Commentary

The Book of Basketball

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Bill Simmons | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Bill Simmons' new book, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books.

This excerpt is from a chapter called "How The Hell Did We Get Here?" It's a breakdown of the ABA/NBA merger -- not just why it happened, but why some of the wrinkles remain ridiculous to this day.

Summer of 1976: The Merger

This gets my Greatest Summer Ever vote: our two hundredth Independence Day, the release of Jaws, the Montreal Olympics, the fictional graduation of Randy "Pink" Floyd's class at Lee High School and the ABA-NBA merger in the span of three months? Come on. The merger process was given a jolt when the ABA hired an antitrust attorney named Fred Fruth, who had some world-class negotiating sessions with the NBA's bright assistant commissioner -- wait for it … wait for it -- Mr. David Stern!68 Here's what they settled, with my comments in parentheses:

1. Denver, New York, San Antonio and Indiana joined for a cost of $3.2 million per team. Those teams would not receive TV money for three years, could not take part in the '76 college draft and would be called "expansion teams," but they were allowed to keep their players. The Nets also had to pay the Knicks $4.8 million over ten years for violating their territory rights.

(My thoughts: A bit of a raping so far, although it's nice that the Knicks got even more money to throw away at bad players. My biggest issue was the NBA excluding ABA teams from a deep '76 rookie draft in which Johnny Davis (number twenty-two), Alex English (number twenty-three), Lonnie Shelton (number twenty-five) and Dennis Johnson (number twenty-nine) dropped to Round 2. Shows how little leverage the ABA had at the time.)

2. Kentucky owner John Y. Brown received $3 million for folding his franchise, then spent half that money to buy Buffalo. So the four ABA teams that joined the NBA got crushed financially, but Brown bought in and pocketed $1.5 million? Huh? Meanwhile, the St. Louis owners struck the greatest mother lode in professional sports history, folding their s----- franchise for $2.2 million and one-seventh of the TV money from the four remaining ABA teams -- money they were guaranteed in perpetuity. In other words, they received four-sevenths of a cut of the TV contract every year forever. Through 2009, that cut was worth about $150 million. Just free money falling out of the sky, year after year after year after year.69

(My thoughts: The Nets won two titles with Doc, only the league's signature player and a big reason for the merger, then got shafted to the degree that they sold Doc before the '77 season just to keep their franchise afloat. The Spirits had a terrible team that would have folded anyway -- no fan support, no assets that remotely compared to Doc, no appeal as an NBA market whatsoever -- and they somehow finagled a deal that was a hundred times better than New Jersey's deal. Go figure.)

3. Players from folded ABA franchises would be auctioned off in a dispersal draft, with price tags assigned to each player and Chicago guaranteed the first pick (so they could take Artis Gilmore). The remaining picks were made in reverse order of finish during the '76 season, with Atlanta trading the number two pick to Portland for Geoff Petrie, then Portland landing the two biggest prizes (Maurice Lucas at number two and Moses Malone at number five).70 Also, Detroit paid a whopping $500,000 for Marvin Barnes in an apparent attempt to get Bob Lanier to hang himself.

(My thoughts: In the Things That Would Have Been Much More Fun if They Happened Now department, can't you see ESPN televising the ABA dispersal draft at like 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon as Ric Bucher breaks the Portland/Atlanta trade, Chad Ford laments the lack of European players and Jay Bilas spends ten minutes raving about Malone's rebounding skills and "second jumpability"? Alas.)

4. The NBA agreed to abolish the reserve clause and allow free agency for any veteran player with an expiring contract. This was the single biggest sticking point -- the owners wanted compensation, the players did not -- and it could have dragged on for another few years if not for a brainstorm by NBA Players Association head Jeff Mullins: give the owners compensation for four years because that's how long it would have taken for the case to reach the Supreme Court, anyway. Everyone agreed and that was that. Compensation would be awarded by O'Brien's office as long as the two teams involved didn't agree first.

(My thoughts: This was the single biggest NBA moment since the shot clock. Everything about the way players were paid and contenders were built was about to change. For good and bad. And for the first few years, it was mostly bad.)

What ensued was the single zaniest summer of player movement in NBA history. Chicago and Houston reinvented themselves with franchise centers (Gilmore and Malone). Portland landed a rebounding sidekick for Walton. The Nets sold Doc to Philly for $3 million and traded Brian Taylor with two number one picks for Tiny Archibald.71 Philly suddenly had the '75 ABA co- MVPs (Doc and George McGinnis) on the same team. Moses bounced around twice before landing in Houston. Portland stupidly traded Moses to Buffalo for a number one pick; Buffalo rerouted him to Houston for two first-rounders just six days later. The Knicks bought Bob McAdoo from Buffalo and lavished him with a five-year, $2.5 million deal, killing his incentive to give a s--- until 1982. Gail Goodrich became the Jackie Robinson of free agency, inadvertently murdering professional basketball in New Orleans for two solid decades (hold that thought). Red Auerbach refused to pay Paul Silas market value, shipped him to Denver for Curtis Rowe, then bought Sidney Wicks from Portland (and murdered Celtic Pride in the process). None of the top five teams from '76 (Golden State, Phoenix, Boston, L.A., Cleveland) improved itself in any conceivable way. Throw in the rise of cocaine, free agency, and escalating salaries and you need to get emotionally prepared for the weirdest three-year stretch in NBA history.


FOOTNOTES

68. My favorite Loose Balls anecdote that doesn't involve Barnes: the ABA fell behind in payments that summer to Fruth, so when one executive mentioned that they'd take care of the fee soon, Fruth told him, "I know you will, because if you don't have $25,000 on my desk by Friday, Julius Erving will be working in my garden." Classic! Long live the Fruth!

69.How many meetings do you think Stern had with high-powered lawyers from 1984 to 2009 where he tried to figure out ways to weasel out of the St. Louis pact, failed, then unleashed a parade of f- bombs and kicked everyone out of the conference room? The over/under has to be 39.5.

70. Portland also had the fifth pick that year, stupidly taking Wally Walker over Adrian Dantley in a typical "let's take the white guy, maybe he's not as good as the black guy, but our fans will love him" 1970s move. They could have landed Dantley, Malone and Lucas in the same summer; instead, they dealt Moses, botched the Walker pick and still won the '77 title.

71. This ranks up there in the Dumb Sequences pantheon: so you sell Doc and mortgage your future for Tiny Archibald? Huh? Those picks turned out to be number two overall two years in a row (Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong). And with that, three-plus decades of Nets hell had begun!

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.