"Without Larry the job never would have gotten done," says William Alverson, president of the Milwaukee Bucks. A self-described "certified hawk" opposing concessions to players and to ABA teams seeking merger, Alverson now says, "Looking back, I don't know how he did it. I don't know, he just seems to have this special gift of persuasion."
For the record, it is true that Lawrence Francis O'Brien, now 59, special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, former U.S. Postmaster General, two-time National Chairman of the Democratic Party and the son of County Cork immigrants, has bussed the Blarney Stone. Indeed, shortly after his appearance in Washington he left for one of his frequent visits to Ireland to "renew my juices." Mainly, like the ancient Gaelic storytellers who drew sustenance from the myths and musical voices of the land, juice renewal consists of knocking around the countryside, frequenting inns and pubs and, he says, "talking, lots of talking with the people."
Words, lots of words in the form of depositions, accusations, court rulings and agents' demands were ultimately what caused Walter Kennedy, O'Brien's predecessor, to leave the NBA. When Kennedy, a former public relations director for the league, became commissioner in 1963, the NBA consisted of nine teams with hardly a player's agent or a lawsuit to its name.
But toward the end of Kennedy's tenure, like a mounting storm, came the suits, strikes, injunctions, salary wars and cries of "piracy!" Kennedy recalls, "Problems that once were solved by a phone call or a shake of hands suddenly required four lawyers, a court stenographer and eight hours of hearings. It was a harrowing experience." Complaining of a "lack of front-office stability" that saw 44 changes of ownership or principals while he was in office, Kennedy announced in 1973 that he would retire two years hence.
In that year, Mike Burke moved down-town from the New York Yankees and the (then) comparative serenity of American League baseball to the front office of the New York Knicks. He found the contrast between the two operations startling. "Generally, a total lack of order prevailed, with no one to pull it together. League meetings were a mess—everyone talking at once, private conversations going on in the corner, Kennedy pounding his gavel and nobody listening—just chaos."
Typical of the NBA's disordered state was the 21-month search for Kennedy's successor. At one point in 1974, a vote was taken on a pair of candidates, Alan Rothenberg and Henry Steinman, both West Coast lawyers with ties to NBA teams. The owners split into two hopelessly deadlocked factions. "The feeling was," says Milwaukee's Alverson, "that each group was trying to shove their man down the other's throat. We were probably all wrong but it shows you the kind of suspicion that prevailed."
Enter O'Brien, who at the time headed his own management consulting firm in New York. "Things were going along rather well financially, but quite frankly I was bored," he says. "I'd get up each morning, light a cigarette and say to myself, 'Well, what do I do today? Have a long lunch with a friend?' "
One night his answer was to attend a Knick game (he has been a season-ticket holder since 1969) and, met there by Mike Burke, the connection resulted in another question: Did he want to change his life? "No," he said. "I don't think a sport commissioner's job can get the adrenaline flowing."
Nonetheless, a league committee began pursuing O'Brien, and he eventually agreed to read the NBA's constitution and by-laws. "As I looked it over," he says, "I realized that, by God, you weren't fettered as Commissioner, that there is an authority inherent in the office that is wider than in any other sport. There were things you could actually do, decisions you could actually make."
Approved by unanimous vote and signed for three years at $150,000 per, plus the kind of fringe benefits usually reserved for seven-foot centers with 30-point averages, O'Brien flew to a league meeting in San Francisco to be sworn in and make his first decision. It was a sticky one, not only because of the big money involved—Philadelphia, which owned the NBA draft rights to George McGinnis, was contesting New York's signing of the ABA superstar for $3.1 million—but because Burke, the architect of the Knicks' deal, was a close friend.