SI Vault
Gary Ronberg
September 22, 1969
Only weeks before the players will start shooting, the American Basketball Association declares open war to force a quick merger with the NBA. Now there may be as much action in court as on the courts
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September 22, 1969

Tossing Bombs Into The Hoops

Only weeks before the players will start shooting, the American Basketball Association declares open war to force a quick merger with the NBA. Now there may be as much action in court as on the courts

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"Yes, I know. Isn't that funny?"

The next day the ABA fired the biggest gun in the war so far. Scarcely heard by many shell-shocked observers, it made a powerful impression among NBA officials, and rightly so. The ABA declared that Luke Jackson would not bother to play out his one-year option with Philadelphia but would start performing for the Carolina Cougars this season. Until then the ABA had at least made the pretense of honoring NBA contracts, signing players with the understanding that they would play out their options before jumping. Now all rules were off. Left with no choice, the NBA will try to force players who jump to abide by their contracts. In the Jackson case the NBA appeared to have the last word. After he signed with the ABA, the NBA persuaded him that his NBA contract had precedence and was still valid, and he then signed a new three-year contract with Philadelphia. Still, if either league goes to court over such matters, there is a strong possibility. that some of today's pro stars will be playing basketball in their backyards for a spell, as Rick Barry did when he jumped from San Francisco ( NBA) to Oakland ( ABA) two years ago.

In all the confusion a few other facts were clear. The ABA, borrowing the book of the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis, who helped force pro football's merger three years ago, is determined to bring about an immediate pro basketball merger or at least agreement on a common draft beginning next spring, when a glittering cast of college players will be graduated. Talks of a merger had, in fact, started back on Aug. 7, only to be broken off abruptly when Walter Kennedy charged the ABA with "a breach of good faith in the negotiation procedures." The NBA, said Kennedy, could not condone the ABA's failure to name the player that one of its teams had allegedly signed off an NBA roster. Furthermore, he said, the NBA had not been informed of the possibility that the ABA's Oakland franchise would be moved to Washington, D.C., which is Baltimore territory, according to the NBA.

The ABA, on the other hand, was still miffed at the NBA for stealing one of its star players, Connie Hawkins, who had played out his option with the Pittsburgh Pipers. More important was the ABA's discovery that one of the requirements for merger was an NBA bid for indemnity of $11 million, similar to the NFL's demand of the AFL. "So the price is $1 million per club, is it?" snapped one ABA executive. "Well, let's take that money and go out and buy $11 million worth of top-drawer, superstar, NBA talent. Then we'll merge, and we'll do it on our terms, not theirs."

"For two years now," said Jim Hardy, general manager of the ABA's Los Angeles Stars, "the NBA has looked upon the ABA as a minor skin irritation that would dry up and go away. Well, now they must realize it's genuine cancer."

Until last spring the ABA really had been little more than an irritation as far as the NBA was concerned. Under the erratic leadership of Commissioner George Mikan, the ABA was, in fact, just sitting there waiting to die as the NBA signed up every college star that came along. With few bright spots, attendance was miserable, and the quality of play was not much better. Then the ABA owners fired Mikan and, in the absence of a commissioner, gave most of his authority to Gardner, a new guy on the block who had just bought the ABA's floundering Houston franchise and moved it to his home state, North Carolina.

Young, rich and persuasive, Gardner, a former Congressman, brought the ABA drive and ideas. The drive was his own, but the ideas were borrowed. " Al Davis wrote the book when he raided the NFL," Gardner admitted. "We've read the book, and we'll follow it to the letter." Gardner succeeded in getting the ABA moving, in spite of what those who claimed to know him called "his inconsistency." (He had a similar problem during his political career. Once while running for governor of North Carolina, he appeared in an industrial town to push a state tobacco tax—a popular stand in the area—only to oppose it a few hours later, in tobacco country.) Today support of Gardner within ABA ranks is still sharply divided. "Those who resent Jim are those who aren't being realistic," says Richard Tinkham, an attorney and part owner of the Indiana Pacers. "They are the people who want a merger at any cost. All of us want to merge someday; Jim just wants to make sure the terms will be fair and equitable."

Gardner first shook the NBA by signing Philadelphia star Billy Cunningham (that unnamed player). He infuriated the rival league—and college coaches across the country—by allowing the ABA's Denver team to sign Spencer Haywood, a University of Detroit All-America and Olympic star who has two years of college eligibility remaining, as a "hardship case." Sitting in his modest office in the Tarrytown Shopping Center in Rocky Mount, N.C., Gardner surveyed the war zone. "All that's holding up a merger is Walter Kennedy," he said, a soft, sugary accent coating each word. "I'll tell you why he's throwing up this smoke screen, yelling about our procedures and all. He's being hit and hit hard, that's why. Kennedy is a bigot and a hypocrite. He acts so pious, when the truth of the matter is that the NBA had Lew Alcindor signed, sealed and delivered long before he graduated. [Alcindor denies this.] We didn't have a chance in the world at Alcindor. The NBA has done everything it could to kill off the ABA.

"Contrary to what you've read or heard, we are not trying to sign college players before they graduate. None of that crop of seniors—Mount, Maravich, Murphy and so on—will play in our league this year, because I, personally, wouldn't allow it. The only reason we haven't clarified this particular point earlier is that at our stage of the game a knock is as good as a plug." [All of the college players allegedly contacted by the ABA had already said they would stay in school.]

Last Thursday, shortly after Dave Bing of Detroit and Luke Jackson had confirmed their jumps to the ABA, Walter Kennedy sat in his office, 23 stories above Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station. It is a big office, paneled and thickly carpeted, and it says Establishment. Kennedy is 56, he lives in Stamford, Conn. and catches the 5:09 home whenever he can. For the past several weeks he has been staying overnight in the city much more often. "You see what we're up against," he said. "This is a war in which we can't attack. If we did, what could we gain? There's nobody in the ABA we want. Gardner is leading a harassment program designed to pressure us into merging cheap, and there's no way he will succeed. You never know when to believe him. I have a few friends in Washington, and I've made myself familiar with his track record. He keeps running around, insisting there's going to be a merger in two weeks or three weeks. Well, I say there isn't going to be any merger for three or four years—if then. What Gardner is trying to do is sell stock in ABA franchises. He's saying, 'Buy into the Pittsburgh Pipers now at $3 a share, and when the merger comes along you'll be in great shape.' He was trying to scare all those college kids into signing by telling them there wouldn't be any money around after a merger. Then he stopped for the first time and considered the weight of public opinion building against him."

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