The NBA’s War on ABA, 1970

[People today still often refer to the American Basketball Association (ABA) as “the Maverick League.” The M word is a reference to the ABA’s well-documented penchant for stealing NBA players and creating havoc with the NCAA. While that’s certainly true, there’s also more to the story. That is, the NBA started most of the mischief. As early as 1967, the NBA began signing college seniors early to league contracts, all very much on the QT and before the ABA could try pulling the same stunt. The NBA also pooled its resources to haul in the top collegians, including Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes, and Wes Unseld.

In this article, published in the magazine Basketball Sports Stars of 1970, NBA beat reporter Alan Goldstein calls out the senior league for its inconsistent-bordering-on-sneaky behavior. The article’s published headline was:  Exposed—The NBA’s Secret War Strategy. That’s a bit of an overstatement. Goldstein doesn’t get into the when, why, where, and hows of the NBA’s strategy. But Goldstein was a knowledgeable source back then, and he does expose some of the NBA’s funny business with the ABA. Definitely worth the read.]


When superstar Connie Hawkins jumped from the American Basketball Association to the National Basketball Association, it was hailed as a major triumph for The Establishment (NBA) over the Young Rebels (ABA). Actually, it was a strategic move motivated by expediency and economy.

There was indeed a sneaking suspicion that the NBA lifted its ban on Hawkins for allegedly consorting with gamblers because it appeared that “The Hawk” had a better-than-even chance of winning his $6 million treble damage suit against the league. That was one court game the NBA didn’t want to lose.

So, after spending seven years as a social leper, the Brooklyn-born ball player suddenly became a knight in shining armor last June in the eyes of NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy and the club owners.

But Hawkins was considered something less than a hero by the ABA executives who had given him his first opportunity to play in a professional big league since he was barred. [Ed: Not correct, Hawkins played in the short-lived American Basketball League.]

Hawkins and his new employers, the Phoenix Suns, were rejoicing too loudly, however, to hear the justified criticism from the other league. “The clouds have gone away,” Connie said poetically. “I don’t have to hide in a shell or feel ashamed anymore. This is something I’ve wanted ever since high school. I’ve always had my heart set on playing in the NBA.

Phoenix gained negotiating rights to Hawkins by winning a coin flip with Seattle at a league meeting that had more secrecy than a CIA clambake. For doing penance for seven years, Hawkins was rewarded with a five-year contract in excess of $1.5 million. Neatly tied into the handsome wage package was a guaranteed income of $25,000 annually for 24 years starting at age 45.

“Connie’s set forever,” said his lawyer David Littman, who pleaded his case with the NBA for over three years. “He’s a millionaire. He has a substantial living for life.”

“When we told Connie that everything had been approved,” added Mrs. Littman, also an attorney, “all he did was nod his head as though he were numb. He couldn’t say a thing. It wasn’t until two hours later that the full appreciation of what had been accomplished burst through to him.”

But why did the NBA take seven long years to proclaim Hawkins’ innocence? Commissioner Kennedy’s explanation was couched in mumbo-jumbo phrases usually reserved for government contracts. “Shortly after I became commissioner, I attempted to look into the serious charges against Hawkins that had appeared in the press in 1961 in connection with a college basketball scandal,” Kennedy said.

“Because I had no way of compelling answers to questions from those who might know the facts, I was unable to complete that investigation. However, the lawsuit that terminated did afford us an opportunity, through depositions and other procedures, to learn what facts—and I emphasize the word ‘facts’—were really available.

“It has always been the policy of the NBA to make every effort, consistent with fairness to the player involved, to keep itself free of any contact with anyone who has been associated with gambling or fixing. NBA counsel now has advised me that the employment of Hawkins as a player in the NBA will not be inconsistent with that policy.”

But why weren’t these same “facts” uncovered in 1963 when Hawkins’ lawyers wrote a letter to remind the NBA that their client would be eligible for the college draft the following year?

Again, in 1964, New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles all asked permission to negotiate with Hawkins only to have the commissioner turn them down. In May 1966, Hawkins’ case was officially barred by the NBA pending a further investigation by Kennedy, who hired Pinkerton detectives to search for new evidence that might result in changing the situation.

Oddly enough, while Hawkins sought to win his argument in court, Fred Crawford, who was indicted for failing to report a $1,000 bribe while at St. Bonaventure College, was playing in the NBA with Kennedy’s approval. The fact that the Bonnies allowed Crawford to resume his collegiate career after tuberculosis forced him to sit out a year was good enough for Kennedy to make him an exception, although the league’s strict by-laws specifically barred players who had been associated with known gamblers.

Charley Williams

But in an almost similar situation, Kennedy banned Seattle’s Charley Williams, currently performing for the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA. In 1965, Williams was suspended from school for failing to report attempts to bribe one of his Seattle teammates. He was never accused of complicity in a bribery and was later re-admitted by the university to complete work for his degree.

After graduating, Williams had a tryout with the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA but was barred from signing a contract. But since the Hawkins’ case was resolved, Kennedy appears ready to also open the door to Williams.

Hawkins wasn’t the first player to win a legal battle with the NBA. In 1960, Bill Spivey sued the league for $820,000 in damages, contending the NBA blacklisted him after it was charged that he had participated in the basketball dumping scandal at Kentucky. Spivey said he settled the suit for $10,000.

Spivey first became implicated in the Fixing Scandal in 1951 and, in the spring of 1952, he was indicted for perjury by a New York grand jury. He pleaded innocent to the charge, which later was dropped when the case brought to trial resulted in a deadlocked jury.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Spivey said, “the settlement and the league’s action are an admission in my favor. I feel clean. I took and passed a lie detector test. I can’t understand people like Mr. Podoloff and his board of directors that will live and thrive in this country and derive benefit from games, yet they don’t want to accept the laws of the land when a man is innocent until proven guilty.” Spivey referred to Mo Podoloff, Kennedy’s predecessor.

By reversing its decision on Hawkins, the NBA left itself wide open to further lawsuits by former college stars Roger Brown, Doug Moe, and Tony Jackson, who were also implicated in the 1960 New York gambling investigation that involved Hawkins.

“It’s not for us to sit as judge and jury,” said ABA owner Arthur Brown when he signed Jackson to a New York contract in 1967. “Jackson wasn’t a criminal. He was never indicted for anything. Whatever Jackson did, I think he has earned a chance to play pro ball the way he has conducted himself for six years. Who am I to deprive him of that opportunity?”

The NBA’s actions since the ABA first came onto the scene two years ago have hardly been holier-than-thou. Several newspapers reported that the NBA signed college stars to lucrative contracts before the annual draft was conducted. The players were then obligated to perform for whichever team picked them.

The NBA also made a quick about face in permitting Seattle to sign Lucius Allen, the former UCLA All-American who had been convicted on a narcotics charge. Allen, who performed in an AAU league last winter, had also been sought by the ABA.

But the NBA was really left blushing from embarrassment when Jo Jo White’s military draft case shot into the headlines last June. It appeared that the NBA considered its own draft more important. White, a former Kansas U. All-American and Olympic performer, sidestepped a two-year hitch in the service by enlisting for a six-month tour in the Marine Reserve Corps in Connecticut. White had been passed up by eight other NBA teams who didn’t think they could afford the luxury of waiting two years for him. But the Boston Celtics, who made Jo Jo their first draft choice, obviously knew something.

With the help of Kennedy, a former campaign manager for Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff, White, who had already received his first draft notice in his St. Louis home, had his case transferred to Connecticut.

Kennedy claimed the White case “has been blown out of proportion.” But the commissioner’s cry had a hollow ring judging by the facts uncovered. White’s residence address in Connecticut was traced to Carl Scheer, who happens to be Kennedy’s chief NBA aide. Scheer saw nothing strange in this. “I have a large house with ample space, and I invited White and his wife to reside there until such time as his pro basketball career and/or his military career were clarified so that they could establish permanent residence,” he explained. [Ed. Scheer told me that he operated strictly on his own to avoid implicating Kennedy and to give him plausible deniability.]

It was another victory for the NBA, but again hardly one that entitles it to pat itself on the back. Sure, all’s fair in love and war, but the NBA is winning its war because it has all the big weapons on its side.

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