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One Sweet Severance Package & Other Tales of the ABA

wikimedia commons, fair use
wikimedia commons, fair use

"The NBA was a symphony, it was scripted; the ABA was jazz." —Ron Grinker

Rival leagues were all the rage in North American sports in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but none has had as lasting an impact as the American Basketball Association. The ABA's six-year war with the NBA resulted in a merger that brought four new teams to the larger league, but also brought innovations, financial gains (and one big cost), and significant star power that permanently altered American professional basketball.

The Spirits of St. Louis and Their Sweetheart Severance

How does a team that never played a single NBA game—and never will—manage to get four-sevenths of an annual NBA TV share every year? With a good lawyer and a little luck.

st-louis-spiritsThe owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, the Silna brothers, had no intention of joining the NBA—in fact, had the ABA played its 1976-77 season, the brothers were moving the team to Salt Lake City—but they negotiated hard, demanding entry into the larger league and threatening to hold up the agreement until they were satisfied. The Spirits' attorney and part-owner Donald Schupak "just wore everyone out with his demands," according to Mike Goldberg, former legal counsel to the ABA.

In exchange for going along with an agreement that dissolved the Spirits but allowed four other ABA teams to join the NBA, the brothers received $2.2 million up front, and receive one-seventh of the TV money received by each of those four surviving ABA teams ... in perpetuity. (In practice, it has turned out to be slightly more than a four-seventh share, as the merger agreement specifies that their share may only be split across 28 teams. The NBA has 30 teams at the moment, so the brothers receive 30/49ths of a share.)

In the NBA's current TV deal, that amounts to a $14.57 million check, every year, for doing nothing.

Each brother gets 45%, and Schupark gets 10%. I imagine this lottery ticket is in the back of the mind of nearly every alternative-league owner who has come along since the ABA-NBA merger.

The ABA Took on the NCAA, too—and Won

The NCAA, always looking for ways to limit student-athletes' rights, had a "Four-Year Rule" that prohibited college players from leaving for pro careers until they had played four seasons for their schools. The ABA decided to challenge that rule, and the Denver Rockets signed a University of Detroit sophomore named Spencer Haywood to a three-year deal worth $450,000 (with most of the money deferred). They chose Haywood because he was dominating his college competition, but also because they could argue that he was a "hardship case" and needed to earn money to support his mother and nine siblings.

After a year of lawsuits, a judge ruled that the "Four-Year Rule" had no basis in law—similar to this February's ruling by an Ohio trial judge that the NCAA's by-law prohibiting players from using agents was invalid. Haywood was able to suit up for the Rockets, winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards before jumping ship and signing with the NBA's Seattle Sonics for more money.

The ABA Had More Than Its Share of Hall of Famers

dr-j-netsThe ABA's destruction of the NCAA's rule preventing college players from leaving school early opened the door for the Virginia Squires to sign University of Massachusetts junior Julius Erving in 1970 as an undrafted free agent. (They paid the New York Nets $10,000 to settle a dispute over who had the rights to sign him.) Erving was a relatively unknown college player because college basketball at the time prohibited dunking, and dunking turned out to be the very thing that made Erving a legend, one later known as "Dr. J."

Erving was just the headliner among players who started their professional careers in the NBA. Fellow Hall of Famer Moses Malone played two seasons in the ABA, with Utah and St. Louis, before jumping to the NBA. George Gervin, also a Hall of Famer, started out with Virginia, moved to San Antonio, then stayed with the club as the Spurs joined the larger league. Rick Barry and Dan Issel both played in the ABA and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Larry Brown played in the ABA for five years, then began his coaching career there, eventually earning his way into the Hall of Fame as well. Seven-foot-two Art Gilmore made six NBA All-Star Games, and a dispute over his rights was the main reason the Kentucky Colonels (who were one of the top-drawing teams in the ABA, even outdrawing ten NBA teams on a per-game basis in 1974-75) were left out of the NBA in the merger agreement. In fact, despite always working as the smaller league, ten of the 24 players in the first post-merger All-Star Game had played in the ABA.

And while he never suited up—for obvious reasons—Bob Costas got his start in broadcasting as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Spirits of St. Louis.

They Almost Merged Sooner

The ABA's intention from the beginning was to force some kind of merger or other financial settlement with the NBA, and in the offseason between the 1969-70 and 1970-71 seasons, they nearly succeeded. The NBA had pooled its resources to keep several players out of the ABA, including Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, after which the ABA filed an antitrust suit. The ABA had written documentation of the NBA's plan to rig its entry draft, and used it to force settlement talks.

The NBA at the time didn't sign underclassmen, leaving that group of players entirely to the ABA, triggering another set of lawsuits but also pushing the NBA to come up with such a plan to prevent a talent drain. This gave the ABA substantial leverage in their negotiations with the NBA.

The reason the merger failed, according to ABA co-founder and legal counsel Dick Tinkham, was that the players opposed it. Oscar Robertson led a Players Association lawsuit that argued that the merger would create a monopoly (technically, a monopsony—a single-buyer market for the services of players) and thus artificially restrict player salaries and flexibility. The U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee held a heading where Robertson and John Havlicek testified - no word on whether Havlicek stole the gavel - and the committee's terms for approving the merger were unacceptable to the NBA, scotching the deal.

They Presaged Expansion/Relocation

The four teams that jumped from the NBA to the ABA (Denver, Indiana, San Antonio, and New Jersey) weren't the only changes made to the NBA map, as the ABA placed franchises in several other cities that eventually housed NBA teams.

Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Memphis, and Miami all hosted ABA franchises at some point in the league's history. Charlotte hosted some of the Carolina Cougars' home games, along with three other cities in North Carolina. And San Diego proved a flop in the ABA, which didn't deter the owners of the Buffalo Braves from moving the team to San Diego in 1978, renaming them the Clippers, only to move north to Los Angeles after flopping in San Diego too (although the team's lousy performance was probably the main reason).

utah-starsThe Utah Stars showed the viability of an NBA team in Salt Lake City, with a first-year attendance average of 6,246 fans, setting a record for a new franchise in either the ABA or the NBA. The Stars lasted until early in the ABA's final season—even averaging over 8,500 fans per game in their final full year—but owner Bill Daniels ran out of cash and the Stars folded just 16 games into the 1975-76 season after missing payroll. The NBA finally took advantage of the fertile market four years later, when the New Orleans Jazz moved to Salt Lake City, creating one of the most absurd team names in American professional sports.

More ABA Nuggets

George Mikan agreed to be the commissioner of the new league ten minutes before the introductory press conference, when owners finally capitulated to his demands (a three-year, $150,000 deal). Mikan's major contribution, other than the credibility he brought to the endeavor? The red, white, and blue ball. According to Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, over 30 million red, white, and blue balls were sold. Mikan also championed the three-point line, an idea taken from the defunct American Basketball League.

Of course, Mikan also may have torched the league's best chance to achieve some measure of equality with the NBA by botching negotiations with UCLA star Lew Alcindor—better known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—in a story recently recounted on ESPN.com by Bill Simmons.
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oaksPat Boone was a part-owner of the Oakland Oaks franchise, and helped the team recruit disgruntled San Francisco Warriors star Rick Barry away from the NBA. Barry had to sit out the ABA's first season after a judge ruled in favor of the Warriors by upholding the "reserve clause" in NBA contracts, the same type of language challenged by baseball's Curt Flood three years later.
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The first president, Gary Davidson, was largely a figurehead, but ended up a key player in the founding of the World Football League in the 1970s, another alternate league that failed to achieve the ABA's result of a merger with the stronger rival.
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According to Loose Balls, the ABA's franchise in Houston, the Mavericks, reportedly drew a crowd of just 89 fans for one home game. A "home" game for the Memphis Tams, held in Jackson, Mississippi, had an announced crowd of 465. Of course, attendance records from the ABA remain a bit dubious; Indianapolis reporter Dave Overpeck overheard the GM of the San Diego Conquistadors, Alex Groza, tell a staff member, "Oh, let's say the attendance is 1,764."

For more on the ABA, check out Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, a biography of the league with quotes from players, coaches, executives, owners, broadcasters, lawyers, and writers.

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.

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Everything You Need to Know About Record Store Day
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The unlikely resurgence of vinyl as an alternative to digital music formats is made up of more than just a small subculture of purists. Today, more than 1400 independent record stores deal in both vintage and current releases. Those store owners and community supporters created Record Store Day in 2007 as a way of celebrating the grassroots movement that’s allowed a once-dying medium to thrive.

To commemorate this year’s Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, a number of stores (a searchable list can be found here) will be offering promotional items, live music, signings, and more. While events vary widely by store, a number of artists will be issuing exclusive LPs that will be distributed around the country.

For Grateful Dead fans, a live recording of a February 27, 1969 show at Fillmore West in San Francisco will be released and limited to 6700 copies; Arcade Fire’s 2003 EP album will see a vinyl release for the first time, limited to 3000 copies; "Roxanne," the Police single celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will see a 7-inch single release with the original jacket art.

The day also promises to be a big one for David Bowie fans. A special white vinyl version of 1977’s Bowie Now will be on shelves, along with Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78), a previously-unreleased, three-record set. Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and dozens of other artists will also be contributing releases.

No store is likely to carry everything you might want, so before making the stop, it might be best to call ahead and then plan on getting there early. If you’re one of the unlucky vinyl supporters without a brick and mortar store nearby, you can check out Discogs.com, which will be selling the special releases online.

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The Little Known Airport Bookstore Program That Can Get You Half of What You Spend on Books Back
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Inflight entertainment is a necessary evil, but the price can quickly add up without the proper planning. Between Wi-Fi access and TV/movie packages, you can run into all kinds of annoying additional charges that will only increase the longer your flight is. Thankfully, there is one way to minimize the cost of your inflight entertainment that’s a dream for any reader.

Paradies Lagardère, which runs more than 850 stores in 98 airports across the U.S. and Canada, has an attractive Read and Return program for all the books they sell. All you have to do is purchase a title, read it, and return it to a Paradies Lagardère-owned shop within six months and you'll get half your money back. This turns a $28 hardcover into a $14 one. Books in good condition are re-sold for half the price by the company, while books with more wear and tear are donated to charity.

If you haven’t heard of Paradies Lagardère, don’t worry—you’ve probably been in one of their stores. They’re the company behind a range of retail spots in airports, including licensed ventures like The New York Times Bookstore and CNBC News, and more local shops exclusive to the city you're flying out of. They also run restaurants, travel essentials stores, and specialty shops. 

Not every Paradies Lagardère store sells books, though, and the company doesn’t operate out of every airport, so you’ll need to do a little research before just buying a book the next time you fly. Luckily, the company does have an online map that shows every airport it operates out of and which stores are there.

There is one real catch to remember: You must keep the original receipt of the book if you want to return it and get your money back. If you're the forgetful type, just follow PureWow’s advice and use the receipt as a bookmark and you’ll be golden.

For frequent flyers who plan ahead, this program can ensure that your inflight entertainment will never break the bank.

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