One Sweet Severance Package & Other Tales of the ABA

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"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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November 2, 2009 - 3:20pm
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