What’s It All About, Walter? 1974

[By the mid-1970s, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy was running on fumes. He’d tried several times to resign as NBA “czar,” but the owners bickered and bellowed and couldn’t agree on “Walter’s replacement.” A cadre of NBA (and, interestingly, a few ABA) officials lobbied hard to get lawyer Al Rothenberg approved as Kennedy’s replacement at 2 Penn Plaza, next to Madison Square Garden. But Rothenberg, widely perceived as Los Angeles owner Jack Kent Cooke’s “lawyer,” “lackey,” and “mole,” couldn’t muster the needed votes. Yes, Cooke was that despised among his peers. 

Kennedy, meanwhile, lobbied hard for his deputy Simon Gourdine to be the next “Walter.” But many, though certainly not all, owners had tuned out Kennedy. They preferred to yell at him. The problem wasn’t Kennedy himself. By all accounts, he was a genuinely nice man. It was his skill set. Kennedy was a 1950s-era sports publicist thrust into the increasingly complex world of 1970s sports entertainment. It didn’t really mesh, and Walter was costing the bickerers money and market share.

As Dave Anderson, sports columnist with the New York Times, recounted this early November 1974 conversation at NBA headquarters. “You look tired,” Gourdine said. 

“I do,” Kennedy agreed, “but I’m reaching the point where it’s beginning to affect my health. Play your cards right, and you might have my job someday.”

In this short article, plucked from the November 21, 1974 issue of Basketball Weekly, journalist Mark Engel sits down with Kennedy to discuss his impending departure from 2 Penn Plaza. Kennedy, whose 12-year run involved his fair share of prevarication to protect the owners’ interests, is wonderfully candid here, offering an interesting glimpse into the inner workings of the mid-1970s NBA. It’s also worth noting that on the page opposite this article is the headline, “NBA attendance down; only seven show gain.” To quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” in NBA.]

2 Penn Plaza

Life is not a carnival for a czar in a swirling tempest known as the world of professional sports. 

It is not a life fit for one weak of heart, spine, or verse in legal proceedings. It is not a life for one whose idea of a daily travail is to smile and extend the glad hand, pondering deeply, “What’s for lunch?” instead of “Who filed protests this morning?”

It is, however, a way of life that J. Walter Kennedy is entering for the 12th straight year. But this is his last campaign, and after the Great 24-Second Clock concludes its inexorable march towards June 1, 1975, no longer will “Commissioner, National Basketball Association” be attached as a rider to JWK’s signature. 

Kennedy’s exit is one of his own volition, declared during the Summer of ‘73 to be executed two years hence. In his 12-year reign, he feels that through basketballs most trying times, he has reached the peaks that he sought to climb. 

“When I came into the league, I had two primary programs to develop. The first was to create a national TV program. We didn’t have one in 1963. That was developed, and we have gone from $600,000 grossed to nine million dollars,” he related. “I feel we effectively achieved our goal there.”

“My second goal was to create an orderly expansion program for the league, and we have gone from nine to 18 teams. 

Ah yes, the critics cry, but aren’t 18 NBA teams too many? Hasn’t the league overexpanded?

The Commissioner thinks not. “I think there are enough good high-caliber players coming out of the colleges each year to make it possible for a highly-competitive game in the NBA for years to come,” he observed.

“Let me give you an example. When he was drafted a couple years ago by Baltimore, Phil Chenier was an unknown. People asked ‘Phil Who?’ And yet he’s developed into a helluva basketball player . . . good enough to just get a seven-year contract.”

Kennedy, in fact, would like to see the league grow even larger—in the direction of Europe. “In 1970,” he stated, “when I first made known the NBA’s interests to expand into Europe, I said the 1980s would be a possibility. With the wider use of satellites and television and with speedier jets, and with continued great interest in basketball in all parts of Europe, I still feel as I did four years ago.”

“I’m not sure all my owners agree with this,” he admitted. “Justifiably, some of them feel we should strengthen some of the franchises here. But in 1970, people laughed, they said he’s just trying to gain some publicity, but soon after, hockey expanded its interests into Europe and so did football.”

“I feel pro basketball can be successful in Europe like the Harlem Globetrotters already have. There are some Germans, for example, who know more about the NBA and college basketball than some people in our territorial cities.”

Even though this indeed is his last season as head of the league, Kennedy, who started with the NBA as its original public relations director, bristles at the thought of being a lame duck. 

“In no way has the operation of the commissioner’s office been impeded by the fact that I’m rounding out my career,” Kennedy said. “I may even be stronger. I’d hate to think that I’d ever been looked on as less than objective, but now if I have strong feelings that I project to the owners, they’ll believe it’s for the best of the NBA and not for the best of Walter Kennedy.”

Such overtures of compliance have not always been the case. Kennedy is the only commissioner in American sports history to have been taken to court by an owner. To this day, the ire of Seattle’s Sam Shulman is aroused when the Spencer Haywood Affair is mentioned. 

Much of this type of commissioner-owner detente arises from the very make-up up today’s sports hierarchy. 

“There have developed situations in both leagues where an owner comes into pro sports with no knowledge of its intricacies,” Kennedy noted. “They are successful in businesses where they are the boss and run the show. They’re not used to somebody—an employee—saying, ‘No you can’t do that, it violates the league constitution.’”

“My successor will be faced with this as a fact of life today and a fact of life in the future. The new guy will have a honeymoon for five or six months and then an owner will challenge him. As soon as he does, there will be a problem.”

One problem which has existed and will continue to exist—with plenty of name-calling to go along—is that of talks of a merger with the ABA. One is no closer than it was four years ago, and Kennedy cites the reason as a very basic one. 

“It’s the players’ insistence that in order to get their support for merger legislation, we must give up the option clause in their contracts. That’s the price the NBA must pay,” he stated. 

And the NBA isn’t buying. “The owners took the position that the option clause is important to the future of the NBA and won’t give it up.”

It will be a bittersweet departure from a league that has been more to him then just his employer. But it’s these many trying times he’s experienced that made Kennedy feel he’s leaving at the right time. 

“Some guy with a different outlook or temperament than I could stay on for the rest of his life,” Kennedy claimed. “Two or three years ago, I asked myself ‘What am I doing with my life?’ I’m arguing for what I feel is important to me, fighting guys who never had before and won’t accept being told no.”

“I want to enjoy the rest of my life. There will be more things to do,” he predicted. “I don’t want to retire from life, just the NBA.”

He isn’t severing his ties completely; that might be impossible. A 10-year contract as a league consultant awaits him, and perhaps even more. Like an interest in a Copenhagen franchise someday. 

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