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HAVING A BALL WITH THE ABA
Peter Carry
March 18, 1974
In his first season, Commissioner Mike Storen has been charging happily around the league talking up the need to have faith in the future. Tenet One: we really can land Bill Walton
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March 18, 1974

Having A Ball With The Aba

In his first season, Commissioner Mike Storen has been charging happily around the league talking up the need to have faith in the future. Tenet One: we really can land Bill Walton

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The qualifications of the four commissioners the ABA has had in its seven years have paralleled the changing needs of the league. George Mikan was the first and, as one of basketball's most renowned figures, was able to persuade wealthy investors of the potential in ABA franchises. But as soon as the league began operating, Mikan was out of his element. The ABA wobbled along for two seasons under his direction before the owners decided that a different sort of specialist was needed. Recalling the American Football League, they figured a lucrative national TV contract would prop up the ABA until other factors—primarily battles over players and the resulting drastic increase in payrolls—would compel the NBA to agree to a merger. And a merger is what the ABA has always been about.

So the owners hired CBS Director of Sports Jack Dolph. Five months after he took office the ABA presented its first nationally televised games. But what the owners did not realize—although Dolph most certainly did—was that the networks were not about to pay anywhere near as much to televise a basketball league whose market areas included Hampton, Va. and Raleigh, N.C. as they were to telecast AFL football, a more popular sport played in more populous cities.

Disappointed by the low TV income, the ABA's owners eased Dolph out in 1972. Their next choice was dictated by two considerations. One was Storen's unwillingness to take the job then and the other was an event that had occurred during Dolph's tenure. With payrolls soaring and the NBA facing a multimillion-dollar antitrust suit filed by the ABA, the two leagues agreed to seek congressional approval of a merger. So New York corporate lawyer Bob Carlson, a man with close ties to the NBA and a Kuhnesque appearance likely to impress Senators, was named commissioner, mainly to handle the ABA's complex legal affairs.

In September 1972, only a short time after Carlson took office, a merger bill was reported out of a Senate committee. It was put together to please the owners, ended up not pleasing the Senators or the players and died without coming to a vote. When Congress reconvened in 1973 another merger bill was presented to the Senate. It also died, and Carlson resigned last August.

When Storen took over he found a league with no merger prospects, no TV contract, not enough income and even less morale. His only assets were teams which, although not as good as the NBA's best, were more closely competitive. Storen also had five fairly solid franchises, ownership so distraught that it was willing to accept strong leadership, and his own skill as an operator.

Operating has always been Storen's business. As a youngster he was pitched out of the Boy Scouts after the basketball team he organized won the local Scout championship. Storen had not been satisfied to field a squad of knot tiers, so he picked up a few outsiders who were great going to their left but did not know a tenderfoot from a tenderloin. In each of the ABA's seasons either Indiana or Kentucky, the two teams he built, has led the league in attendance. The Pacers have won three of the six ABA championships and the Colonels were in the playoff' finals two of the three years Storen was in Louisville. He accomplished this by organizing tightly and spending freely, while many other ABA teams tried to scrape by with a minimum of both.

Storen's expansiveness in competing for talent cost Indiana and Kentucky dearly at first, but both teams may break even this year, no small feat in the debt-ridden ABA. He is so strong an advocate of spending to start a franchise rolling that in the ABA's second season, when the Pacer directors refused to come up with the $100,000 needed to buy Center Mel Daniels' contract, Storen and two of the club's other officers were prepared to raise the money themselves. Impressed, the board reversed its decision.

That, in fact, is just about the only kind of decision Storen would allow his teams' owners to make. Pacer and Colonel investors were not allowed in the dressing rooms, were barred from the press table, could not talk to the coach about personnel, were prohibited from fraternizing with the players except at parties thrown for that purpose by Storen and were not allowed to speak for the organization.

All of which left Storen to run things as he pleased. And he pleased not only to make decisions such as which players to sign, but to delve into minutiae as well. His staff was told precisely how the statistics distributed to the press should be typed and how the ball boys should be dressed. There was an edict for this and a system for that, all designed to enhance the game, to make sure it went off like clockwork and, maybe, make fans feel better if the contest itself was inept. If his aides did not do everything just the way Storen wanted it, he let them know about it on evaluation forms he obtained from the Marine Reserve.

The system worked, but only in those areas which Storen could control. One that he could not was the Kentucky press. Coming from Indianapolis, where the newspapers had been cheerleaders for the Pacers, Storen ran head on into the Louisville Courier-Journal , one of the nation's most respected and independent dailies, its sister paper the Times and their executive sports editor, Earl Cox. A cool early relationship became downright icy two months into Storen's first season with Kentucky when he fired Gene Rhodes as coach. The papers backed the coach, a local favorite who had been doing a moderately successful job, and began to present a generally villainous image of Storen to Colonel fans. Storen began getting obscene calls and letters. One day Mark Storen, then seven years old, answered the phone and heard an anonymous caller threaten his life and the lives of his sister, brother and dog.

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