Like the other three commissioners and the owners and many others in the sports business, Walter Kennedy is a failed jock, both jealous and admiring of the few athletes who have succeeded. Unlike the others, however, he had a very good excuse for not succeeding: infantile paralysis. It may seem almost masochistic the way he has chosen to hang around the biggest and strongest all his life. He has always had a limp. Also, alone among the commissioners, he is a short man and not at all physically prepossessing. He speaks in a raspy voice, and when he tries to supply emphasis, it too often sounds like petulance or anxiety instead.
But Kennedy is persevering and, in fact, prospered in another venue that would seem to have been no more apt for him than athletics—politics. Had the NBA offer not come along, he likely would have gone on from the mayor's office in Stamford, Conn. to try for Congress, and if that act had played out, he would have run against Lowell Weicker Jr. for the Senate in 1970. Kennedy dresses conservatively, save for the fact that he wears his belt buckle well to the side of his suit pants. This day he has on a blue button-down shirt, a blue regimental stripe tie. At 61, he is very near bald.
"I only have one kidney, so I've had to learn not to push myself," he says. "I had a kidney removed 25 years ago, but I've lived a normal life. I had good training. My parents, my mother particularly, treated me in a normal way, or maybe it is fairer to say in an abnormal way, because they refused to let me be spoiled because I was handicapped. I had the polio as a baby and I was getting claw-toed. If the operation—and it was a very rare and hazardous operation in those days—if it hadn't been successful, I wouldn't have been able to walk.
"But I never looked upon myself as having a quote, crippled leg, unquote. My right foot is smaller than my left, and my right leg from the knee down is thinner. But this is funny, it was just this morning my wife—and we've been married 34 years and we knew each other back in high school—she said, 'You know, I have to stop and think every now and then to remember which leg you have the problem with. Of course as a kid I was always the last guy picked when we played games. I was the team manager in high school, the scorekeeper and then I got a job writing sports for the Stamford Advocate. And from there I went to Notre Dame. Everybody knew about Notre Dame and the famous Army football game. I was a Catholic too, and all Catholics gravitated toward Notre Dame.
"I was the PR man for the NBA when it first started. Then in 1962 Walter Brown approached me about the commissioner's job but I turned him down because of my commitments to Stamford. I came home that night and told my wife, ' Marion, I've just blown the chance of a lifetime.' The next year they came back to me, and I was free to accept, so I went down to Washington to talk about it with Abe Ribicoff. The whole Connecticut congressional delegation was at his house, and Tom Dodd said, 'Don't leave politics, Walter. That's the trouble. Too many good people in politics leave to take over some damn refrigerator company.' And I said, 'This is no refrigerator company. This is the National Basketball Association, and I think I've been training for this job all my life without ever knowing it.' So I went back to New York and told them I would take the job.
"That January at my first All-Star game in Boston I met with the players' representatives at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Fred Zollner was there representing the owners. The players had been working on a pension plan for several years, but the owners had given them short shrift. But finally I had worked one out, and we signed an agreement that morning to get on with it.
"I was just delighted. Around 5 o'clock I was taking a shower, humming away. What a day! I'd accomplished a great objective. I was so pleased. My wife knocked and said that there were four or five players outside. I came out with a towel around me, dripping wet. I figured they wanted tickets. Instead, they just stood there in the hall and advised me that unless each of the owners appeared in the locker room to sign the agreement, the game was off. I was flabbergasted. I had signed the agreement for the owners. Several of the owners had left town and even had they wanted to return they could not since a blizzard was howling outside.
"When I got to the dressing room, I found a hostile group of athletes. I told them that I knew they had been kicked around by the owners over the pension, but I pleaded with them not to let the sins of the past be heaped on my shoulders. Then they asked me to leave and they voted, and they called me back and told me they were going to strike. Oh, what that meant. We had no national TV at that time, and I had created an independent network for this one game. This was our showcase.
"Now I almost had tears in my eyes. This was a new job, I wanted to do well, I thought I had and now it was going up in flames. Rather than talk anymore—I had probably overtalked—I just told them that my integrity was at stake, and I pleaded with them once more to trust me until I gave them reason to do otherwise. They sent me out and voted again and decided they would play.
"There has never been anything like that since then. Still, I'm sick of living out of suitcases and running after planes. I'm tired of always having to be somewhere at a given time. We'll keep our home in Stamford. Our daughter still lives with us, but even if it's too big for us, we love our home. It's in a neighborhood where we were both brought up. I just don't think we're condominium people.