Of all the people making a buck from this year's NBA Finals, few will profit as handsomely, and none as effortlessly, as brothers Ozzie and Dan Silna. Ozzie, 70, runs an embroidery factory in Malibu, Calif., and Dan, 58, dabbles in various business and philanthropic ventures in Saddle River, N.J. They are not involved in professional basketball. But since 1976, the two have received one-seventh of the TV revenue generated by the four American Basketball Association franchises in the NBA—an arrangement that has so far made them more than $100 million.
How did the Silnas become the fattest cats in hoops? Twenty-seven years ago the brothers owned the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis. Under the terms of the 1976 merger, the NBA absorbed four ABA teams (the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs) and left it to the ABA owners to deal with the remaining two franchises, the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits. Colonels owner John Y. Brown, who later was elected governor of Kentucky, accepted a flat $3.3 million payout. But the Silnas refused to go quietly. At an all-night meeting in Hyannis, Mass.—a meeting that, says then spurs owner and current Vikings owner Red McCombs, "was very nearly a fistfight"—the Silnas swung a deal giving them $2.2 million up front as well as the TV revenue. Astonishingly, and in part because no one thought the TV money would be all that significant, the deal is in perpetuity, so as long as there is an NBA, the Silnas and their heirs (seven children and six grandchildren) will be paid. After collecting around $500,000 a year in the 1970s, the brothers, courtesy of the NBA's latest $4.6 billion TV deal, will receive around $24 million in 2003. Says McCombs. "I'd just like to be one of their sons-in-law."
"There is nothing to gloat about," says Dan. "We had hoped to be part of the merger. During our two years with the Spirits, there was a lot of heartache, but also a lot of joy." Dan also found a bit of joy before Game 3 of the Finals, as members of the 1974 and '76 ABA champion Nets were introduced. "I turned to my wife and asked her if she knew why the 1975 team was missing," says Dan. "It's because the Spirits eliminated them from the playoffs."