Unfortunately, in the struggling ABA energetic leadership in day-to-day operations is not enough. Storen's chief accomplishment has been to persuade the owners to forget merger and big TV money for the moment and at least pay lip service to the idea that the ABA must upgrade its product and be ready to go it alone indefinitely.
"It really hasn't been very hard to do," Storen says. "In the last seven years all our owners have at one time or another tried to work out a deal with the NBA. Each of them has walked around dreaming of the big story naming him as the man who made the merger. Now they know it's not easy. The NBA's not going to do us any favors and there's no benevolent TV network waiting to finance us. They know that our product is the only thing we've got going for us and that we've put it together without outside help. We've shown that we can sign good players without a lot of TV money and that the only way we can get better is to do more of the same."
While Storen talks of improvement for improvement's sake, others in his league view the implications differently. "The most important problem he has is still the merger with the NBA," says Denver's Alex Hannum. "And I believe his approach is just right for us. Storen wants to build our league to be the strongest. Then he can negotiate with the NBA as an equal."
Indeed, the tactics Storen says the ABA will employ sound a good deal more like those used by AFL Commissioner Al Davis in the last days of the football war than a plan for peaceful coexistence. The ABA has reinstituted its $300 million antitrust suit against the NBA. It also may move some franchises into better TV markets, an ill-advised maneuver that will mean going against established NBA teams on their home turf. And for the first time since 1970 the ABA will go after established NBA players. "We will have exploratory contract talks with lots of their men," Storen says. "Whether we'll sign none, six or 10 of them will depend on how things work out. But you can be sure of one thing: we'll do this in a serious, orderly way."
Another thing the ABA will be going after in an orderly way is the best college talent, specifically UCLA's Bill Walton. According to Storen, the pursuit of good rookies will be orchestrated from the ABA office, and that could make for some very interesting music. The last time a "league-saving" player became eligible for the pros ( Lew Alcindor in 1969) Storen and several of his associates set up a research project that included sending psychologists posing as newspapermen to interview Alcindor to determine the best way to sign him. Their report, a startlingly accurate assessment of Alcindor's character, was ignored. When the ABA made a grandstand play instead of a serious offer, whatever chance the new league had to sign Alcindor—and it had a good chance—disappeared.
Although the fact that no top UCLA player has ever signed with the ABA puts the league at a substantial disadvantage in Walton's case, it has some advantages beyond Storen's savvy. Walton has already stated that he does not want to play for a team outside Southern California. The ABA has reportedly offered him the option of playing in his hometown, San Diego, or for a new team that would be set up for him in Los Angeles. It is also rumored that Walton would be able to bring along several of his teammates in a package deal.
The NBA draft rights to Walton most likely will go to Philadelphia or Portland. Already people close to the Lakers have confidently decided that if the NBA hopes to prevent Walton from signing with the ABA, it will have to find some way to slip his draft rights to Los Angeles. This could be a two-edged solution. Since it dropped the territorial draft in 1965, the NBA has attempted to project the image of a mature nationwide league that makes no special accommodations for local stars. If the NBA breaches that policy for Walton, even under the guise of trading his rights for several Laker players, the team for which he was supposed to play would face a serious public relations problem. In addition, other players, including veterans, might demand similar concessions. The NBA also could be in trouble because of the ABA's antitrust suit. The suit alleges that NBA teams have violated their own drafting procedures (by pooling resources, for example) in order to recruit players who otherwise might have signed with the ABA and that they therefore have acted in illegal concert to run the new league out of business. Evidence of any concerted action in the Walton case would be Exhibit A for the ABA when its suit reaches court.
If the ABA were to sign Walton—and its chances are not good—the new war could turn into a brief skirmish, with merger to follow. This would make Storen's commissionership, like Al Davis', a brief one. It might even make his mother stop asking, "When are you going to quit fooling around and go to work for a real company?" and oblige her to accept the adolescent wisdom of Storen's 1953 high school yearbook, which said of him: "Sports are his meat." Maybe his potatoes, too.