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'Help!' cried The Four-and got it

At the yearly NBA meeting, the Old 18 showed their new kids a little mercy

The owners, coaches and general managers of the National Basketball Association met in California last week to celebrate the end of their longest and most lucrative season. Tennis games and poolside martini brunches took place at the magnificent 90-year-old Hotel del Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. The annual meeting also had a bit of "housekeeping" to do—Commissioner Larry O'Brien calls himself "the league's chief housekeeper"—and four teams had to have their affairs tidied up. But in the brilliant California sunshine even that problem didn't seem truly urgent.

And for good reason. The nine-year bidding war that had kept most pro clubs, both NBA and ABA, with one foot in the poorhouse was history. Attendance for the 1976-77 season had reached an alltime high, television ratings had soared 15%, and the free-agent movement that had shaken professional baseball and football appeared to be of no concern to the basketball moguls. In short, the NBA could congratulate itself on being one big happy monopoly at last.

But skies were not perfectly clear over San Diego Bay; there was this one small black cloud hovering over the heads of the delegates from the four former ABA teams that had been so generously accepted by the NBA a year ago. The generous terms were these: pay us $12.8 million, with an extra $4 million from the Nets for encroaching on the New York Knicks, and stay out of our TV money for four years.

In the 12 months since peace arrived at last year's meetings at Hyannis, Mass., $12 million of the debt has been paid. This left "The Four"—as the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs came to be called by the "Old 18" NBA clubs—still owing $800,000, hurting in various degrees because of it and prepared to ask for a little relief from their lodge brothers.

They could and did point out that the NBA's finest year was the first that included ABA teams and players, and that five of the final eight playoff teams—including both finalists—were powered by ex-ABA players. And CBS showed clearly where it stood on the importance of at least one ex-ABAer by switching the weight of its TV schedule from the Nets to the 76ers when Julius Erving moved to Philadelphia. "At least let us have some of the $10.5 million in TV money you shared showing off our players to the world," said The Four.

"Look," said one longtime NBA owner from poolside, "we were doing fine before there ever was an ABA. We would have had their players sooner or later anyway. Four teams wanted in and we told them what it would cost. Fine. Now we have $12 million we didn't have before, some good players we didn't have before and, if they can make it, a couple of teams in a couple of markets we didn't have before. We love our 22-team league. But 20 is O.K., too."

Carl Scheer, the Nuggets' president, was similarly practical: "When Hirohito was negotiating with MacArthur, he didn't ask for Manhattan."

In their eagerness to get into the NBA, The Four had allowed themselves to be squeezed from both sides until, says Scheer, "the $12.8 million became almost $24 million." The Four had also committed themselves to a $3.3 million payout to John Y. Brown, owner of the disbanded Kentucky Colonels. (No one has come out of the merger with a sweeter deal than Brown, who now owns the Buffalo Braves and is still owed $2.2 million by The Four.) And there were various lesser obligations amounting to about $3.9 million. For all of this, The Four are jointly and individually responsible, so that, in the words of Bob Carlson, an associate of Net President Roy Boe, "We're a house of cards. If one card goes, pfffft."

At least one card, Indiana, seemed in danger of toppling immediately. Situated in the heart of basketball country, the Pacers drew 10,500 a game last season, a figure respectable enough to have given them a slim operational profit. But with the enormous debt, the owners simply did not have the kind of megabucks to keep the franchise on its feet. In fact, the Pacers' money plain ran out in mid-May, and on June 1, the players did not get paid. Billy Knight joked about the possibility of his becoming a pool hustler but also took pains to notify the league that, according to his contract, he would become a free agent in five days. The Pacer office staff had already gone three weeks without pay, skipping lunches and relying on sandwich vendors and soft-drink companies for handouts, and on the Racers, a WHA hockey team, for paper cups for the office coffeepot. Enough money was eventually borrowed to pay the players, but the team still has a $3.4 million loan to pay off, and fresh capital is contingent upon selling 8,000 season tickets by June 30, more than double last year's total.

The Nets' dismal 6,935 announced attendance average was the league's second worst. They have already proved that they cannot draw from the white middle-class commuter bedrooms of Nassau County, even with championship teams (two in the last four years) and superstars (Erving and Rick Barry). Now the club has been wrecked, draft choices traded away for bad players and talent sold for raw cash. Boe is accused of devoting all his energy to the successful Islanders hockey team. "Nonsense," he said, before splitting early to tend to the signing of some Swedish hockey players back in New York.

The Nuggets and the Spurs are both solid teams, athletically and financially. San Antonio played to 90% capacity in its 10,446-seat arena and its investors are committed to long-term survival. Denver could become the NBA's solidest franchise. The Nuggets led the league in attendance last year with a 17,150 average, 99% of capacity. "We are a going business" is one of Scheer's favorite expressions.

Thus it was at the del Coronado that the Old 18 tended to tennis and tanning and a modicum of O'Brien's "housekeeping," while the delegations from The Four moved about carefully so as not to stumble upon any embarrassing behind-their-backs whispering. "We ought to wear little badges that say 'ABA' so people will know to shut up when we walk by," said the Pacers' public relations director, Sandy Knapp. Indeed, the five-person Indiana delegation clung together like children in a dark graveyard. People were either talking about the Pacers or trying to buy them. They had offers from Hollywood, Fla. and Providence, feelers from Pittsburgh and San Diego.

And while everyone waited for the Board of Governors' decision on the question of The Four, the main business of the meetings was the following:

•Year-by-year records of former ABA players, but not coaches, would hence? forth be listed in the NBA Guide.

•The coaches voted to require blackboards in visiting locker rooms. The Pacers' Bob Leonard suggested a resolution ordering the extermination of "the big white rat that lives in the visitors' locker room at Boston Garden. He's been there as long as Auerbach."

•The coaches recommended that the league experiment with the late great three-point 25-foot basket and the "no foul out" rule, both features of ABA play. Portland's Jack Ramsay dissented on the three-pointer, saying that if a 25-footer counts for three, an uncontested layup ought to be worth a half-point. This prompted the question of how many points should be awarded for an incredible double-dip whirlybird Dr. J dunk. Ramsay agreed that four points might be merited.

•The NBA competition committee decided to limit squads to 11 men, with a two-man taxi squad signaling the tragic demise of the romantic "12th man." R.I.P. Clarence Glover, Luke Witte, Electric Eddie Mast, Paul Ruffner, Luther Rackley, et al.

•The man from Providence, a 39-year-old ex-rock promoter and self-described professional hustler named Robert (Skip) Chernov, tried to buy first the Nets, then the Pacers. Next he lured bored reporters into a press conference with beluga caviar to announce he had retained William Kunstler to sue the NBA for depriving him of his right to place a team in Providence.

And finally, with the real news of the week, out came O'Brien, smiling and PR-conscious as ever, having once again guided his flock through just the right moves. The Board of Governors, he announced, had "overwhelmingly [Los Angeles was the lone dissenter] approved actions to assure the continuing viability of the San Antonio, Indiana, New York Nets and Denver franchises," by deferring until June 1980 the remaining $800,000 in entry fees, by backing up additional loans to The Four with the NBA's own security, and by continuing to monitor the teams' financial affairs.

While the Old 18 moguls jetted off from San Diego and San Antonio's people went back to the Alamo and Boe did hockey business in New York and the Pacer PR delegation went to raise some coffee money in Las Vegas, Denver's Scheer stayed behind to work on his tennis and his tan, just as if he were one of the Old 18—make it 19.