Try as he may, O'Brien cannot seem to convince his Washington friends that it is the human element that has made his transition to the NBA so satisfying. People keep asking him, he says, " 'How do you get up for it? How, after being involved in some of the most meaningful and far-reaching social legislation probably in history, do you get up for basketball?' I tell them, frankly, I feel right at home. This position offers all the challenges and responsibility I sought. Hell, the human element is always present."
Except, say, when Dr. J goes one-on-one with Rick Barry. That promises to be superhuman as do some of the other matchups with former ABA stars this season. "It's sort of horizons unlimited for us," says O'Brien. If so, is it also possible that he has been too successful for his own good? After all, without a legal hassle to straighten out, how is he going to keep the old adrenaline coursing?
"It's true," O'Brien says, "our new agreement with the players is a quantum jump forward. But that's just the beginning. What we've secured are the tools for management to operate. Now we have to implement them, franchise by franchise. There is a lot of uncharted water ahead. We won't be idle."
Harry Truman once said that a President spent most of his time trying to persuade others to do things they ought to do without any persuasion. Perhaps O'Brien's greatest contribution as a rookie commissioner is that he has persuaded others to persuade themselves. And, he hopes, never again will he have to persuade himself, as he did when he first took command, to utter a phrase such as: "We will proceed expeditiously with full cognizance of the ramifications involved, including all applicable court orders."
As for those who wonder how O'Brien gets up for the game, well, let them go talk to Dick Bloch, the owner of the Phoenix Suns. Bloch was a scoffer once, too, or at least he pretended to be. During last year's NBA finals, when a lot of business types were nervously shuffling around with the players before a game in Boston Garden, Bloch leaned over to O'Brien and whispered, "What's everyone getting so excited about? What the hell, it's only a game."
Six cardiac arrests later, somewhere between the bedlam of the second overtime and the hysteria of the third, O'Brien cupped his hands and shouted through the din at Bloch, who was sitting a few boxes away, "What are you getting so excited about? What the hell, it's only a game." No one knows if Bloch heard; Bloch seemed to be having trouble breathing at the time.
"And that just about sums up my position on the game," says O'Brien. "Thank you very much."