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A Celtic rookie Puts it Together
Ray Kennedy
October 25, 1976
First-year Commissioner Larry O'Brien used his Irish gift of gab to lead the NBA owners into a merger with the ABA
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October 25, 1976

A Celtic Rookie Puts It Together

First-year Commissioner Larry O'Brien used his Irish gift of gab to lead the NBA owners into a merger with the ABA

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Bang! After hearing the testimony, O'Brien slammed his gavel and disapproved the Knicks' contract, made them forfeit their first draft choice for 1976 and ordered them to pay Philadelphia's $100,000 legal fees.

A few minutes later, after being separately summoned to a press conference, O'Brien and Burke encountered one another in a hotel corridor. Passing by, O'Brien said, "Even the round ball takes some funny bounces, doesn't it?"

Burke recalls, "Despite our disappointment, it was clear to me that with that one decisive decision Larry had established his authority." Adds Pat Williams, the 76ers general manager, "After handling the Democrats, O'Brien handled that case like it was a shrimp cocktail. It was just beautiful."

Next came the Robertson case. Filed by the all-star guard in 1970 on behalf of all NBA players, the suit contended that the common draft and the option clause, among other things, violated the antitrust laws. Prospects of settlement were bleak. The last attempt at negotiations had come two years earlier when the owners rejected, without bothering to take a vote, a solution worked out by a peace committee. "It was almost like a Vietnam situation," recalls Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the NBA Players Association. "We were all in it up to our necks but no one knew how to get out."

O'Brien's reaction: "I have to get to the hustings." What he found there was a "bitterness and intransigence unlike anything I had ever experienced in all my years in Washington. And let's face it, in Washington we got involved in some very, very hard negotiations. A lot of blood was spilled on the floor, a lot of wounds were inflicted, but afterward there was no meanness.

"I remember sitting with Charlie Halleck, the House minority leader, in his hideaway in the Capitol and having a martini. And he'd say, 'O.K., O'Brien, tomorrow is a biggie. What's your head count?' And I'd say, 'Well, I won't give you the numbers but I bet you we beat you by more than 12 votes.' It was like working with a point spread. And then we'd hit the floor and it would be like the NBA finals. We'd almost always win, but never afterward was there any bitterness. We'd just shake hands and say, 'O.K., fellas, let's try it again.'

"That's why I wasn't sympathetic when I came into this new climate where everyone had their feet in concrete and were suing the hell out of each other. I didn't like it and I was damned if I was going to accept it."

O'Brien arranged a series of meetings between the owners and players and, he says, right in the middle of some heavy prodding, cajoling and shoving, it suddenly hit him: "My God, I've been here before. Except for the bitterness, this situation is exactly like the ones I faced in Washington."

After one particularly unyielding session in New York's Plaza Hotel last January, O'Brien summoned the owners to his room. "When I was in Washington," he lectured them, "there was never a single piece of legislation returned to the President's desk intact. In other words, the art of the possible is the art of compromise. I've never foreclosed on that belief in my life, and if I have to do it now there is no point in my continuing as commissioner. It wouldn't be the end of the world for me. I didn't seek the job. I don't owe anybody anything. And if quitting is what it takes, I'll do it.

"What you have to understand is that professional sports are an integral part of the American system. They can't be separated out. And just as there are many problems in a changing society that must be reconciled, so, too, are there in sports. Gentlemen, we all know there has been a great deal of ferment in this land. We're not immune from that change but part of it. You just can't ignore the quest of Americans for rights long denied."

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