A lot of people think I was crazy to leave the shelter of the NBA for the vision of the ABA. But I am not naive. I know there are too many basketball franchises now and I expect there will be a dramatic readjustment. I am not looking at this through rose-colored glasses. For instance, I met one ABA owner, Arthur Brown of the New York Nets, for the first time, and he asked me what I thought he ought to do. I told him point-blank: fold his team but hold on to his territorial rights until he can get an adequate arena in which he can compete for the New York market.
I know that some people in the ABA are rooting for an eventual merger with the NBA but I realize that possibility is very remote, because the San Francisco Warriors would be very reluctant to enter into a merger deal that would let the Oaks stay in business. I have got to hope simply that our whole league can grow and improve, and eventually achieve peace and parity with the NBA, a separate-but-equal status with a common draft. After that who knows what will happen?
I appreciate, too, that the NBA is going to fight hard to prevent this. Franklin Mieuli of the Warriors dragged the Oaks through two long and costly suits before Rick Barry was finally permitted to play with us. Rick and Pat Boone went to North Carolina to try to sign our first draft choice, Bob Kauffman of Guilford College. Kauffman's lawyer had promised the Oaks that Kauffman would listen to their offer, but when Rick got to Carolina he found the lawyer had succumbed to NBA cunning and had already delivered the kid to the Seattle SuperSonics.
If they didn't already know, everybody in the ABA found out how slick the NBA can be when Elvin Hayes signed with the NBA about as quickly as Kauffman. I appreciate what formidable competition we have in the talent battle because the one man responsible for getting Hayes was that old wizard from Philadelphia, Eddie Gottlieb, who is like a favorite uncle of mine.
So I know the fight I have on my hands. But I had to accept this challenge to come to Oakland. If I didn't, and 10 years from now there were still two leagues and teams operating in both Oakland and San Francisco, I wouldn't be able to stop kicking myself.
Oakland provides me with the total commitment to a franchise that I have been searching for. I have a fine salary and was presented with 15% of the outstanding 20,000 shares. Barry holds a similar percentage. The only other substantial owners are Ken Davidson, the chairman of the board and majority stockholder, and Pat Boone, the president. We also have a top staff—headed by Bruce Hale and Scotty Stirling, who was general manager of the Oakland Raiders and knows the business of sport—but in the final analysis the Oakland Oaks are my responsibility, and that is the way I want it to be.
I have been searching for this opportunity for a decade; or, in a real sense, for all my life. My father was a small businessman, a rug cleaner, and even as a little boy I always looked forward to running my own business. That was where my contracting work was leading me when circumstances conspired to keep me in basketball. I almost surely would have stayed in the NBA, too, if it had not been for some bad timing. So I have no intention of turning on my old league just because I have left it for an opportunity.
I have always operated on the philosophy that my behavior should be managed by these priorities: first, what is best for basketball; second, what is best for my league; third, for my team; fourth, for myself. It has, then, always particularly annoyed me that so many college coaches have gone intentionally out of their way to knock the pro game. I get angrier yet when NBA teams repeatedly turn around and hire their worst critics for positions of authority. This has been especially foolish, since the NBA has traditionally produced the finest and most intelligent gentlemen in professional sports. Maybe the NBA has acted cheaply sometimes, and maybe stupidly, but it has never been bush, because the players would never let it get that way. The class of pro basketball has always been its players.
The league would rather present outsiders with authority, though. As a coach I was used, and I was denied chances to maneuver. In fact, the more I achieved as a coach, the more my success in that position seemed to militate against my being considered for executive responsibility. The NBA manages to keep its coaches pinned down as if they were under the reserve clause, too. When my contract legally expired at Syracuse in 1963, for instance, and I became the San Francisco coach, the Warriors were required to pay an indemnity to the Nationals. I was used to such things and, in fact, was accustoming myself to traveling around as much as a coach as I had as a player. From my first coaching job in St. Louis in 1956 I went to Wichita, Syracuse, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Oakland.
The switch from Syracuse to San Francisco, however, helped me decide that I should get into management along with coaching. In the last few years I have had more negotiations with more cities than Ringling Bros. Two years before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles I wrote President Podoloff strongly suggesting that the NBA should put a team in L.A. I recommended potential owners, too. In 1960, when it was obvious the league was going to expand, I was involved in trying to get a franchise in Denver, which I have always considered a potentially great basketball city. I would coach, with a piece of the action, and Johnny Dee, who is now the Notre Dame coach, would be the general manager. Negotiations broke down, however, and we never did make a serious bid. The NBA awarded the franchise to Chicago for around $200,000. The recent sale of the club (now the Baltimore Bullets) suggests that the franchise I wanted for Denver is now worth well over $2 million. That's a 1,000% profit in seven years. The L.A. franchise has returned even more. I think I had the right idea.