightly under 10,000 a game—which should rank New York first in the ABA, but only sixth or seventh among all pro teams. If Barry, who decided to rejoin the NBA Warriors (even though he had earlier claimed he would not play basketball this season unless for the Nets), had remained in New York, Manzer says his estimate would have been boosted by 2,000 or more.

One team the Nets are almost certain not to outdraw is Boe's new hockey club, the New York Islanders. The combination of playing at the Nassau Coliseum and the Islanders' membership in the long-established National Hockey League practically guarantees the team financial success from the outset. The Islanders have sold 9,000 season tickets and expect to average 12,000 fans a game. "We're pretty certain to make money the first year with the Islanders," Boe says. "And I feel safe saying that, even though we haven't dropped a puck yet."

Boe has already dropped $10 million—$6 million to join the NHL and draft players and another $4 million to pay off Madison Square Garden for invading the Rangers' territory. The investment has also put Boe, one of basketball's upstarts, on the side of the Establishment in hockey. There are, of course, upstarts in hockey now, too, and a war is on between the NHL and the new World Hockey Association, which has already signed eight of the players Boe drafted for the Islanders.

"I've been through one war and I've paid dearly," Boe says. "If the WHA is still in business in three years, I'll be their best ally in the NHL camp. But that'll come only after they've lost about $5 million apiece. The guys in the NHL will be able to stand the price, but I've seen a lot of owners come into the ABA all hot to go, then, when they've lost a million or so, they cool off.

"I figure it will cost me about $2.1 million, $2 million in increased salaries and $100,000 in court costs, to fight the WHA for three years, and I'm willing to do it. I feel about hockey right now the same way the Knicks' president, Ned Irish, did about the ABA five years ago. In five years the ABA has lost $20 million, and I'd guess it will cost the WHA between $40 million and $60 million to get established. Let's see if they're willing to pay it. If they are, I'll be glad to have them. First, they've got to prove to me that they're willing to do business."

And doing business is the name of Roy Boe's game—in hockey or basketball or wraparound skirts.