34 years after joining NBA, the Nets are still struggling
MONDAY, 21 JUNE 2010 08:14
BY EVAN WEINER
On June 17th, 1976, New Jersey unknowingly got a National Basketball Association team. On that day, representatives from the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association signed off on a deal that saw four ABA teams, the Uniondale-based New York Nets, the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs join the 18-team NBA. Two other ABA teams did not make the cut, the Spirits of St. Louis and the Kentucky Colonels.
The deal overwhelmed New York Nets owner Roy Boe who could not afford to $3.2 million entry into the NBA and then a $4.8 million additional charge that he would have to pay Madison Square Garden because he invaded the New York Knicks territory.
Ultimately Boe would move his team to New Jersey within a year.
In retrospect Boe should have taken the deal that the Silna Brothers of New Jersey were offering.
The Spirits of St. Louis and Kentucky were left out, but the Silna Brothers, who owned the St. Louis franchise, took TV monies and a $2.2 million a cash settlement for not applying to the NBA. The Spirits owners would get a share of whatever future NBA national TV contract was signed in perpetuity. The Kentucky owner John Y. Brown took a $3 million settlement. Brown used that money to purchase half of the NBA Buffalo Braves franchise. The rest of the ABA players were distributed throughout the league in a dispersal draft.
"I think they made a mistake," said Fritz Massmann, who stayed on with the Nets as the team's trainer and traveling secretary after the merger. "The ABA everybody worked together, every trainer could call each other and help each other out. We cooperated. We had one trainer who was in San Diego; they gave them 12 jocks and said that was enough for the year. We gave them extra jock straps; we tried to help everybody out. You got to help the people out if they were hurting. It was learning how to survive and we did.
"When they made the merger, we were at a trainer's meeting in Boston, they were supposed to take eight teams, at the end they took four. But I would have liked to have seen them take St. Louis and Louisville. It was exciting, it was something new every day. I loved the ABA."
Massmann was an ABA vet and had fond memories of the league, even the Island Garden days when the landlord Arnold "Whitey" Carlson would not open the doors of the building for Nets practices.
"I still call it the massacre," said Bob (Slick) Leonard who was coaching Indiana at the time. "The NBA didn't like us because we upped the ante for players and everything. We come in and they take away your draft choices, they don't give you any television rights, you pay $3.2 million in cash up front to get in. So it really was a massacre.
"But I look back at that and I say how good was the ABA when the merger came? It was really very good. Because the first year after the merger in the NBA All-Star Game we put 12 players on the roster."
The Nets ownership was not so fortunate and in a sense, the franchise has never recovered from the "merger" even though the team went to two NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. Dr. J, Julius Erving, was the Nets best player and the ABA's best-known player.
Dr. J never played a game for the Nets in the NBA. The financially strapped Boe sold Erving's contract to the Philadelphia 76ers to make ends meet. A year later, the Nets were playing in a college gym in Piscataway. The NBA franchise was back in the state where it played in 1967-68: New Jersey.
Boe's other entity; the NHL's New York Islanders nearly sold their players to pay for the Nets entering the NBA. The ABA-NBA consolidation did Nets owner Roy Boe no favors. Boe was overextended and he had already pledged $4 million to the Garden in 1972 for invading the New York Rangers territory when he got an expansion franchise in Nassau County.
Boe had done the NHL a favor by accepting an NHL expansion franchise because it closed off a potentially solid market, Long Island, for the World Hockey Association. The new hockey league was established by the same people who put together the ABA.
Boe had helped the Garden, too, because the WHA's New York Raiders franchise rented the arena to use for WHA games in 1972-73 and 1973-74. But Boe found out that despite being part of the sports owners' fraternity that business trumped friendship and he happened to be in a market that required deep pockets, something that Islanders President and General Manager Bill Torrey said that Boe didn't have.
Boe had acquired Tiny Archibald from Kansas City after the 1976 season and started an ad campaign featuring Dr. J and Tiny. They never played together. Erving wanted an increase to $450,000 a season up from $400,000 and Boe held firm because a contract was a contract and Erving was under contract Boe didn't have the cash to give his best player a promised raise.
On October 20 1976, Boe sold Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million.
"I played with the Doctor in the summers and on All-Star games," said Archibald. "Sometimes you don't get to play with who you want to play with."
Archibald's stay with the cash-strapped Nets lasted one year. He would be traded to Boston and would eventually get to play with one of the greats: Larry Bird.
Rod Thorn was an assistant coach with the Nets, when Roy Boe sold Erving to Philadelphia. Thorn said he understood what had happened. Boe was facing a money crisis.
"He was a great guy, I worked for him when the Nets were on Long Island," said Thorn, now the Nets' president. "He was a great, great owner to work for. He gave you a job to do, he expected you to do it and he tried to give you all the means to get it done. I cannot say enough nice things about him.
"I was hired the same year Dr. J was, I was very fortunate to come in with him and I was also there when we sold Dr. J. Roy needed the money to come into the NBA and he had to sell Dr. J; he had no choice. It was terrible because Dr. J was such a great player and such a leader and had did so many things for our team and then to lose him and really not to replace him, I mean we replaced him with nothing.
"We lost one of the best players in the history of the game and got absolutely nothing other than money which is what Roy had to have to survive but we didn't get anything for it. It was a killer for our franchise."
ABA players made an immediate impact on the NBA. David Thompson was a first team All-Star while Erving, George McGinnis and George Gervin were second team All-Stars. Denver won the Midwest Division title and nine of the Top 20 scorers in the league were ABA refugees.
"I don't think it was very fair at all. But when you look back at it, we changed things a lot," said Leonard. "I felt at that particular time in 1977, that the NBA was hurting and really needed our players. Had our four teams been a little better negotiators, maybe we would have not been hit so hard."
ABA players stuck together through thick and thin. ABA owners didn't, however, with Denver and the Nets' Roy Boe jumping ship in 1975. But it was not until 1976 that Boe got his wish, an NBA franchise. Erving, who was the Vice President of the ABA Players Association, years later harbored some resentment to how the merger or absorption took place.
"It was more business in the NBA," said Erving of the difference between the two leagues. "I guess it was the transition, the expectations were greater, the platform was so much greater and generally when you have a vast platform, there are more good things about it, but then there are more negative things you have to deal with that we didn't have to deal with in the ABA. We were protected by the obscurity so our private lives where protected a little better."
For Dr. J, leaving his hometown New York Nets was strictly a business decision. Boe's Nets were in financial straits and he wanted more money.
"Coming off of the last ABA title, you are feeling no pain. I am 26 years old and individually speaking, anything I see anybody else do in basketball, I probably could do. But at 26, I still know there are a lot of things I don't know about," said Erving. "In going to Philadelphia, I sat down with (General Manager) Pat Williams after signing and he said, OK, I don't need you to come in and score 28 points a game. I don't need you to dominate; we have George McInnis here with Doug Collins, World Free, Mix, Bryant. We have a cast of characters, we need a piece that we didn't have the last year, we need more scoring but we need all-around play.
"There was a conversation about the role changing and I accepted that because it was a business move going to Philadelphia. I reached an impasse with the Nets, and it was either don't play at all or make a good deal and go somewhere else and sort of start all over. I was willing to do that. The transition physically was probably was not as difficult as it was emotionally and otherwise going from a team based in the suburbs to a city like Philadelphia which is a tough basketball city."
But Erving withdrew from the business of basketball. As the ABA's lead performer, he was center attraction, but he was aloof, somewhat, in the NBA.
"The thing I was saddened about was that all the players in the ABA didn't get a chance to play in the new league, the merged league," he said. "There were some pawns in the process and that saddened me greatly and had me stay away from the Players Association activities and even the Board of Governors activities because I thought those players got compromised and I didn't want to be a party to that. I had fought very hard as Vice President of the Players Association to get everybody in.
It was going to be all or nothing.
"Then the Nets and Nuggets applied for entrance into the NBA and that was the undoing of the ABA. It was really a sabotage. So that saddened me and that troubled me and I had my own form of protest for several years before eventually coming around. I didn't join the association in the NBA and I was vocal about that. I just signed a contract, played ball and minded my business."
"The best business aspects of the NBA were much better than the ABA in term of how it was run. I think there was a lot of innovation in the ABA and so many things have been adopted. Three officials was adopted and the three point line. They brightened up the ball a little bit. The NBA was that old brown ball league and it was dark. They lightened it up a little bit, they didn't go red, white and blue but they lightened it up."
Boe sold the team in 1978 to a group of New Jersey businessmen. The team would eventually move to the Meadowlands in 1981. Erving, while a huge name, was never the performer in the NBA that he was in the ABA. Erving gets his due but even after all these years, yet there is still a stigma about the ABA that lingers.
The NBA co-opted many ABA ideas after the merger ... or absorption ... or expansion that happened 34 years ago. Today's NBA owes a great deal of gratitude to the old ABA. But don't expect too many people to shower the ABA with praise. After all, the NBA did the best job the collective 18 owners could do to ruin the Nets franchise while lining the pockets of Irving Mitchell Felt's Madison Square Garden.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaking on "The Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org