Original Publish Date: March 26, 2018
Richard P. Tinkham Jr., who visited the Irving Theatre in Irvington last Sunday, is one of the true pioneers of the American Basketball Association, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Mr. Tinkham was in the Irv, along with co-authors Bob Netolicky & Robin Miller, to sign copies of their new book, “We changed the game.” Mr. Tinkham, co-founder of the ABA and the Indiana Pacers franchise, knows all of the league’s secrets. He was instrumental in the creation of Market Square Arena and co-chaired the ABA merger committee that sent four ABA teams into the NBA and helped lead the ABA/NBA consolidation. As detailed in part one of this series, that road to merger was a long journey. Dick Tinkham was there for every step.
Indianapolis native Oscar Robertson delayed the first merger attempt in 1971 with a court case and subsequent injunction that ultimately doomed the league. Before the 1975–76 season, the Denver Nuggets and New York Nets tried to defect from the ABA to join the NBA. The owners of the Nets and Nuggets had approached John Y. Brown, Jr. (Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate and future Governor of the Blue Grass State) in an attempt to get his Kentucky Colonels to join their attempted defection. Brown refused, saying he would remain loyal to the ABA.
Instead, the two teams were forced by judicial order to play a lame-duck season in the ABA. Ironically, the two would be defector teams had the last laugh as they would end up playing for the championship that final season (The Nets beat the Nuggets 4 games to 2).
This attempted defection exposed the emerging financial weakness of the league’s lesser teams. Soon, the ABA began it’s death throe. Perhaps the best illustration of league instability can be found in the New Orleans / Memphis franchise. The New Orleans Buccaneers were among the original 11 teams. In 1972 the Bucs moved to Memphis and began a 5 year identity crisis. The team left New Orleans and became the Pros, then the Tams and finally the Sounds. That last Memphis team looked an awful lot like the Indiana Pacers.
The team was led by Mike Storen, former vice president and general manager of the Indiana Pacers. Storen stacked the Sounds with former Indiana players Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown and Rick Mount along with Hoosier hot shot Billy Shepherd. Prior to the start of the 1975-76 season, the Sounds moved to Baltimore, Maryland. The team was initially named the Baltimore Hustlers, but public pressure forced them to rename it the Claws. The Claws folded in October of 1975 during the preseason after playing just three exhibition games. Mel Daniels, disappointed at the Claws’ demise, retired rather than play for another team. Later Daniels recalled that the Claws’ players were encouraged to take equipment and furniture from the team office in lieu of payment.
Not long after the Claws folded, the San Diego Sails followed suit. The Sails (formerly the Conquistadors) were the ABA’s first and only expansion team. While the departure of those two teams may not have been a surprise, when the Utah Stars, one of the ABA’s most successful teams, folded, the league dropped from 10 teams to 7. The Virginia Squires folded in May following the end of the season.
That left six teams standing: the Kentucky Colonels, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, Spirits of St. Louis and San Antonio Spurs. With settlement of the Oscar Robertson suit on February 3, 1976, the final merger negotiations began. Dick Tinkham says “Calling it a merger is a misnomer, the NBA said it was an expansion draft, but in truth, it was a massacre.” During the June 1976 negotiations, the NBA made it clear that it would accept only four ABA teams, not five. In addition “The NBA required that the remaining four ABA teams pay a $ 3.2 million expansion fee by September 15, 1976,” states Tinkham.
On June 17, 1976, Kentucky owner John Y. Brown folded the Colonels for a $3 million payment from the remaining teams. In addition to the $3 million he received for agreeing to stay out of the merger, Brown also sold Gilmore’s rights to the Bulls for $1.1 million. Additionally, the Portland Trail Blazers took Maurice Lucas for $300,000, the Buffalo Braves took Bird Averitt for $125,000, the Pacers took Wil Jones for $50,000, the Nets took Jan van Breda Kolff for $60,000, and the Spurs took Louie Dampier for $20,000. Ironically, with all of those funds, Brown bought the NBA’s Buffalo Braves for $1.5 million, and later parlayed the Braves into ownership of the Boston Celtics.
Lawyer Tinkham points out that although Brown came out smelling like a rose when the ABA folded, it was the owners of the Spirits of St. Louis who struck the best deal with the use of one obscure Latin term inserted at the tail end of their “merger” deal. “As part of the deal, none of the four teams would receive any television money during the first three seasons, on top of having to pay one -seventh of their annual television revenues of the defunct Spirits team in perpetuity.” That term, “In Perpetuity”, would prove most advantageous in the years to come.
The 1976 ABA-NBA “merger” saw the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs join the NBA. The deal was finally consummated on June 17, 1976, at the NBA league meetings in the Cape Cod Room at Dunfey’s Hyannis Resort in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Perhaps fittingly, brothers Ozzie and Daniel Silna made their fortune as pioneers in the manufacture of polyester, the fabric that defined the 1970s. After failing to buy the Detroit Pistons, an NBA franchise that began life in Ft. Wayne, the Silnas’ purchased the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. The Cougars began life as the Houston Mavericks in 1967. Just as future North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Jim Gardner had bought the Mavericks and moved them to North Carolina in 1969, the Silna brothers bought the Cougars with the expectation of moving it to St. Louis. In 1974, St. Louis, Missouri was the largest city in the United States without a professional basketball team.
The 1975–76 Spirits season had not gone well in either attendance or wins. In May 1976, due to attendance problems, the Spirits announced that they were going to merge with the Utah Stars. But the Stars folded before the merger could occur and instead, the Spirits wound up with some of Utah’s best players. Then in an effort to be included in the ABA–NBA merger, the Silna brothers proposed selling the Spirits to a Utah group, buying the Kentucky Colonels franchise, and moving them to Buffalo to replace the Buffalo Braves. Seems that the Silna brothers were always looking towards a future in the NBA. That deal didn’t happen either.
The merger included the Spirits of St. Louis players being put into a special dispersal draft. Marvin Barnes went to the Detroit Pistons for $500,000, Moses Malone went to the Portland Trail Blazers for $300,000, Ron Boone went to the Kansas City Kings for $250,000, Randy Denton went to the New York Knicks for $50,000 and Mike Barr went to the Kansas City Kings for $15,000. It must be noted that, in all, twelve players from the final two Spirits of St. Louis rosters (1974–76) played in the NBA during the 1976–77 season and beyond: Maurice Lucas, Ron Boone, Marvin Barnes, Caldwell Jones, Lonnie Shelton, Steve Green, Gus Gerard, Moses Malone, Don Adams, Don Chaney, M. L. Carr and Freddie Lewis.
But that wasn’t the end of the line for the Silna boys. Together, they managed to turn the ABA-NBA merger into one of the greatest deals in the history of professional sports. First, the remaining ABA owners agreed, in return for the Spirits folding, to pay the Silnas’ $2.2 million in cash and that 1/7 share of television revenues in perpetuity. As the NBA’s popularity exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, the league’s television rights were sold to CBS and then NBC, and additional deals were struck with the TNT and TBS cable networks; league television revenue soared into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Silnas’ continue to receive checks from the NBA on a yearly basis, representing a 4/7 share of the television money that would normally go to any NBA franchise, or about two percent of the entire league’s TV deal.
That deal turned into at least $4.4 million per year through the 1990s. From 1999 through 2002 the deal netted the Silnas’ another $12.50 million per year; from 2003 to 2006 their take was at least $15.6 million per year.The two Silna brothers each get 45% of that television revenue per year and their merger, Donald Schupak, receives the orher 10%. As of 2013, the Silna brothers have received over $300 million in NBA revenue, despite the fact that the Spirits never played a single NBA game.
In 2012, the Silna brothers sued the NBA for “hundreds of millions of dollars more” they felt were owed them for NBA League Pass subscriptions and streaming video revenues that claimed was an extension of television revenues. In January 2014, a conditional settlement agreement between the NBA, the four active former-ABA clubs and the Silnas was announced and the Silnas’ received an estimated $500 million more from the former ABA teams. Ozzie Silna passed in 2014 at the age of 83. Daniel Silva is a successful philanthropist living in New Jersey.
In the first NBA All Star Game after the merger, 10 of the 24 NBA All Stars were former ABA players, five (Julius Erving, Caldwell Jones, George McGinnis, Dave Twardzik and Maurice Lucas) were starters. Of the 84 players in the ABA at the time of the merger, 63 played in the NBA during the 1976–77 season. Additionally, four of the NBA’s top ten scorers were former ABA players (Billy Knight, David Thompson, Dan Issel and George Gervin). The Pacers’ Don Buse led the NBA in both steals and assists during that first post-merger season. The Spirits of St. Louis’ Moses Malone finished third in rebounding, Kentucky Colonels’ Artis Gilmore was fourth. Gilmore and his former Colonels teammate Caldwell Jones were both among the top five in the NBA in blocked shots. Tom Nissalke left the ABA to coach the NBA’s Houston Rockets in the first post-merger season and was named NBA Coach of the Year. Yes, the ABA left its mark on the NBA instantly.
And where was Richard P. Tinkham, the man right in the middle of all of those previous league negotiations when the merger news was announced? “I was driving home from the airport when I heard the news on the radio,” he says, “It was great news, but people have no idea what it took to pull it off.”
On Saturday, April 7th, Indianapolis will host the 50th reunion celebration of the ABA with an evening banquet at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse and a special daytime public event at Hinkle Fieldhouse from 11:00 to 3:00. The public is invited to attend this once in a lifetime event that will include a special ABA 50th anniversary ring presentation for all the players followed by a Guinness World Book of Records attempt to set the mark for most pro athletes signing autographs in a single session.
Special guest ring presenters for this charity event include Mayor Joe Hogsett, Senator Joe Donnelly, Congresswoman Susan Brooks, City Councillors Mike McQuillen and Vop Osili, WISH-TV personality Dick Wolfsie and Rupert from Survivor. It promises to be a very special event. Dick Tinkham will be there too, watching over his players as they gather for one last collective hurah. Oh, and the man paying for those player rings? None other than Spirits of St.Louis owner Dan Silva. Paying it forward, “In Perpetuity”.