SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 21, 1983
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November 21, 1983


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After Larry O'Brien surprised everybody last week by announcing his resignation as NBA commissioner, effective Feb. 1, the encomiums to him poured in from practically every league city. But among more casual NBA observers there was also some foot shuffling and throat clearing. Oh, yeah, sure. Larry O'Brien. The reaction was almost as understated as O'Brien's eight-season stewardship had at times appeared to be. It seemed so long ago that O'Brien presided over the ABA-NBA merger and the Oscar Robertson antitrust settlement. And what about the NBA's recent successes, such as the collective-bargaining agreement that averted a strike last season and its get-tough drug policy? Weren't those widely perceived as being coups by the players' union, not by management?

But give O'Brien credit. Public perceptions aside, the landmark collective-bargaining agreement, which was sensibly designed to check spiraling salaries, and the new drug-control policy were, in fact, worked out in a unique spirit of cooperation between NBA Players Association General Counsel Larry Fleisher and O'Brien. O'Brien preferred a non-confrontational approach to league problems, but he wasn't afraid to act swiftly and forcefully when necessary. He served notice of this when, in 1975, just days after assuming the job, he cracked down on the Knicks, who had signed ABA refugee George McGinnis, even though the 76ers held his draft rights. O'Brien immediately voided the New York contract, restored McGinnis' rights to Philly and docked the Knicks a future No. 1 pick for poaching. When the Lakers' Kermit Washington slugged Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich during a game in 1977, inflicting serious injuries. O'Brien imposed a fine and suspension on Washington that cost him $60,000. By such means O'Brien adroitly forestalled and defused controversy in a sport that, contested by the biggest of men in the closest of quarters, was ripe for it.

O'Brien's critics point to the league's lingering competitive imbalance and financial woes. But there's little a commissioner alone can do other than try to hold expansion in check and void ludicrous trades, both areas in which O'Brien was vigilant. As one NBA watcher put it, "The commissioner has no real power over which yo-yos will own an NBA team. It's up to the other yo-yos." But thanks largely to O'Brien's firm yet restrained leadership (all signs indicate that the "yo-yos" will name David J. Stern, the league's executive vice-president to succeed him), the NBA stands as an island of semisanity in the sea of pro sports. Now, when people think of drugs, they are just as likely to think of pro football as basketball; when they think of player violence—the rough play that has occurred during the current NBA referee strike notwithstanding—they think of hockey. And when they think of spendthrift free agency, they increasingly think of baseball.

Each week during the football season, the Student Supply Store, which is located near the Iowa State campus in Ames, puts a big sign in its front window saying SPLATTER OKLAHOMA or BEAT KANSAS and so on, depending on the name of the Cyclones' upcoming foe. Before Iowa State was shelled 72-29 two weeks ago by the nation's top-ranked team, the sign in the window was worded a bit differently. It said: MAINTAIN DIGNITY AGAINST NEBRASKA.


One day last spring, NBC-TV college basketball commentator Al McGuire called up Rich Hussey, the network's director of sports programming, and said, "My God, we have to have Ray's last game! How can we not have Ray's last game?" McGuire, the former Marquette coach, was referring to Ray Meyer, who plans to retire at the end of the 1983-84 season after 42 years as the DePaul Blue Demons' coach. Hussey quickly agreed that Meyer's regular-season finale should be telecast, but it was decided that the team's scheduled season-ender at home against Dayton on March 10 wouldn't have quite the same pizzazz as, say, a De-Paul vs. Marquette windup. So Hussey tried to get the DePaul-Marquette game that had been scheduled for Feb. 18 in Milwaukee moved to Chicago and into the March 10 slot originally set aside for DePaul-Dayton.

The switch wasn't quite as simple as it seemed. Marquette said it would cooperate as long as it wound up with the same number of home games on its schedule. That meant the Warriors needed a replacement game in Milwaukee if the game with DePaul was going to move to DePaul's home arena. The only team on Marquette's schedule that would consider giving up a home game was Northwestern, but that school needed to give its fans something in return. The Wildcats' athletic director, Doug Single, wanted to start a series with DePaul, so after getting a guarantee for a game with the Blue Demons for the 1984-85 season. Northwestern agreed to play Marquette in Milwaukee. The only date open in Milwaukee was Dec. 10. Northwestern, however, already had a game with George Mason for Dec. 10. Northwestern had an open date on Jan. 14, but George Mason had a game against Monmouth scheduled for that day. George Mason had an open date on Jan. 7, but Monmouth had a game with Rider. Monmouth had an open date on Jan. 11, but Rider had a game against American University. Fortunately, Rider and American both had openings on Jan. 12. They arranged to play on the 12th, Rider and Monmouth agreed to meet on Jan. 11, Monmouth and George Mason on Jan. 7, Northwestern and George Mason on Jan. 14 and Northwestern and Marquette on Dec. 10, Stetson had been scheduled to play Marquette on March 10, but that game was moved to Feb. 18, the day originally set for Marquette-DePaul. And what about Dayton? The Flyers consented to move their game against DePaul to Feb. 18 on condition that the game be regionally televised and that Dayton find an opponent for the open date it now had on March 10. Old Dominion agreed to fill that bill.

"It got to where I was offering Al McGuire for end-of-the-season banquets," Hussey said of the machinations and inducements it took to make all the switches. The network also agreed to pick up some air-travel expenses for George Mason and hotel bills for Monmouth and Rider. Was all this worth the effort? "Everyone was willing to go the extra mile for Ray," Hussey said.


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