How The ABA Revolutionized Basketball: Volume 5 – Getting An NBA Superstar

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How The ABA Revolutionized Basketball: Volume 5 – Getting An NBA Superstar

By Neil Beldock

(This is the 5th installment of a continuing series on the ABA)

So, the ABA now has owners with deep pockets, a well known basketball legend as a commissioner, a 3-point shot, and a red, white and blue basketball.

But you do need players to have a league. So where and how to go about building rosters became the next order of business.

Commissioner George Mikan knew how he wanted to approach the issue of building rosters and at the same time create publicity for the new league.

“I wanted every team to sign an NBA star. Then we could have filed a class action suit on behalf of all the players to get the option clause revoked.”

The option clause in NBA contracts was what would prohibit players from leaving their current NBA team to play for any other team.

The option clause stated that a player was bound to his existing team for one additional year after their current contract expired.

As an attorney with an understanding of labor laws, Mikan did not think this clause would stand up if challenged in court

Only one team followed Mikan’s desires; The Oakland Oaks.

The Oaks focused on signing Rick Barry who was playing for and contractually obligated to the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA.

Barry had just completed his second season with the Warriors and was an emerging superstar. As a rookie he averaged 25.7 points per game and was the NBA Rookie-of-the-Year. His second season he led the NBA in scoring averaging 35.6 points per game. In both of his initial two seasons he was an NBA All-Star Game selection and an All-NBA First Team selection.

So signing Barry, and getting Barry to come play in the new league would be an absolute coup for the ABA. But, although his initial 2-year contract was up, the reserve/option clause tied him to the Warriors for one additional year.

Aside from the contract issue, there was one more huge obstacle to hurdle. Would Barry want to leave the NBA to play in an upstart league? The Oaks had a plan.

In order to entice Barry to join the ABA, the Oaks hired Bruce Hale to coach the team. Why, you may ask would hiring Bruce Hale as the coach inspire Barry to agree to come play for the Oaks; Two reasons:

  1. Hale was Barry’s college coach at the University of Miami, and perhaps even more influential a factor…..
  2. Hale was Barry’s father-in-law!!

So hiring Bruce Hale was indeed a huge factor in gaining Barry’s attention, but there were other factors which the Oaks were not aware of which would play in their favor.

Said Barry of the offer to join the Oaks: “When Bruce was hired by the Oaks, it naturally got my attention. He was like a second father to me, and the idea of playing for him again had so much appeal. I loved playing for Bruce in college.”

Barry continued: “At the time I was 23 years old and had just finished my second year with the Warriors. We also had made the NBA finals, but despite all that, for the first time in my life the game wasn’t fun for me. I was playing for Bill Sharman, a man I respect tremendously on a personal level, but Bill was very set in his ways. I just didn’t enjoy basketball under him.”

But there was still the option/reserve clause in place.

Said Barry: “My contract with the Warriors was up, or at least I was led to believe it was. I was supposed to be tied to the Warriors for another year after my contract was up by the Reserve Clause. But it was never challenged in court and the lawyers I talked to didn’t think it would hold up. So when the Oaks called, I was willing to listen.”

With Barry willing to listen, the Oaks got to work. Owners Ken Davidson and the singer/performer Pat Boone arranged to meet with Barry.

Barry, probably understanding his importance to the new league, expressed to Davidson and Boone that he loved the Warriors, liked the Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli, and that his future was secure. He also expressed that if he were to leave the Warriors to play for the Oaks he would “need something very solid”.

Barry said to Davidson and Boone: “Give me your best shot and then I’m going to go to the Warriors and say the same thing. I’m not going to switch back and forth. I’m going to take the two offers and pick the one I like best.”

Davidson’s response to Barry “needing something very solid” was to make an unprecedented offer to Barry, an offer which he felt the Warriors would never match: “Rick, what if we were to make you a part owner? How does that sound?”.

The Oaks offered Barry a 15% ownership interest in the team, the first time a player was ever offered an ownership interest in the team he was playing for.

The final offer from the Oaks was $75,000 per year for three years and 15% of the team. The Warriors offered $45,000 per year plus various bonuses worth $30,000 per year.

The Oaks had their man, or did they?

The reserve/option clause was still an issue and needed to be addressed.

Said Pat Boone: “Our opinion in the Rick Barry case was that the reserve clause was a “restraint of trade” and that made it illegal, so we could ignore it. Our attorneys said that Rick would be free and clear to play, but (Warriors owner) Franklin Mieuli took us to court, got an injunction, and later a San Francisco judge ruled in Franklin’s favor saying that Rick either had to play for the Warriors, or he had to sit out. Since Rick was a 15% owner (of the Oaks) it made no sense for him to play for the Warriors, so he decided to sit out the season.”

So the ABA got their NBA superstar, albeit it they would have to wait a year to have him on the court.

But the combination of Barry signing to join the ABA, together with the publicity garnished as a result of the legal battle, provided the ABA with much needed publicity and catapulted the new league to the forefront of the media and the public’s consciousness.

Barry would play 4 seasons in the ABA (1968-69 through 1971-72) before returning to the Warriors for the 1972-73 season. Over his 4 years in the ABA he averaged 30.5 points per game, won a league championship in 1969, was a 4-Time ABA All-Star and a 4-Time ABA All-First Team selection. His impact was critical and  an integral reason the ABA was able to survive it’s early years and eventually be able to lure other NBA players to the upstart league.

(Next: Volume 6: Every League Needs Players)

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