The ABA: Volume 2 – “The Formation Of A League”

ABA Article

The ABA: Volume 2 – “The Formation Of A League”

By Neil Beldock

(This is the 2nd installment of a continuing series about the ABA. See the bottom of the page for link to volume 1.)

It’s all about money…….Plain and simple………It’s all about money…………

When the founding fathers of the ABA were forming the league, the year was 1966 and the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) had announced their intentions to merge the two leagues, thus making millionaires of the owners of the upstart AFL teams.

It was with this in mind that the “George Washington of the ABA”, Dennis Murphy set out to establish a 2nd major professional basketball league to first compete with, and then ultimately force a merger with the established NBA.

If a merger with the NFL after only 6 years made millionaires of the owners of the AFL teams, in Murphy’s mind, it stood to reason that the same could be accomplished as it related to professional basketball.

Murphy had tried to establish an AFL franchise for Anaheim, California but the merger occurred before he was able to successfully execute his plan. Said Murphy of his intentions in landing an AFL team in Anaheim:

“It was 1965 and the NFL and AFL were in a major war. Our idea was to put together a group to get an AFL franchise for Anaheim. We knew a merger of the two leagues was coming and we figured if we can get a team in Anaheim, we’d either end up with an NFL franchise or they would have to buy us out. Either way, we’d win”.

It’s all about money…….Plain and simple…….It’s all about money……..

Having lost out on a potential NFL franchise or buy-out, and having already put together a decent group of people with money who would have been a part of the Anaheim football team, Murphy felt the means existed to do something.

Murphy took a look at the professional sports landscape and saw an opportunity in professional basketball. Why professional basketball? Said Murphy: “The NBA had only 12 teams in 1966. It seemed like there should be more. What the hell, the AFL had worked, hadn’t it? Maybe we could force a merger with the NBA.”.

It’s all about the money……..Plain and simple……It’s all about the money………

So Dennis Murphy set out to leverage contacts afforded him from having been the Mayor of the City of Buena Park, California. His first contact was former University of Southern California and Boston Celtic great (and future Los Angeles Lakers coach) Bill Sharman.

Murphy saw Sharman as becoming a major player in the formation and management of the league, perhaps becoming the Commissioner of the new league. But shortly thereafter Sharman accepted the position to coach the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA, effectively removing himself from any involvement with the new league.

Sharman did however encourage Murphy to continue with his quest and recommended he speak to George Mikan. Sharman felt that Mikan’s involvement could bring much needed attention to and for an upstart league.

Mikan was one of the bigger names in basketball circles and the player who had been named “The (Best) Basketball Player of the First Half-Century”. He also was an attorney and successful businessman.

Sharman did however have a significant impact in the development of the ABA (and ultimately all of basketball); he strongly suggested to Murphy that the new league should have a 3-point shot.

Murphy did contact Mikan, but Mikan was very hesitant saying, “I’ve got a great reputation. I get asked to do things 100 times a day and I’m not going off half-cocked. Get the thing moving. Get the money. I just don’t want to hear a lot of talk. Then maybe I’ll work with you.”.

So heeding Sharman’s advice to continue with his quest, Murphy set out to establish enough credibility to lure Mikan’s involvement.

Murphy’s first course of action was to establish rules and guidelines for membership in a potential new league and adjoin a meeting of potential franchise owners. Murphy established that an entrance fee of $5,000 would be required to become part of the league, and a meeting was scheduled to be held in New York to set the wheels in motion.

Said Dick Tinkham, legal counsel for the Indiana Pacers: “Indiana was a basketball-crazy place on the high school and college level. Given the basketball climate in Indiana, it just seemed that a pro team would be a natural. A local group had gone to the NBA about an expansion team but the NBA wasn’t very enthusiastic, and they talked about $1.5 million to get in. That was a lot of money back in the middle of the 1960’s. We heard that there would be an ABA investors meeting in New York. You brought a check for $5,000 you were in. Not just in the meeting, but in the league! So we got the five grand and we were in.”

The result of the investors meeting in New York was that people of substance were attracted and paid the $5,000 to become a part of the venture. Ten people in all, and these ten people would be the owners of the initial franchises of the ABA.

To further substantiate financial viability, and ultimately attract Mikan to become the league’s commissioner, each investor/team owner also posted a $50,000 performance bond.

With the required money placed in escrow, Mikan was on-board and agreed to become the Commissioner of the ABA, a huge win for the new league. And Mikan’s presence would pay early dividends at the intial ABA press conference.

The initial press conference of the ABA was held at the Summit Hotel in New York City and was vey much a foreshadowing of what the league would be like. Said Dennis Murphy of that first press conference:

“We had about 50 media people there. I had arranged press conferences before because I had worked in various political campaigns in California, but I had never seen anything like this. The press conference was heavy on “schmaltz”. We had stars like Frank Gifford there. We had girls in hot pants handing out drinks and press releases. We gave away red, white and blue basketballs. The press conference cost a reported $35,000 as the whiskey flowed. But the thing also started to look like a zoo and we probably were going to get ripped in the press. George (Mikan) sensed we could be in trouble. He said ‘This is all a bunch of crap. I’m gonna get up there and run this show.’ That’s exactly what he did. I’m convinced that we would have died at that first press conference without him. Let’s face it, when a guy who was the greatest basketball player of his era, a guy who is a successful businessman and a guy who was 6-foot10 with the charisma of Mikan stood up and spoke, people listened. He explained the idea behind the league and why the league could make it. He explained why there would be a red, white and blue basketball.”

So the ABA was on it’s way. But how do you effectively market a new league?

Step 1: Enter Mikan’s brain child………….The Red, White & Blue Basketball…………

(Next in the series “Remembering the ABA: Volume 3 – The Red, White & Blue Basketball)

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Comments (1)

  1. Warren :

    Good start Neil. I.look forward to future chapters and will add any knowledge that I may remember as this book develops.

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