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Spider returns

Salley means business as new ABA commissioner

Posted: Sunday September 24, 2006 5:36PM; Updated: Monday September 25, 2006 6:27PM
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John Salley will have his hands full dealing with a league that consists of more than 50 teams.
John Salley will have his hands full dealing with a league that consists of more than 50 teams.
Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
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We ABA owners left our fall meetings in Indianapolis believing that we've just come into The Best Damn Commissioner, Period.

Now, can we make John Salley proud?

The Spider himself -- the man with NBA championship rings for four fingers; enough Brooklyn street wisdom for any situation; and his own sports show on Fox -- was introduced as commissioner of League Kudzu on Friday.

Aside from promising to parade his own cross-promotional self all over the ever more thoroughly co-mingled worlds of sports and entertainment, and thus bring more attention to a league in which Nick Lachey, Allen Iverson's mom, and former NFL lineman Marques Sullivan all own teams, he pledged that the most sprawling pro sports league in history will henceforth be run tight and tidy.

"We're in the entertainment business," Salley said. "It's not how you sell it to people, it's what they're buying. People want a show, want to get out of their lives for 2 1/2 hours. During the Great Depression everyone was losing money except Charlie Chaplin."

The single greatest problem with the ABA since its reincarnation in 2003 has been what might be called the Chauncey Gardiner Challenge: Being There. If 90 percent of life is just showing up, some teams seemed determined to prove that they were half-dead. CEO Joe Newman took a $4,000 loss at the ABA All-Star Weekend last February, when he booked meals at the event's hotel in Miami Beach and nearly half the RSVPs failed to show.

Joe shouldn't have been entirely surprised: In the ABA, teams come fast and full of enthusiasm; then many go, usually in a creepy accretion of unreturned phone calls.

Thus the buoyancy in the room when Newman -- after declaring "I'm not stepping down, others are stepping up" -- introduced two new lieutenants.

The ABA's president and COO is now Tom Doyle, who played the role of gadfly as owner of the Maryland Nighthawks. Tom let CEO Joe know whenever teams were unwilling or unable to do things right. Whether it stemmed from watching one of his players, Curtis Yarborough, go 12-for-13 on the road, only to discover that the home team had ignored a league requirement to tape the game; or the failure of many teams to supply rosters and stats for the league's Web site; or having to pay for an opponent to come play at his place, "and have them change their name on the way down," Doyle reacted like the litigator he is. "None of that will happen on my watch," he declared on Friday.

After which the new commish took the rostrum, nodding approvingly at Doyle.

"Tom up here was just GANGSTA," said Salley. "If you don't wanna be great, I'm gonna fire you. If you miss a game, you're gone. If you're hurt we'll try to help you -- but if you're dying, we'll shoot you."

With barely six weeks to opening night, and more than 50 teams expected to start the season, Spider Salley declared what I've been living over the past weeks: "We don't have the time."

"I love to laugh and giggle and smoke cigars and drink cognac. But I have a reputation and a name. My father taught me never to embarrass my name. Growing up it was always funny enough with the name Salley.

"'John Salley, didn't he have the ABA? Didn't Isiah have the CBA?' I'm not gonna embarrass my name. If you're not ready, I will take your team from you."

Those of us in the room loved it. But then we would have: We were there.

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