"Dennis Murphy would go into a town," says Davidson, "and call an accountant or call a lawyer, and ask if he had any clients who were interested in professional sports. He wasn't saying, 'Do you have any interest in a vinyl-dye factory?' Within two days he would have gotten enough leads for us to have someone to talk to. We would then come in, and the line would be, 'Would you rather be known as the owner of the Detroit Wheels or as a manufacturer of brassieres?' "
"Pick a city you had never been to before," says Regan. "Say Quebec City. We flew into Quebec City during the WHA days. We had the mayor, the governor, the biggest businessmen in town.... We'd fly in, they'd run a bloody carpet out to us, they'd drive us away in Rolls-Royces, they'd treat us like we were the potentates of the world. And the whole reason was, the existing Establishment then was so monopolistic and arrogant."
The monopolistic and arrogant Establishment of the NHL and the NBA and the NFL drove the rebel leaguers, fueling them with a loony motivational paranoia. "We fought for everything we got," says Murphy, "to the point where we had bugs in our chandeliers. I'm not accusing the NHL or the NBA, but who the hell else would put them there? Before we'd go into our meetings, we'd have guys go in there with debugging devices. It was war."
Though it may sound like Murphy has bugs in his chandelier, Davidson corroborates these theories of industrial espionage. "We thought," he says ominously, "that Al Davis had our office bugged."
Installing a surreptitious listening device at any rebel-league meeting would have been a logistical challenge; the league drafts, for instance, always had a quintessentially 1970s mind-if-I-crash-here spontaneity to them. They were held in just about any joint that could provide an impressive dateline. Thus, World Team Tennis—which Murphy helped found in 1973 with the staunch support of Billie Jean King—conducted its first draft in New York in the auditorium of the Time & Life Building, home of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. (TO this day in our editorial meetings, we mind what we say about Al Davis.)
To be fair, there were grounds for genuine suspicion in the days of the WHA. Gordie Howe, a luminary with that league's Houston Aeros during the 1973-74 season, was a member of Team Canada '74, a squad composed entirely of WHA players. An eight-game series with the Soviet national team included four games in Moscow. "The Soviets put us all in this real ratty hotel," recalls Murphy, who adds that Howe was particularly appalled by two seedy chairs in a corner.
Howe strolled over to the chandelier in his room. "Colleen," he said loudly to his wife, "I wish these people in Russia would recognize what a great star I am and give us a couple of nice chairs." The Howes left to attend practice, and they returned two hours later to a new pair of beautiful chairs. "Thank you very much, my Russian hosts," Mr. Hockey mill the light fixture.
"We were known," swears Murphy, "as the Bug League." You don't have the heart to tell him that everyone was bugged in the Soviet Union, that the KGB did not target the WHA specifically—but then you suspect that Murphy already knows this.
Such self-important self-delusion was vital to the rebel leagues. When Davidson was trying to sell a franchise in a strange city, he arrived with a manufactured air of centuries-old regality.
"You'd created this story, this image, this mirage, but all of a sudden you begin to have value," recalls Davidson. He gestures across his office; in a trophy cabinet sits a mounted replica of the check for $1,000,000 made out to Robert Marvin Hull from WHA Properties, Ltd., dated June 27, 1972. Winnipeg owner Ben Hatskin was given the WHA rights to Bobby Hull because he was willing to kick in an additional $1.75 million in salary to lure the Mil's premier scorer. This was an unheard-of sum in 1972—Hull's 1971 salary with the Chicago Blackhawks had been $150,000. "We weren't sure Bobby could even play," says Davidson. "But that check created so much publicity around the world that even though Winnipeg hadn't played a single game, that franchise had value."