If there can be said to be a genuine tragic hero in the limited world of sport, it is Franklin Mieuli. Until a day almost four years ago when he got on a plane and began a journey back to his family home in Italy, there seemed nothing he could do to escape bounty and good fortune. He had the longest good-luck streak in the history of sports—including a franchise, the San Francisco Warriors, that seemed one of the most gold-plated in pro basketball.
Since then, by contrast, nothing has gone right. He has been caught in a succession of bewildering misfortunes, some of them so original that he seems to have become a kind of involuntary prototype: every time something bad came along, it happened first to Franklin. He made his money and then his name in pro football and television, those dual Golcondas of sports, but now he stands battered and shaken by the excesses wrought by their boom.
In the councils of NBA owners Mieuli is third in seniority only to Ned Irish, the Knicks' sachem of Madison Square Garden, and Fred Zollner of Detroit—a position of seniority comparable to that held by Philip Wrigley in baseball. This fact alone offers more than a little insight into the turbulence that has tossed pro basketball and Mieuli in the last decade. There is no question that for this immigrant gardener's son—popular, unpredictable, loyal, philanthropic—things have moved fast. And yet, curiously, he is a traditionalist. His Warriors have made money only once in the nine years since the team moved West, and last year they dropped a cool $900,000. But Mieuli rails against expansion or merger and the quick easy cash they can bring.
His resistance has infuriated NBA colleagues. Irish stormed out of one league meeting recently while the newer owners cowered before the confrontation. Sam Schulman, the Seattle owner who was the NBA's Dauphin before he signed Spencer Haywood, calls Mieuli "eccentric," and considering the contrast in styles, this is not surprising. "He's erratic," Schulman says of Mieuli. "I think he acts from emotion rather than logic."
Mieuli, bearded and bizarrely dressed, looks like a madman to the other owners. At their most charitable they dismiss him simply as vindictive and say that he must have been affected by all he has suffered. Or they figure him as a spoilsport or perhaps merely naive. What kind of up-to-date owner is it who won't take the money and run? Mieuli is an irritant, like the tedious guy on the Titanic who kept bugging everybody about getting some binoculars up on the bridge.
The day he began his trip to Italy, when everything around Mieuli began to bend out of shape, he owned, obviously, the one great basketball team of the future. The Warriors had lost respectably in the championships that year to the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Philadelphians were an older team. The Warriors had much more before them. In Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry they had both the best young center in the league and the player who was the leading scorer and best young drawing card. They had depth, a good coach, and the city had absolutely taken the Warriors to its heart. The team made money and there was more where that came from. People in San Francisco shook their heads and said that Franklin had done it again—frequently adding, "lucky son of a gun."
Mieuli had heard that refrain before, and he doesn't dispute its truth. For years, he admits, he moved with the style of a leprechaun disguised as a four-leaf clover. It began in 1949 when, despite his family's advice, he opted to leave the Mieuli nursery business in San Jose and get a job in advertising in San Francisco. Before long he wangled a flunky post in the ad department of Burgermeister Brewery, where the ad budget went from $350,000 to $1.5 million in a few years and where Franklin's career tagged right along. "Just by evolution I had to move up," Mieuli says. "Of course it was luck." He also chanced upon a newspaper item about the 49ers being for sale. The clipping was erroneous, but in checking it out Mieuli was led to a meeting with Tony Morabito, the 49ers' owner, and that led to Burgie sponsoring the games, and that led to Mieuli's own TV-radio sports production company, and that led, for a mere $60,000, to a 10% share in the 49ers that turned out eventually to be the collateral that Mieuli put up to gain the controlling interest in the Warriors when the Diners Club, as he puts it, "wanted outski right now" in 1963.
In between, there was more. "Everybody credited me for my clairvoyance at first," Mieuli says. "I didn't know anything. When I majored in journalism at Oregon, there was one paragraph—one paragraph—in the whole textbook on the subject of television. It was all trial and error. I was just always in the right place at the right time." He paused and shrugged, and the stars came out in his eyes. "And people believe in me. I have that faculty."
The Giants moved West, and because Mieuli had established the Golden West Network, which was something with sound effects that re-created major league baseball games, he ended up with the baseball rights, too. "Here again—luck," he says unashamedly. "So I meet all these New York types, and when Mrs. Payson has to sell her stock in the Giants because she's buying the Mets somebody says, 'Hey, how about Franklin?' and I end up with an interest." Approximately the same thing happened a couple of years later when a legman for the Diners Club was dispatched to get some local owners to go in with the credit card company. Gene Autry supplied Mieuli's name, and he came away with a small piece of the action and the production rights. Suddenly this wacky Italian florist from San Jose was the only guy in San Francisco who owned a part of every team in town—and he also had a virtual monopoly on all the sports TV-radio production that came out of the Bay Area. Still, until Mieuli took over the Warriors—really until he traded Wilt Chamberlain early in 1965—nobody knew who he was. Somebody once asked Oscar Levant where he lived. "On the periphery," was the reply. Franklin Mieuli had the same address in those years.
One of his early acquaintances—and still a close friend—was Pete Rozelle. Mieuli would televise 49er games home from Los Angeles and Rams games back to L.A. when they played at Kezar. The two young men thought it was a good idea, with broad possibilities. "I used to see Franklin around when he'd come down to L.A.," Rozelle recalls. "He was actually a lot straighter then than he is now, but he has always done unusual things. I could never understand, for instance, why he kept living in San Jose. That's a long ride into San Francisco. But he still makes the trip every day.