We are a nation of brilliant failures," Oscar Wilde once said of the Irish, "but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks." Nowhere do the natives wax more rhapsodic than in County Cork, site of Castle Blarney. There, on battlements nearby in Cork Harbor, once the principal port of departure for emigrants venturing to the New World, is the mystic stone which, when kissed, is said to bestow the gift of eloquence and wondrous powers of persuasion.
It is all fanciful legend, of course. Still....
Talking, always talking, Larry O'Brien rode into Washington, D.C. recently on a white charger. Or so it seemed—one can never be too sure with charmed men. Hailed on the streets and ringed by well-wishers at every turn, the old pol-turned-commissioner of the National Basketball Association was fussed over like a visiting head of state. Even his appearance before the House Select Committee on Professional Sports was more homecoming than hearing; at one point the testimony was interrupted when a late-arriving committee member was unable to contain himself. "Hey, good to see you, Larry!" he blurted.
And it was, except perhaps for die-hards who might have hoped to hear O'Brien lecturing his old Capitol Hill cronies on the necessity of keeping pro basketball players bound to their clubs by ancient restrictive contracts. That, in fact, is exactly what many people believed would happen when O'Brien was named commissioner last year. After all, they reasoned, why else would the NBA hire such a celebrated lobbyist if not for the purpose of gaining Congressional favor for, say, the league's no-budge stand on the reserve clause. At the time, one owner said, "It may take some arm twisting, but I'll bet old Larry can pull it all off in one of those cloakroom deals."
Instead, a year later, here was old Larry telling the House committee that the NBA sought "no special privileges." And for good reason: the long-warring players and owners had fashioned their own peace. Professing an optimism "unmatched in recent years," O'Brien told the committee in his best rumbling baritone that "once again the principles of good faith, hard-nosed negotiating and compromise have carried the day." In sum, he said, the focus of the NBA had at last shifted "from the courts of law back to the court of play."
It was a deservedly proud moment for O'Brien. From a state of bitter intractability, facing issues that rattled the very structure of the game, he had led the embattled parties to settlements that other professional sports can—and inevitably must—aspire to.
Consider all that has happened since he took the job in April 1975: the resolution of the Oscar Robertson antitrust suit that could have resulted in devastating damage claims; the signing of a collective-bargaining agreement with the NBA Players Association that is the most progressive in pro sports; a merger with the American Basketball Association that adds four teams and promises exciting new levels of competition. Toss in a new two-year, $10.5 million TV pact with CBS and enough tough, decisive penalties handed out by O'Brien himself to show who's in charge and, well, let's hear it for Big Larry, rookie sports czar of the year!
O'Brien justice got no complaints from Buffalo Braves Owner Paul Snyder. Four months ago he tried to move his franchise to Miami. " O'Brien blocked it and let me know in no uncertain terms that owning a team is a two-sided deal," says Snyder. "He forced me to face up to my responsibility to the community. And I respect that."
O'Brien's secret? To be sure, the NBA breakthroughs were a joint effort. As the complicated and tedious negotiations ground on, any number of participants could have claimed that week's MVP—Most Valuable Peacemaker—award. As for motivation, the principals needed to look no further than their pockets and the papers. By one estimate, legal fees for just the Oscar Robertson case, which had already cost the price of a new franchise, would have run to an additional $6 million if battled to its conclusion. And based on recent trends in both the courts and Congress, that outcome seemed foreordained: for the players, all the way.