In 1963, when he decided to pursue a career as a front-office man in professional sports, a choice his schoolmates had foreseen years earlier, Mike Storen was a young, Chicago-based Marine captain nearing the end of a five-year stint in the Corps. Though his only previous experience in big-time athletics—a feeble attempt to play defensive halfback at Notre Dame—had hardly prepared him for the pros, Storen wrote letters of application to every baseball, basketball and football franchise and, typically, remained undiscouraged when the teams that bothered to answer turned him down. Next he seized on a newspaper story that said the National Basketball Association's Chicago entry, then known as the Zephyrs, had sold only 600 season tickets. Storen called the team and hornswoggled an appointment by introducing himself as " Captain Storen of the United States Marine Corps" and assuring one of the Zephyrs' owners that he had weighty (national security?) matters to discuss.
Of course, the only question of security Storen wanted to talk over was his own. "I marched into his office and told him I had read where he had sold only 600 season seats in the entire city of Chicago," Storen recalls. "Then I guaranteed him that if he'd hire me I'd sell 600 new ones all by myself."
That bold promise impressed the owner enough to offer Storen a job. "I went back to finish my time with the Marines confident that I was all set," Storen says. "Then one morning I read that the Zephyrs were moving to Baltimore. I called to ask where I stood, and was told the team planned to hire all local people in the new city. I asked for another appointment, and when I got there all three of the owners were sitting in a row behind a table and they put me in a straight-backed chair facing them. It was just like a court-martial. " Baltimore is the Catholic center of America,' I told them. 'This is a Jewish-owned team with absentee ownership. What you men need is a good Catholic boy to sell tickets. Besides, I'm local because my wife's local and very well known.' I didn't bother to say that Hannah had lived in Baltimore only in 1944 when her father spent a year there working for G.M."
Storen, the owners decided, was just the good Catholic boy they needed. They named him promotion director of the team, now called the Bullets. Since then the Bullets have marched on—to Land-over, Md.—and Captain Storen has marched much farther. After Baltimore, he became promotion director and business manager of the Cincinnati Royals. Next he was in on the beginning of the American Basketball Association as vice-president and general manager of the Indiana Pacers. In 1970 he became president-general manager of the Kentucky Colonels. And last September he was named commissioner of the ABA.
Still, no event in the 38-year-old Storen's swift rise to the top better illustrates the reason for his upward mobility than that campaign for a chance to start near the bottom. He was—and is—audacious, nimble-minded, intuitive, ambitious, inventive, aware of demographics, tenacious, self-confident, attuned to what his listeners want to hear and, some say, not entirely unwilling to fudge the truth to give it to them.
The last of these attributes is not among the cardinal virtues as Storen learned them in his Baltimore Catechism, yet it hardly makes him unique these days in pro basketball. Interleague squabbling and double-dealing agents have made a certain flexibility with facts as commonplace as behind-the-back passes. What makes Storen rare among today's pros is that he also has all those other things going for him.
Even Storen's detractors—among them members of the Louisville press who claim he was not forthright with them during his tenure with the Colonels, and Gene Rhodes, a coach whom Storen fired and who later successfully sued him for "libel, slander and breach of contract"—agree that, as commissioner, Storen is the best thing to happen to the ABA since the invention of the red, white and blue basketball.
A widely praised commissioner is unusual these days, but then Storen is a pretty unusual commissioner. He is neither an ex-lawyer, an ex-general nor an ex-mayor. In fact, he is not an ex-anything, since his sport is the only profession he has ever seriously pursued. He does not have the year-round suntan of football's Pete Rozelle or the Eastern Establishment appearance of baseball's Bowie Kuhn, who comes complete with a touch of dignified gray about the temples. Storen has very little gray at his temples and even less hair on top. He is built thick and low to the floor, as any Michigan City, Ind. high school football player is apt to be 20 years later. He has beaverish front teeth, which he flashes when he lets loose with one of his frequent yuk-yuk laughs.
Storen's wife Hannah, a forceful, striking-looking woman who married him while he was still a Marine, says, "I didn't marry Mike for his looks or his money. I married him because he's so decisive, because he's a brilliant salesman and because he's so lovable."
Lovable? He has fined franchises and coaches, suspended referees, ordered protested games to be replayed, snarled at owners and aired nettlesome problems that most commissioners would choose to ignore. But, however prickly he is, the ABA is finding that it, too, can love Mike Storen, largely because he offers the league something it seemed to have lost just a few months ago: the chance, perhaps even the will, to survive.