Can Doctor J. Save the ABA?

[One more article about Julius Erving from Sport Magazine’s classic March 1975 cover of the Doctor wearing scrubs. This one is titled “Can Doctor J. Save the ABA?” The byline belongs to Marty Bell, then an editor at Sport who would also publish the 1975 book The Legend of Dr. J. Because Bell here reports the ABA story in real time, his first-draft of history is a little off in some of its fine details. For example, New York Nets owner Roy Boe didn’t spend $4 million alone to get Julius Erving and buy out the Virginia Squires and Atlanta Hawks. The league kicked in a fair share of the money that kept Erving as the face of the league. Boe, quite frankly, didn’t have the cash and was growing increasingly spooked by his ABA losses. 

Such hair-splitting aside, Bell hits most of the big issues that confronted the ABA in its latter years. Unmentioned, though, the ABA’s acting commissioner Tedd Munchak, quoted in this story, was in negotiations with the NBC to put the ABA on national television. Munchak would go so far as to claim the NBC deal was a sure thing. It wasn’t. NBC, crunching the numbers and deciding the ABA was “too small market” to turn a profit, opted to plow its cash into college basketball. The rest is March Madness history. 

The NBC decision also made the ABA history. The league had nowhere to go to pursue solvency. Its only corporate option was for the league’s most-viable franchises to find a way to buy their way into the NBA. That explains the multiple folding teams during and shortly after the 1975-76 season. Addition by subtraction. Yet, this last-gasp attempt only worked in the end because those viable franchises had assets named Thompson, Issel, Gervin, Gilmore, and, of course, Erving.]

Bill Daniels, grateful that Moses Malone had accepted his offer of $3 million to play for the Utah Stars, held a ceremony to welcome the teenager to Salt Lake City. But he didn’t schedule it for the team’s first home game. Or even the second. Daniels knew there was only one man in the American Basketball Association who should preside over the event. And so, he waited two weeks, until the third home game, when the New York Nets and their ambassador of good crowds, Dr. J., Julius Erving came to town. 

That evening, Julius stood at the microphone in the Salt Palace and spoke with the aplomb of a talk show host. “My high school coach once told me,” he said to the rookie, “that when you go into the ocean for the first time you cannot expect to swim right away. First you have to get your feet wet. But Moses, you have been thrown into the ocean and you can swim already.”

Daniels and everyone else who had followed Erving’s carrier closely, had come to expect such facile speechmaking from him, just as they expected the 36 points he scored in the game that followed. Since entering pro ball, Dr. J. has been charming audiences with his amiable personality as well as with his stylish sashaying around a basketball court like an uninhibited ballet dancer, an Isadora Duncan, creating conspicuous movements that nobody ever created before. The combination of talents has made him the symbol of and the spokesman for the ABA. Other players, other places, have been referred to as “the franchise.” Erving goes beyond this. He is the league.

Basketball is the most fragile of professional sports. The National Basketball Association is 28 years old and, still, only three teams—New York, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee—made enough money at the gate last season to cover expenses. Of all the ABA teams, only the Nets came close. In Dr. J., they have the drawing card that the other nine franchises lack. 

An oddity of pro basketball is that one outstanding performer can convert an entire franchise from loser to winner, from disaster to success. At various times during the ABA’s eight-year existence, Connie Hawkins, Rick Barry, Charlie Scott, Billy Cunningham, and Spencer Haywood have been such performers. But each moved to the NBA, and now—with George McGinnis threatening to leave, too—Erving is the only nationally recognized star who seems certain to play out his career in the ABA. As long, that is, as there is an ABA.

The NBA has “drawing cards” on at least 13 of its 18 teams; largely because of them, the league has been able to command a lucrative  television contract and thus become financially successful. With only one stable gate attraction, one team making a profit from gate receipts, no television contract, and the current bleak economic situation, it seems improbable that the American Basketball Association can continue much longer. When it was organized as the initial heist of Gary Davidson, the original owners thought they could establish themselves with a minimal investment and profit by forcing an amalgamation with the NBA, just as the AFL recently had with the NFL. Now, all those original owners are long gone. And while most of their current successors appear to be exceptionally solvent, there is no merger in sight and they are caught in a bind of costs escalating more rapidly than attendance and, therefore, than revenue.

In the past, tax benefits made it possible for men who are wealthy enough to own basketball teams to operate at a loss. But the current economy has cut the margin of profit in their other enterprises to the extent that they may no longer need—or be able to afford—a business that serves as a tax loss. Bob Schmertz, for example, bought the NBA’s Boston Celtics in 1972 on a bank loan of $4 million. At that time, his one million shares of Leisure Technology were selling for $30 each. The stock is now selling for under $1.50. And his situation is not at all uncommon. 

A national television contract could make up the deficits for most of the NBA owners, just as it does for Schmertz and others in the NBA. But if a network took such a gamble at this time, the ratings would probably be poor. The Denver Nuggets are playing the best ball in the league this year, but very few sports fans could name even one starter on that team. Or on San Antonio. Or Memphis. Or Virginia, Or San Diego. The only way the league might win a sufficient audience would be to feature Dr. J. and the Nets on each broadcast.

“I think more in terms of guys who have been around the league longer than I have, like Bill Melchionni or Joe Caldwell or Jim Eakins, as the league’s spokesmen,” Julius Erving says. The unassuming 24-year-old does not seem to comprehend his role. It certainly is not one he would have designed for himself years ago. He grew up quietly in Hempstead and Roosevelt, both primarily black communities surrounded by white commuter communities on Long Island. He chose—though pursued by a host of more prestigious basketball schools—to attend the University of Massachusetts and thereby forgo lavish attention. 

In March of his junior year, the ABA owners held a league meeting at which Earl Foreman, then the owner of the Virginia Squires, announced that he wanted the draft rights to an unknown kid from Massachusetts. Roy Boe, the owner of the Nets, asked Foreman if the kid’s name was Erving or Irvine (George Irvine, now with the Squires, was then a senior at the University of Washington.) The two owners began bickering and the others, anxious to complete their business and catch their flights home, grew angry. Finally, Mike Storen, then the president of the Kentucky Colonels, said to Foreman, “Who cares about this guy? If you can sign him, go right ahead.” The meeting ended, and Foreman signed Erving to a $500,000, three-year contract. 

That same spring, teams in both leagues were gambling millions in hopes of finding that one player who could assure their success. At least 10 players were signed to contracts worth over $1,000,000, including sophomore Johnny Neumann from Mississippi, who received $2 million from the Memphis Tams; Artis Gilmore from Jacksonville, who received $2.2 million from the Kentucky Colonels; and Jim McDaniels from Western Kentucky, who received $2.9 million from the Carolina Cougars. Money attracts more publicity than any other statistic in American sports, and, in comparison to these deals, Erving’s contract did not warrant a line of agate. 

“I caught everybody by surprise and that helped me,” Erving says now. “No one was sick of reading about how great I was in college and, more importantly, no one knew my moves.” Indeed, a Bill Bradley, for one, drew a lot of attention his first time around the NBA, but had trouble on the court and disappointed people. Erving, on the other hand, had no advance notices, and stunned the crowd in each new city with this balletic artistry. Alex Hannum, then the coach of the Denver Rockets, said, “Erving’s the best thing that has happened to our league. He turns the whole town on. They can’t wait for him to come back.”

In the middle of his first pro season, Erving asked his lawyer Bob Woolf, to renegotiate his contract with the Squires. Woolf refused. Teammate Fatty Taylor then introduced Julius to Irwin Weiner of Walt Frazier Enterprises, who went to Foreman and asked for the deferred payments that had been promised his client. Foreman told Weiner, “My personal guarantee is worth a pile of dirty jock straps.” That was all Weiner had to hear. Soon he had Erving signing a $1.6 million, five-year contract with the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. The contract was to begin either when Julius’ contract with the Squires expired or when Weiner could find a loophole to rescind it. Weiner found a loophole, Erving went to Atlanta’s training camp in 1972, but Virginia sued and won Erving back. At the end of the season, the legal battle began again and the Hawks and the Squires, both financially troubled teams, found themselves with mounting court costs. Moreover, each team had paid bonus money to an athlete who might never wear its uniform. So, in August of 1973, when Roy Boe offered to pay off both teams and bring Erving to the Nets, they both readily accepted. Three years earlier, Boe had paid $980,000 for a franchise. Now he was committing $4 million for one player. This time Erving’s money warranted publicity. The contract brought him more national attention than anything he had ever done on a basketball court. 

Boe surrounded Erving with a talented supporting cast, making six-figure investments in Billy Paultz, Brian Taylor, and Larry Kenon and taking less-expensive gambles  on John Williamson and coach Kevin Loughery. By the end of their first season together, they were so dominant that they not only won the league title, but became like a barnstorming team on tour of a struggling circuit, bringing in almost 1,500 extra fans everywhere they stopped. This season has seen similar results. But now the league  must find some format to translate the team’s appeal  from live audiences to television audiences. 

Television gives basketball the exposure that attracts fans to arenas at the same time that it provides the revenue to keep teams operating. The average overhead of a team in the ABA this season will be close to $2 million. The average attendance through the first half of the season was just over 6,000 a game. At an average of 6,000 spectators paying $5 a ticket over 42 home games, a team will bring in about $1.3 million at the gate. The two teams that last until the final round of the playoffs will bring in an additional $250,000. Some clubs also make money from local television and radio and from parking and concessions. Still, most of the ABA clubs will face a loss of a quarter to a half a million dollars this year. All the NBA clubs except New York, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee and, possibly, Boston, Buffalo, and Seattle, face similar deficits. But they get that additional network TV support. “The NBA exists on the money it gets from television and from the expansion teams,” says Tedd Munchak, the interim commissioner of the ABA. 

When the NBA owners hired Walter Kennedy to be their commissioner in 1963, he was given two primary responsibilities: To effect an orderly expansion and to negotiate a profitable television contract. In his 12 years, the league has gone from nine to 18 teams, and the original nine have each realized a total $2.2 million from the new clubs’ initiation fees. New Orleans, the newest entry, paid an expansion fee of $6.15 million, or about $350,000 to each team in 1974. This money came in a year that could have been critical to all because of the nation’s stagflating economy. There is a chance, though, that New Orleans is the last expansion team. The NBA had announced another team for Toronto for next season, a franchise that would have had to pay the $6.15 million entry fee, plus an indemnity to the Buffalo Braves. But with the New Orleans franchise in turmoil and certain to lose close to another million, the league was unable to find backers for Toronto and suspended the expansion plans. 

Under the current $9 million a year contract with CBS, each NBA club receives close to a half million a year in revenue. This $500,000 is a constant that every team writes into the ledger before a ticket is sold. It gives security to a club. 

As their predecessors were eight years ago, the ABA owners still seemed to be looking forward to a merger for relief. According to Commissioner Munchak, a merger would cut a team’s total salaries, and therefore overhead, by 30 percent. 

Kennedy, however, insists there will be no merger in the foreseeable future. The players association refuses to accept a merger unless the reserve system is abolished and the NBA owners refused to merge without a reserve clause. They are all awaiting decision from Judge Robert Carter of the Southern District Court of New York in a suit that can declare the reserve clause and a common draft illegal. But even that decision might not precipitate a merger. The reserve clause may only be a facade protecting the NBA owners’ other interests. Kennedy admits that there are, among his owners, some who would rather continue to divide the television and expansion revenue 18 ways than except 6 to 10 ABA teams and divide it further. And they would rather maintain the current schedule than play a combined schedule that would cut down on the number of appearances by the biggest draws—New York, Boston, and Milwaukee. 

So the prognosis for the ABA is bleak, even with such an accomplished Doctor in residence. And the demise of the league would disappoint all the players in basketball for it would eliminate their bargaining alternative. It would also disappoint the fans in cities like Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and Louisville, who have no other live, local professional teams to see. 

The only apparent source of help is television, and to utilize it, the ABA must devise some innovation that will make their one-star league attracted to the networks. The networks might be susceptible to a format that built Julius Erving into a national television personality like Rhoda. Instead of matching two other teams full of unknowns each week, Dr. J. and the Nets would fit into a regular time slot with Erving hosting taped pregame and halftime shows. Furthermore, any network picking up the package would surely introduce it with the high-powered promotional campaign that they run for all their new programs and stars; a TV Guide cover story might introduce the league to millions of people who never saw a red, white, and blue ball before. The approach is so radical that it would attract more attention than any other promotion the league could dream up, and—with Julius as the draw—viewers would become familiar with talented teams like Kentucky, San Antonio, and Denver. 

Erving, who is thinking about a future in broadcasting, was recently presented with the idea of the league being sold as “The Dr. J. Show.” “It’s not beyond my capabilities to do something like that,” he said. “I would be very receptive to hearing out a proposal and seeing it through if the league thinks it is helpful.” He then sat on the stool in front of his locker in the Nets dressing room, tossing the suggestion around in his mind. Suddenly, he blurted, “That is a hip idea. The more I think about it, the more I like it.” And he began to expand on it and make it his own, just like any game he plays in. “The Nets would not even have to be on every week,” said Julius Erving. “I could host a game between any two teams in the league.”

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