NBA contraction: LeBron James says he didn’t mean to get rid of N.J. Nets
Tuesday, 28 December 2010 11:59 .BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
There is nothing like a feud in sports and apparently LeBron James has picked a senseless fight with the National Basketball Players Association, the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves. It would have made far more sense for LeBron from Miami to call one of the sports talk radio shows in Miami than tell NBA beat reporters that in the 1980s, people like watching NBA games because stars played together because there were less teams. LeBron from Miami could have told one of the carnival barkers on WQAM or WINZ "let's Kevin Love off Minnesota or Brook Lopez and Devin Harris off New Jersey put them on a team to a team that could be really good." It would have made good talk radio but in the business of the NBA, LeBron from Miami could not have said anything dumber from a business standpoint.
"Not saying let's take New Jersey and let's take Minnesota out of the league," James said last Thursday. "But hey, you guys are not stupid, I'm not stupid, it would be great for the league."
Great for the league?
Maybe on the court but LeBron from Miami also wants to put at least 30 players out of work, which will not make his fellow player association members too happy, along with head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts, athletic trainers, equipment managers, front office staff and per diem employees who work for the team on game day or at the arena on game day along with reporters because they won't have a team to cover.
But on Monday, LeBron from Miami backtracked. "I'm with the players, and the players know that," James said. "I've been with the players. It's not about getting guys out of the league or knocking teams out. I didn't mean to upset nobody. I didn't tell Avery Johnson to leave, either. I didn't say let's abandon the Nets, and not let them move to Brooklyn or let's tear down the Target Center in Minnesota. I never said that."
LeBron from Miami didn't even know what "contract" meant.
The damage was done however, Nets coach Avery Johnson said, "We're going to Brooklyn. We're not going to contract."
But for LeBron from Miami and the beat reporters who don't know much about NBA or sports business and for book publishers who claim there is no market for basketball history books complete with accounts from those who played the game in the 1940s and 1950s, here is how the NBA worked back in the 1950s when the league last contracted a team. Actually, the NBA didn't contract a team as the owners of the Baltimore Bullets didn't wait for Commissioner Maurice Podoloff to contract them and gave up on November 27, 1954. That was the last time an NBA team went out of business although many have moved and there were a number of American Basketball Association franchises that met the same fate as Baltimore. The NBA took the four surviving ABA teams in a "merger" in 1976.
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The NBA, like the National Football League of that era was a step above semi-pro level.
In the late 1950s, television became an integral part of sports. The National Football League became engrained in the American culture on December 28, 1958 when Johnny Unitas lead the Baltimore Colts downfield in overtime to beat the New York Giants. That game changed pro football and led to the formation of the American Football League. NBA owners also took notice of the game and the power of TV according to Bailey Howell who was a rookie with Detroit in 1959
"It was a period of transition because shortly after that they started adding teams," said Howell of the NBA in 1959. "They added Chicago and teams were moving out of the small markets to the big market areas, Minneapolis moved to LA, Philadelphia moved to San Francisco and Syracuse moved down to Philadelphia so they were targeting the bigger markets and hopefully the TV revenue that would result from it."
As NBA owners moved to the bigger markets, they encountered another problem. Too many home games, so the solution was simple. Instead of having the Harlem Globetrotters play the Washington Generals or any other team as the preliminary game before an NBA contest, they would schedule an NBA doubleheader in a proven market like New York and so they owners hold less home games or farm out home games to cities that could handle a game.
"All the cities had doubleheaders but the Knicks had more, of course," recalled Howell. "The league was struggling so and in Detroit they (owner Fred Zollner) didn't think they could have 40 home games and draw good crowds, so we would play about 30-32 games at home and the rest were doubleheaders or we would take a home game down to Toledo or go back to Fort Wayne. We played somewhere different every night; we never played two or three nights in the same place. The Celtics played doubleheaders in New York in the first game of a doubleheader and in Providence. The league was struggling; it was really struggling in those years."
The NBA played, it seems, whenever there was a court and two baskets. The 1953-54 Baltimore Bullets franchise was scheduled in the least likely basketball outposts in the United States at that time. Baltimore played games in Buffalo, Indianapolis, Miami Beach, Miami, Birmingham, Alabama and Troy, Ohio. George Mikan's 53-54 Minneapolis Lakers played in Moorhead, Minnesota, Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Spencer, Iowa, Huron, South Dakota, Toledo, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Hibbing, Minnesota and New Haven, Connecticut. The Milwaukee Hawks in 1953-54 went to Omaha, Nebraska, Collingsworth, Michigan, and Iowa City, Iowa. Rochester played a game in Cleveland that year. Syracuse had a contest in Cleveland. Eddie Gottlieb's Philadelphia Warriors played the New York Knicks in White Plains at a building that decades later would serve as the home of an NBA summer rookie league, the Westchester County Center, as well as playing in Hershey. Boston had games in New London, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island and Waterville, Maine. Throughout the 1950s, the NBA would be barnstorming during the regular season in addition to the pre-season. The Lakers after Mikan retired performed in Houston and Dallas.
In 1959-60, the lame duck Minneapolis Lakers played the Philadelphia Warriors on January 31, 1960 in San Francisco and on February 1, 1960 in Los Angeles. It was the first time the Warriors and Lakers would play one another in the two California cities. Within two and a half years, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Francisco Warriors would play one another regularly in NBA action. Minneapolis also played a game in Seattle.
The NBA would approve the relocation of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles in 1960 and add the Chicago territory in 1961 to give the league a presence in the country's top three markets. The league was also in Detroit and auto manufacturers were spending money on sports sponsorships. The NBA, it seemed by 1961, to position itself into a good spot for United States network TV and with President John F. Kennedy's signature on the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, the league could bundle its teams together and sell rights to its games without running afoul of United States Anti-trust laws.
Oddly enough, David Sarnoff's NBC TV dumped the NBA after the 1961-62 season. The league would find a home on ABC in 1963 which was a languishing network. ABC would carry NBA games until the 1972-73 season. Today, television, specifically cable TV provides a revenue stream that is essential to the survival of the league. The Christmas Day games, which Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson and LeBron from Miami complained about, are the start off point for league marketing for the season, which is a bit strange in that the season is approaching the two-month mark at that point.
LeBron's comments were ill advised but that's not the first time he has run into that problem this year. The NBA does have financial problems and there is a reason that there are 30 franchises today and some of that had to do with potential owners wanting to get into the league (Vancouver's Arthur Griffiths spent $100 million for a Vancouver franchise when the league wasn't even thinking about Vancouver back in the mid-1990s and that franchise was sold to Michael Heisley in 2000. Heisley took the franchise to Memphis and has lost money. NBA owners wanted Griffiths' $100 million and gave him a franchise), sudden availability of arenas (Charlotte, Miami, Minneapolis and Orlando). Replacing a transferred team with an expansion team (Charlotte) and numerous exemptions that are available to teams in the salary cap. That is just the tip of the iceberg.
NBA Commissioner David Stern took over a league in 1984, which was financially reeling. NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien and players association Executive Director Larry Fleisher came up with the 1983 Collective Bargaining Agreement that put a salary cap in place is considered to be the turning point in the league's history by the owners and by the players. The 23-team league survived and both sides formed a working alliance, which would allow the league to grow. It also helped that two entities were about ready to join the league, Michael Jordan and Nike. The salary cap was the brainchild of a new lawyer that came on the scene named Gary Bettman. Bettman would become one of the three key people that would run the NBA in the mid-1980s and beyond. David Stern would be the boss, Russell Granik the number two guy followed by Bettman. Without the 83 agreement, there might not have been a Cleveland Cavaliers, which is something that LeBron from Miami should know.
The Collective Bargaining was Commissioner Larry O'Brien's last major work for the NBA and it is one of the reasons that the NBA of the 1980s became popular and it didn't hurt the Boston and Los Angeles had stars as did Philadelphia but LeBron from Miami should know this too. There were bad teams in the 1980s, franchises moved and not all the stars played together — Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin never had the "Big 3" around them like this year's Miami Heat.
The NBA is not a perfect world.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, xplana.com or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org