Gary Davidson has a lot of balls: gold-and-orange-striped footballs that flew like kited checks in the World Football League, and red-white-and-blue basketballs whose pigmented leather was hard to grip in the American Basketball Association. He has dark-blue hockey pucks held over from the World Hockey Association, smart little slabs of rubber that look alarmingly like those urinal-disinfectant cakes.
To be fair, Davidson had originally lobbied for a less subtle fire-engine-red puck for his new WHA to use, but that notion was angrily shot down by the general manager of the Alberta (eventually Edmonton) Oilers, Wild Bill Hunter. "That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," Hunter said when first affronted by the proposed scarlet puck. "Our players will never be able to see that puck."
"Because," said Wild Bill, "they'll be looking for a black one."
The word ridiculous comes up often when speaking of the spawn of Gary Davidson, who made his way through only slightly fewer leagues than Jules Verne and turned out more acronyms than the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. This is the man who was the first president of the ABA, a cofounder of the WHA and the founder of the WFL. In the 1970s Davidson's rebel leagues were designed to be the mod alternative to the square professional sports Establishment, or at least the 1974 WFL media guide would have you believe that. "The Detroit Wheels are a 'now' team," grooved the guide. "The World Football League's 12 teams are 'where it's at.' " When the Wheels later went defunct, Detroit was somehow...de-funked.
It wasn't just the Wheels. Most of Davidson's teams and all of his leagues would eventually go south, metaphorically emulating the Toronto Northmen of the WFL, who became the Memphis Southmen before playing the first game in their unspeakable "Burnt Orange and Old Gold." But while the leagues lived fast, they also died young, leaving creditors and historians to sort through the bad checks and ridiculous nicknames left behind. (It is doubly instructive that one of the first checks ever written to the WHA was the initiation fee for the Miami Screaming Eagles. It bounced.)
The leagues were sublimely ridiculous from day one, literally from the moment that the formation of the ABA was announced in 1967. Davidson's autobiography is entitled Breaking the Game Wide Open. He calls it "a terrible book," and indeed it has more dead spots than the floor of the Boston Garden. But the book's account of the press conference held to launch the ABA, at New York's ultratony Hotel Carlyle, is enlightening.
"The buffet was loaded with delicacies of every description," Davidson wrote. "The whiskey flowed like water. A free ABA basketball was given to every writer and broadcaster in the place. Naked dancing girls circulated everywhere—well, they weren't really naked, and they weren't really dancing girls, but you get the idea. I don't know what they were or what they were doing there.... We spent $35,000 and we got a circus for our money. Everyone had fun, but no one took us seriously. It was a joke, and it made us look ridiculous."
It also made them look prophetic. You want to know what the most ridiculous thing was about Gary Davidson and his rebel leagues? It was this: In many ways, they weren't ridiculous at all.
"Gary Davidson," noted this magazine in 1975, "has been one of the most influential figures in the history of professional sport."