There is an old legend about a Chinese warlord receiving reports from the front. Four hundred Japanese dead, he is told, and 22,000 Chinese. The old man nods. The next week: 200 Japanese, 36,000 Chinese killed. Nod. The week after: 500 Japanese dead, 47,000 Chinese. Nod. "Pretty soon," the old man says, "no more Japs." And, approximately, that is the way it has been in this new legend concerning the American Basketball Association, the league of resilient losers.
The NBA has whipped them soundly at every turn. It has signed virtually all their first-round draft choices, including all the big names. It took away Connie Hawkins, one of the ABA's two superstars. The NBA has dominated press attention. The ABA has never even come close to getting a network TV contract, and in the three prestige metropolises where the leagues have competing franchises, the ABA teams have drawn, oh, dozens of people. It has been such a complete rout that one can see NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy waking up nights in a sweat and thinking, "Pretty soon, no more NBA."
By a resounding vote of 13-1 last Thursday, the NBA owners decided they had better start peace talks. Too many more victories could wipe them out. "We simply realized," said Assistant NBA Commissioner Carl Scheer, "that the ABA was prepared and able to take their lickings." Essentially, the NBA was acknowledging the lessons of Silly Putty. If it could not bomb out the ABA so far, it is unlikely ever to.
Once this conclusion was reached it was wise to act quickly. The NBA television contract is concluded this year and, with more cities involved, the new contract should be worth substantially more. Of even greater importance is the fact that the draft next spring involves the greatest collection of college seniors in history. Players like Pete Maravich, Bob Lanier, Rick Mount and Charlie Scott might all command million-dollar contracts in an open bidding market.
The NBA also was obviously encouraged to get real friendly real quick because the ABA already has begun to take depositions in an antitrust suit it is formulating against the NBA. Finally, the NBA has grown more impressed with new leadership in the ABA.
The two men who botched the signing of Lew Alcindor, Commissioner George Mikan and New York Nets Owner Arthur Brown, have both departed the league. Roy Boe, a wealthy 39-year-old Yaleman, bought the Nets and promptly took a high place in league councils along with another newcomer, James Gardner, 36, who is now effectively serving as acting commissioner. Gardner is a former Congressman who seconded the nomination of Ronald Reagan at Miami last year—and then lost a narrow race for governor of North Carolina. Shortly after that he was shown a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story (Oct. 21, 1968) outlining the concept of how a modern regional franchise might be set up in North Carolina. Gardner bought the moribund Houston club and transferred it to his home state.
Searching for a replacement for Mikan, who was eased out, the ABA approached two NBA figures—Red Auerbach and Scheer. Both turned the job down, but clearly they learned enough to come back to the NBA with more respect for their competition. On the West Coast at about the same time, representatives from both leagues—like infantry scouts on patrol—began to make tentative, unofficial contact.
All of this set the stage for the official talks that began at the Waldorf Towers last Friday, the day following the 13-1 vote. The discussions will pick up again this week in California, with Gardner representing the ABA and Sam Schulman, the Seattle co-owner, heading the NBA negotiating team.
However genial and businesslike the discussions may be, and however much both leagues want to expedite some kind of connubial arrangement, there are still two considerable roadblocks. Indeed, the questions of championship competition and interleague play and even future realignment are relatively unimportant. For that matter, they are all but moot. If the two leagues are to enjoy a common draft, they must have a common championship, too. Otherwise they are ascribing second-class status to one league—the ABA—while at the same time coercing some of the best college players to play in a declared minor league.
This brings them to the first big problem—Congress and its persnickety habit of upholding antitrust laws. Larry Fleisher, counsel for the NBA Players' Association, is ready to fight any merger attempt. The players have, in fact, had a lobbyist at the Capitol for four months, warming up for action.