To most Americans pro basketball is months away, but to the oil and tobacco, trucking and show biz men whose money has put the American Basketball Association afloat, the critical season is now. It is on these midsummer days that the new league is attempting to sign the players, sell the tickets and fan the publicity fires that could mean the difference between success and early failure. Each owner is working diligently, but in the comforting knowledge that at worst he has made a lively bad investment. Financial disaster faces none of them who remember about tax write-offs and are helped by an expert accountant.
But for 23-year-old Rick Barry, a part owner of the new Oakland Oaks, the risks are somewhat higher. The money he has invested is real basketball money and the gamble is his basketball life. He has left the security of the established National Basketball Association and the San Francisco Warriors to go across the Bay to the Oakland Oaks, and he is the only NBA star still left in the ABA. All the other big names who jumped have jumped right back.
This means that Barry is the ABA's only legitimate claim to big-league status, its only lure for national attention, for the TV contract it has found so elusive, for the fans in all 11 of the league cities, and for the future. But as lonely as Barry is in one sense, in another he is crowded into the middle of a rough legal fight between the two organizations. There is a real chance that Rick Barry, pride of the ABA, will not be able to play at all in the league's first season.
As the week ended, Judge Robert J. Drewes of the Superior Court of California was deliberating whether to grant the Warriors the temporary injunction they have asked to deny Barry to Oakland. Touchy questions like the sanctity of basketball's reserve clause could get a controversial legal airing, but any fundamental shake-up would be months in the making. Today the real ABA story is the human one behind the legal maneuvering, and so far it has not been told.
Rick Barry is the leading actor in a drama involving the attractions of money, dreams of athletic glory, shattered friendships and ties of family. His supporting cast includes Franklin Mieuli, owner of the Warriors; Oakland Owner Pat Boone, the pop singer; Bruce Hale, the Oakland coach, who is the father of Barry's wife; and Nate Thurmond, a former Warrior teammate of Barry's.
Barry left the Warriors on June 19 to sign a personal services contract with Boone—one giving him $75,000 a year in salary and 15% ownership of the Oaks (although Boone holds him contractually liable for a cool $750,000 if he should return to the Warriors). Barry will also receive 5% of Oaks' gate receipts above $600,000—receipts that are not just around the corner. Mieuli sued for the injunction June 23, declaring that Barry's 1966 contract prohibited him from playing for another team before 1968. The Oaks say the NBA reserve clause violates antitrust laws and thus is invalid.
"I know what a lot of people think of me," says Barry. "They call me a traitor. Is that fair? If they would just look at it the same way they do their own businesses. This is the way I support my family. Why should I be called unloyal? They change their jobs and nobody says they're unloyal. If everything was based just on loyalty, no one would ever make any money."
Franklin Mieuli says: "There is just the chance, I guess, just the slim chance that Rick could come back and say he was sorry, say he knows now his head was turned, he made a mistake, he really did leave his heart in San Francisco. Maybe then we could rehabilitate his image and we could catch that lightning in the bottle all over again. Maybe then we could get back that dream we were building together."
Mieuli is a frenetic sort and a shrewder man than most people give him credit for being. But, now, perhaps for the first time in his life, it is frustration that dominates his mind.
"Where did I go wrong?" Mieuli asks himself, pacing the familiar rugs of his lawyers' office. "My father—he was a florist—always told me, 'Don't worry about the other guy's store. Just mind your own.' And the Warriors had everything. I went to Europe on May 19 to see my daughter Holly. The last thing Rick said to me before I left was, 'Have a good time, say hello to Holly and get Nate.' Now why should I be scared when he said that? It never even occurred to me that Rick was boxing me clever. How could I know that suddenly, like that, the strange and wonderful world of Franklin Mieuli would come cascading down over my ears?"