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Despite a ton of talent and an attractive game, the league is wasting away. Merger failing, it may well disappear

Before Denver's Bobby Jones goes the way of Larry Csonka, James Schlesinger and Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, it is necessary to point out why he is worth saving and how to go about doing it. Before the Denver Nuggets follow the Baltimore Claws, the San Diego Sails, the Utah Stars and the late and great New York City to that crowded bankruptcy court in the sky, it is mandatory to discuss why the American Basketball Association deserves to exist long past the spring thaw. To put it another way, it seems about time that all professional basketball—players, owners, commissioners, Larry Fleisher, Judge Robert L. Carter, Sonny Hill, everybody—did something to hold back the dawn.

It has been eight years since the ABA was born on a wing and a prayer and George Mikan throwing up the first red-white-and-blue ball, demanding to be taken seriously and making much of its kinship with the American Football League, which had started from scratch, too. As the AFL had done before it in respect to the NFL, the ABA proclaimed that its game was faster and more exciting than the NBA's and insisted that there was room in the U.S. for its 11 franchises. Eight years later, however, all we are guaranteed from the ABA's administrative geniuses are credibility gaps, a receivership sweepstakes and an ongoing disaster presided over by rookie Commissioner Dave DeBusschere and John Y. Brown Jr., who is president of the league and whose wife owns the Kentucky Colonels.

Though overall ABA attendance has increased every year but one, only three of the original 11 cities remain. Though more and better young players have been signed every season, established stars such as Charlie Scott and George McGinnis keep leaving the league while celebrated jump switchers such as Rick Barry and Billy Cunningham end up in the older NBA. Though some people indeed find the ABA game faster, more colorful and exciting, and the three-point basket the best new wrinkle since the dunk shot, the new league never has caught on the way it should have. And the greatest irony is that just when the ABA is offering the best basketball it has ever played and has probably reached parity on the court with the NBA, the league seems to be withering on the vine. DeBusschere, hired specifically to take his glamorous name and image around the country, pumping up interest in the league, has been unable to stem the mounting disasters.

Aside from daily sins of mismanagement and fumbling ownership—no different from many professional sports operations (or any other business), really—what has hurt the ABA from the beginning has been the lack of a revenue-producing network television contract, which is where the ABA's and early AFL history part company. Born at a time when the appetite for pro football was becoming insatiable, the AFL always had TV support, and by its sixth season had an NBC network contract with enough money in it to keep the new league solvent. But pro basketball in the 70s is not what pro football was to TV 10 years earlier. The NBA's Sunday afternoon ratings, first on ABC, then on CBS, have hardly been spectacular, and when NBC dropped its hockey telecasts this season, the network opted not for pro basketball and the ABA but for college basketball. The ratings of the college game during its March playoffs increased dramatically over the past few seasons, but the more important reason for the network's choice is that ABA demographics are sensationally unattractive to national TV advertisers; the New York Nets are in the No. 1 market, but St. Louis, the next highest team, is in No. 12. (The NBA is covered in Nos. 1 through 9.)

Television is no small matter here or anywhere else. Cotton Fitzsimmons, the coach of the Atlanta Hawks, says, "Forgetting the ABA for a moment, I've always questioned whether the NBA could survive without a TV contract."

The CBS-NBA package is worth $9 million a year to the older league, $500,000 going to each of the 18 teams. So the ABA could be said to be one network contract away from solvency.

Or folding. Or merger. A merger is what they think about night and day in the ABA, and not very much less in the NBA—and for exactly the same reasons that AFL and NFL owners finally saw merger as salvation. Competition has guaranteed that players' salaries and bonuses would rise right through the Superdome roof. That escalation—NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien revealed last week that the average pay in the NBA was $109,000 a year—in addition to the other rising costs of operating a pro team, has turned enough owners' heads so that the majority of them now see merger as the only way back to sanity. The Philadelphia 76ers' Irv Kosloff says, "There must be only one league, by whatever method it takes to get it done."

But at the moment merger is a topic that cannot be officially discussed under penalty of contempt of court. The ban is on so long as the case of "Oscar Robertson, et al. vs. the National Basketball Association" sits before the federal bench of the Southern District of New York. This is the suit filed by Robertson and all the NBA players in 1970 that enjoins the NBA from entering into any merger discussions until it is settled. The suit challenges the option clause, compensation rights and the college draft—all of which the players deem illegal for prohibiting them "freedom of movement." At the same time, however, they are collecting their $8 million or so a week with four months' vacation.

"Big O, et al." is scheduled to be heard in June in a jury trial before Judge Carter, whose preliminary decisions indicate a sympathy for the players' position. Indeed, the judge has advised the NBA to settle out of court, but as a body the owners have ignored all compromise proposals—including the players' "right of first refusal" suggestion, which would make it possible for a team whose employee is playing out his option to match another team's offer to him.

In the unlikely event that the owners win, a path would be clear to a merger in which a whole slew of unhappy Nat Turners would be in total bondage. On the other hand, if the players win (or if the NBA owners change their minds on a compromise), Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the NBA Players Association, says they would not then stand in the way of a merger; to maintain the size of the job market, they would favor it as a matter of self-preservation.

The problem facing the ABA is whether the league can stick it out long enough. Recently the collapse of the Baltimore Claws led to the collapse of the San Diego Sails led to the collapse of the Utah Stars—and that leads to what? Want to bet on the Virginia Squires' survival? (When Dave Robisch, who had been both a Claw and a Sail this year, called his former coach at Denver, Larry Brown, for a job, Brown said something hilarious like, "Sure, Dave, and let you fold up our franchise, too?")

Ironically, several ABA owners would have preferred to abolish the Virginia and Utah franchises the very week San Diego went cold turkey, in order to get it over with, avoid the domino effect, redistribute the players and come up bobbing and weaving once more with six strong teams ready for a move into the NBA next year. But Virginia is still hanging on—at least until the next payroll.

"It's all over now," Denver's Brown said sadly last week. An original member of the league who has been through it all as player and coach on six different clubs (who can forget the legendary Oakland Oaks?), Brown finally has been beaten down by all the hopes and promises. "The ABA is through after this year," he says. "I've always wanted to coach in the NBA, but I didn't want it to happen like this."

Unfortunately, the options open to the ABA are few.

The league can:

1) Struggle on with seven teams—maybe six—and think about playing again next year with whatever is left. The prospect is incredible boredom, since a spectator can watch Indiana's Billy Keller go bombs away over Kentucky's Louie Dampier just so many times before falling into a stupor.

2) Pack up the tents altogether, putting 70 or 80 players out of jobs, some 40 of whom will immediately try out for and make the NBA. This would create total chaos, not to mention a few hard feelings when some of the longtime NBA names find themselves out in the streets selling Bicentennial pencils.

What is shown on the next page is so reasonable, so logical and makes so much good sense that it does not have a snowman's chance in Hades of being considered. Structured the same way as the National Football League, these proposed American and National Conferences are split into three divisions apiece. The National is composed of 12 teams from the present NBA which would remain in their respective divisions (the present Central being disbanded and Washington shifting to the East), while the American consists of the remaining six NBA teams combined with the six surviving ABA franchises, taking into consideration territorial imperatives, natural rivalries, balance of power and the Suez Canal.

For instance, in the East the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Spirits of St. Louis (who will probably move to Cincinnati) would be obvious rivals a la the NFL's Browns and Bengals. The Nets and Braves are in-state enemies, too, and an attraction: they drew 15,000 for an exhibition in Buffalo in October.

While each Central Division team has a traditional rival from the old league in the new division (Kentucky-Indiana, Atlanta-New Orleans), each team in the West gains a new but natural opponent from the other league (Denver-Phoenix, Houston-San Antonio).

Interconference games would be played just as in football, so that people in Portland could enjoy Julius Erving and those in San Antonio could marvel at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Playoffs would be set up with wild-card berths, just as in football, so that we could all watch the Nets choke, as we watch the Oakland Raiders choke every year.

The conferences are put together precisely for the benefit of the TV networks so that ABC, say, could telecast the games of one conference and CBS the other. Though the initial reaction might be to choose the older conference, how long could a network resist the audience drawn by the incomparable Dr. J; the spectacular David Thompson; the amazing Bob McAdoo; and the likes of Marvin Barnes, George Gervin, Artis Gil-more, John Drew and everybody's favorite white draw, Pistol Pete Maravich?

Of course, this setup is all too sensible ever to work. Even now the brilliant NBA thinkers are unlimbering their ammunition. Franklin Mieuli, president of the champion Golden State Warriors, says, "To bring in that many new teams would be sheer folly. We hardly know anything about these men. They would be our partners. We have criteria for franchise holders which include stability, character references, a lot of things. The ABA is nameless and faceless." The words bring to mind everyone's description of the players on Mieuli's own team last season, when it came out of nowhere to win the NBA title. Except for Rick Barry, the Warriors were "nameless and faceless," too.

Fitzsimmons of Atlanta repeats a common complaint of the older league. "It's hard enough selling NBA teams," Cotton says. "How would they draw in our arenas? Erving? Thompson? Hey, one man doesn't draw. You draw by putting Ws on your side of the ledger.

Fitzsimmons' theory underwent scrutiny on the very night he spoke, when his Hawks, leading their division with an unbelievable three-game home winning streak, met the champion Warriors, with the best record in basketball, at the Omni in Atlanta and drew a semisparkling and possibly padded 8,660, the largest crowd of the season. Fitzsimmons was ecstatic, especially after his team got another W.

A week earlier the Denver Nuggets had attracted 9,125 for a contest with the Indiana Pacers, without George McGinnis, and Larry Brown was disappointed at the puny turnout because it was more than 2,500 below the Nuggets' average home attendance.

This contrast between Atlanta and Denver has surfaced before. When Thompson, the NBA's No. 1 draft pick out of North Carolina State, announced last spring he was leaning toward the Nuggets instead of the Hawks, Thomas Cousins, an Atlanta owner, asked, "Who is Denver? They're not even on TV." The Nuggets contented themselves by signing both Thompson and the NBA's No. 3 pick, Marvin Webster, both of them from the Hawks' draft list.

The NBA undoubtedly would demand huge indemnities from ABA teams to enter into a one-league arrangement (New Orleans, the last NBA expansion team, paid a cool $6 million to get in) but that could be worked out by owners with mutual interests. A more serious difficulty would be the status of those ABA players whose draft rights are also owned by NBA teams.

"There is bad blood everywhere," says Pat Williams, general manager of the 76ers. "One school of thought says that while we have the ABA on the run, let's bury them. I know damn well I want those players whom we drafted. Milwaukee would demand Erving. Atlanta would demand Thompson. Chicago would demand Artis Gilmore. You think the ABA teams would agree to come in empty, like expansion clubs?"

But what would Williams do with his draft choices, Marvin Barnes and Caldwell Jones? Philly already has something like 37 no cuts on a 12-man roster; how would he stretch an annual payroll said to be in excess of $3 million? And what would the Pistons, for example, do with their former drafts, Dan Issel and Larry Kenon? They'd have to call Manpower to find work for their current forwards, Curtis Rowe and Al Eberhard.

The Celtics' Red Auerbach doesn't agree with Williams. He says, "If those teams outbid us fair and square for those players, we can't expect them to give them up to us in any merger situation." This is sweet talk indeed from an NBA stalwart never adverse to demeaning the quality of ABA players and coaches. Auerbach's current spat is with Indiana Pacer Coach Bob Leonard who, he says, was a bad coach when he was with the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA and must be a dog now, too. Leonard, in turn, points out that when K. C. Jones, one of Auerbach's protégés, coached San Diego of the ABA, he was 0-11 against Leonard's Pacers. That year Jones' team had a record of 30-54 and finished next to last. Last season Jones' NBA Washington Bullets were 60-22 and finished first in their division. Petty arguments aside, the few examples of players or coaches who have operated on both sides are not especially indicative of the comparative worth of the two leagues.

More revealing, although the NBA scorns the interpretation, are the results of exhibition play between the leagues. During the first two years they met in the preseason the NBA overwhelmed the new boys 42-17. But things have changed. Over the last three seasons the ABA has steadily pulled ahead to 15-10, 16-7 and, this past fall, 31-17. In that span Kentucky, Denver and New York of the ABA built up a 33-14 record against NBA clubs. Overall, the ABA now leads in the rivalry, 79-76.

Advocates of the older league say these figures represent "mere exhibitions," "meaningless practice sessions" and the like. NBA players and coaches pass the games off as ones in which they were "just looking at a lot of people" or "weren't trying" or "hardly going all out."

But the question then is—was the NBA "just practicing" the first two years? Have Tom Heinsohn's Celtics not been trying while losing to Larry Brown's ABA teams five straight times? Was Boston's Dave Cowens not going all out when he injured his foot last year chasing a Denver player on a meaningless fast break? Was George McGinnis not trying while the 76ers went into two overtimes to beat his former Indiana team? How about Rick Barry? How great an effort was he making when he scored 49 points to Julius Erving's 43 in a Golden State victory over the Nets? Or when he almost came to fisticuffs over the tough defense of Wil Jones in a loss to the Colonels?

Pete Newell, the Lakers' GM, knows there are no excuses. "We can't cop a plea," he says. "If we play the ABA, we give up the psychological edge, and we have to get ourselves up or get beat." So the Lakers don't play any ABA teams. Another facet of this argument by some NBA owners is that they are under no compulsion to help the other league by competing against it.

What, in fact, has been going on is parity—or very near parity—any way you want to cut it. Jim Fox, the journeyman center for the Milwaukee Bucks, says, "The way you really notice how far the ABA has advanced is this: You used to see a guy get waived out of the NBA and catch on big in the other league. No more. Even Happy Hairston hasn't caught on this year."

The Warriors' Jeff Mullins says Denver runs the break "better than any team I've seen in the NBA." The Lakers' Lucius Allen says, "You want to know about good players over there? How about George Gervin? Most of us here wish we could play with George Gervin."

Tom Nissalke, late of Utah, who has bounced back and forth between the leagues like some berserk loose ball, says that before a Utah-Milwaukee game he told his old boss, Larry Costello, that there were several key Bucks who wouldn't make Utah's team. Then he went out and beat Costello without the injured Moses Malone.

"I say it now and I'd say it if I were president of Madison Square Garden," insists Nissalke, "there is no difference between the leagues anymore. The only thing the ABA lacks is exposure, and that means TV. The greatest shame of this is a guy like Bobby Jones. Here is the very best all-round young player in the game, and three-fourths of the country doesn't even know whether he's white or black."

Ultimately a realigned 24-team league would display more running, wide-open offenses with somewhat less physical defenses. More fun and laughs and less of that pick-and-roll, cut-and-screen, push-and-hold technical stuff. A much-needed variety of individual styles all around. The American Conference could retain the crowd-pleasing three-point basket, which a number of present NBA coaches already admire. The fate of the circus ball would be a tossup.

The Celtics' Charlie Scott believes that he enhanced the quality of his mental game "200%" after switching from the ABA to the NBA. Scott says even Dr. J would be able to polish his skills, especially his knowledge of the "total team concept," if he were in the other league.

So with everybody playing in one league, it is fair to assume that all ABA players would almost immediately improve their games by remarkable bounds and that divine parity finally would be reached. Denver would win its conference and polish off Golden State in a phenomenal seven-game series. David Thompson would be chosen most valuable sky diver and Bobby Jones would have three books, two movies and one jigsaw puzzle done on his life.

As those old NBA hands said of George McGinnis, "When George gets on national TV he'll get more notoriety in four minutes in the NBA than he got in four years in the ABA. But he won't dominate. Not yet."

Sure enough. McGinnis got on TV the other week. In his first 12 minutes of notoriety he scored only 14 points. Just goes to show you. It will take those ABA guys a while.


Former Knick star DeBusschere's domain is 30% smaller than it was just two months ago.


John Y. is ABA president; Mrs. Brown owns the Colonels.



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