ABA Rumors

Talking with Vance was a great step back in time. A few of the nuggets: * Vance walked out of Will Ferrell’s movie, “Semi-Pro,” which loosely was based on the ABA. It was mostly hijinks and no crowds. “The ABA wasn’t like that,” Vance said. “It was the day of the Afro and those big high-rise shoes and fur coats. All that went with the image. Everyone assumed we played street ball. That offended me a little bit.” * I remember Louie Dampier, the great shooter from the University of Kentucky, who was with Vance’s Kentucky Colonels. Vance told the story of an exhibition game in Owensboro, Ky., where the 3-point line had to be manually placed on the court, since only the ABA was using the arc at the time. Dampier walked into the arena before the game, still in street clothes, holding his satchel, and walked to the 3-point line. He looked at the basket and said, “It’s off.” Game officials proceeded to measure the 3-point line. It was an inch off. “That’s a shooter’s mentality,” Vance said.
For the Wednesday Oklahoman, I wrote about David Vance and the birth of the blocked shot as an official statistic. You can read that column here. But the occasion gave Vance and I reason to look at all kinds of great memories about the ABA. The American Basketball Association spent nine years as an upstart league before finally merging with the NBA in 1976. Merge is not really accurate. The NBA absorbed four ABA franchises; 10 started that 1975-76 season. Three folded before the year was over, and three didn’t make the cut.
The NBA tried, on a few occasions, to work out a deal with the Silnas. There were a few times when the league believed it was close to resolving the issue. At one point, the Silnas were part of a group trying to buy the then-New Jersey Nets, and would have had to obviously give up the Spirits deal as a condition of ownership. In 2007, there were “very serious negotiations,” according to a source, between the league and the brothers, and a proposed deal was basically done and ready. And then, the worldwide recession kicked in full, and the deal’s proposed financing fell apart.
Still, the league is not getting rid of the Silnas altogether. They will continue to get some television revenue, some of it from the disputed sources named in their lawsuit, through a new partnership that is to be formed with the Nets, the Pacers, the Nuggets and the Spurs, according to the people with knowledge of the agreement. But at some point, the Silnas can be bought out of their interest in the partnership. The Silnas, of course, did not have to settle. They could have continued to make money from the N.B.A., without ever having to invest in players or build an arena. Clearly, their old agreement would have to be honored as long as the N.B.A. continued to exist.
The N.B.A. has long hoped to be released from its financial obligation to Ozzie and Daniel Silna, brothers who owned the Spirits of St. Louis in the defunct American Basketball Association. But it has never been easy. The Spirits were excluded from the 1976 merger of the two leagues. So the Silnas watched unhappily as the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets, the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs were absorbed into the N.B.A. But the Silnas negotiated an astonishing benefit that was critical to the merger: an agreement to be paid one-seventh of the national television revenue that each of the four teams was to receive, as long as the league continued to exist. That amounted to being paid in perpetuity, and so far, the deal has provided the Silnas with about $300 million.
On Tuesday, the Silnas, the league and the four former A.B.A. teams will announce a conditional deal that will end the Silnas’ golden annuity. Almost. The Silnas are to receive a $500 million upfront payment, financed through a private placement of notes by JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch, according to three people with direct knowledge of the agreement. The deal would end the enormous perpetual payments and settle a lawsuit filed in federal court by the Silnas that demanded additional compensation from sources of television revenue that did not exist in 1976, including NBA TV, foreign broadcasting of games and League Pass, the service that lets fans watch out-of-market games.
But there is a reluctance, more by Daniel, 69, than Ozzie, 80, to keep fighting the league, said one of the people who discussed the agreement. Although wealthy people often plan their estates, much of the Silnas’ riches from the N.B.A. is already in family trusts. Bob Costas, the NBC sportscaster who called Spirits games, said in a telephone interview, “My guess is that for the N.B.A., the upside is that in the foreseeable future, there will come a time when they will not have to look at this and blanch and it will be in the past.”
John Barnhill, a member of the Pacers’ first ABA championship team in 1970, died Monday in southern California, according to pacers.com. A 6-1 guard, Barnhill joined the Pacers for the 1969-70 season, averaged 11.4 points per game as a part-time starter and was second on the team in assists. He averaged five points in 43 games during the 1970-71 season before he was released and returned to play 19 more games with Indiana in 1971-72.
Nearly four decades later, the Silnas are recalled for a savvy deal that continues to enrich them. But not all of their business moves have been so lucrative. They were victims of Bernard L. Madoff’s massive fraud. Daniel Silna told Forbes last year that they lost all that they had invested with Madoff, but would not say how much. In lawsuits against the Silnas, the trustee for the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme have said that the Silnas, relatives, family trusts and two corporate entities collected $24 million in fictitious profits. After the hearing Thursday, a lawyer for the Silnas declined to comment or allow his clients to be interviewed. Daniel Silna and Donald C. Schupak, the lawyer who negotiated the TV deal with the old A.B.A. teams, had listened to arguments over whether two 36-year-old documents contained language that would let the Silnas collect even more money from TV sources not yet created in 1976.
In Manhattan federal court on Thursday, lawyers for the Silna brothers and the league argued over whether the men are owed money beyond what they get from the N.B.A.’s national broadcast and cable television contracts. They want to tap into the money the league gets from international broadcasts, NBA TV, the league’s cable network, and other lucrative deals that could not have been imagined in the three network television universe of 1976. If Federal District Judge Loretta A. Preska agrees, the Silna brothers — Ozzie, 79, and living in Malibu, Calif., and Daniel, 68, and living in Saddle River, N.J. — stand to receive millions more, all without having assembled a team or used an arena for more than three decades. “This issue has been a nuisance as long as I’ve been associated with the league,” said Ed Desser, the former president of NBA Television and new media ventures who now runs his own media consulting firm. “It was never enough to be a serious distraction. It’s one of those accidents of history.”
The NBA is locked in a legal battle with origins in a bygone era of short shorts, tight tops and big hair. The dispute stems from an antitrust lawsuit filed in 1970 by legends like Oscar Robertson and Bill Bradley that challenged the merger of the NBA and ABA. A provision in a 1976 settlement requires the NBA to share network television revenue with the former owners of the defunct St. Louis Spirits for the life of the league. Last year, the owners accused the NBA of withholding their fair share of newer revenue from international and cable broadcasts.
The attendance was so miserable at Miami Dade College for a televised playoff game against the Virginia Squires in 1972 that action had to be taken. “We played the Virginia Squires when they had Dr. J.,” said Calvin, referring to Julius Erving’s gang sweeping a first-round series 4-0 in what would turn out to be final games in Floridians’ history. “They wanted to make it look like it was a full house so had all the fans sit one on one side.” As for Doyle, Calvin said he always would be at the same place for game. “He stayed drunk,” Calvin said. “He would sit at the scorer’s table and drink his scotch.”
At home games, the Floridians had promotions in which they gave away pairs of pantyhouse to the first 500 women attendance. At Thanksgiving, fans could win live turkeys. There also were giveaways of 15 pounds of smoked fish, 57 pounds of Irish potatoes and 53 pumpkin pies. Promotions included cow-milking and snake-handling contests and a man wrestling a bear. Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian was brought in to try to kick a ball through the hoop. But it didn’t help attendance much. With South Florida games being played at the Miami Beach Convention Center or at Miami College, the team was lucky to get 2,000 fans. Some crowds were below 1,000. “It was sparse,” Ira Harge, a rugged center for the Floridians, said from his home in Albuquerque, N.M. “But one of the good things was you could just go up and interact with the fans.”
The ball girls would make trips with the team. One was to a game at Dec. 23, 1971 game against the Carolina Cougars at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the girls got far more publicity than either of the teams. Newspapers ran photos of them and one paper’s headline screamed, “Ball girls invade Garden.” “When we went to New York, seeing these tanned bikini-clad blondes just caused so much excitement,” Cindy said in a 1978 interview about the trip just before Christmas, which featured three of the girls popping out of Santa Claus’ bag before the game.
The ABA was known for its craziness. Many observers believe the Floridians were the wackiest gang of all. When he took over as owner, Doyle also unveiled the Floridians ball girls. He hired five young women who wore bikinis during games to excite the crowd and distract opponents. “They used to stand underneath the basket when the other team would shoot free throws,” Calvin, who led the Floridians in scoring with a 27.2 average in 1970-71 and a 21.0 average in 1971-72, said from his home in New Orleans. “They’d turn their butt around and wiggle any part of the body. And it worked.”