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Z_CNHI News Service

November 14, 2013

Long gone basketball league leaves a costly legacy

If you want to mark yourself as a graying old-timer, bring up the American Basketball Association – the professional league that featured large Afros, slam dunk contests, three-point baskets and a red, white and blue basketball.

Oh, yes, it also had a great collection of players - perhaps the best on the globe - who brought athleticism, skill and excitement to a game that had become somewhat stodgy in the more established National Basketball Association.

Oh, those ABA days. Who could forget the amazing plays by Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins and the “Ice Man," George Gervin? There was Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel, plus the high-flying David Thompson and so many, many others.

And, of course, there was the unforgettable Marvin “Bad News” Barnes who played for the Spirits of St. Louis. He once refused to board an 8 p.m. flight out of  Louisville that arrived in St. Louis at 7:56 p.m., claiming he wasn’t “gettin’ on no time machine.” He didn’t buy into an explanation about time zones, according to numerous media outlets. Nor did he get on the plane.

The ABA was a blend of hucksterism and great entertainment. It launched in 1967 and survived until 1976. This bold experiment ended when four ABA teams were absorbed into the NBA. Those left out of the mini-merger were relegated to scrapbook clippings and barroom debates. Despite the ABA's fate, its fans never lost their love for their teams.

That seemed to be the end of the league’s colorful history until a quirky story made its way back into the press recently. Some 37 years ago, the owners of the Spirits of St. Louis engineered a deal for one-seventh of the television revenue awarded the four ABA teams that joined the NBA in exchange for agreeing to fold their franchise.

It wasn’t expected to be a windfall because the NBA wasn’t a big TV draw. In 1980-81, brothers Ozzie and Daniel Silna collected about $500,000, The New York Times reported.

There was another aspect of the deal, however, that was much sweeter. The Silnas were to receive a share of the annual TV revenue in perpetuity. As the NBA’s TV rights began to grow, so did payouts to the Silnas. The brothers, who had bought into the ABA for $1 million, collected $19 million last year, ESPN reported, bringing their total haul to some $300 million.

The long-ago agreement has been called “the greatest sports business deal of all time.”

The NBA is now a big, big business that attracts a worldwide audience. The popularity of the game - with superstars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant - coupled with technology that beams games into any hamlet on the globe leaves open the possibility of untold wealth. In 2012, the NBA signed a TV deal with ESPN and TNT worth $7.4 billion over eight years.

Realizing the error of its ways, the NBA now would like to end the lucrative arrangement with the Silnas. The brothers have other feelings. The Silnas think they are also entitled to Internet, cable and international TV rights, plus whatever else falls under the large media umbrella. Armed with lawyers, they went to federal court in New York last year to plead their case.

What once was a nuisance, and then an embarrassment to the NBA, has turned into a fight over a king’s ransom. All the while, the Silnas cling to their signed agreement. The only questions that remain for them are, “How much and for how long?”

For guys who haven’t had to deal with players with huge egos, fickle fans or renting a state-of-the-art arena, the Silnas have enjoyed a life in pro sports that few could imagine.

The ABA existed for less than 10 years. Yet, thanks to some smart lawyers, the Silnas stand to continue their winning streak for as long as they desire.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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