In 1967, when the National Basketball Association was fourteen teams large, half the size it is today, there arose a rival league. The American Basketball Association was originally eight teams, mostly located in cities that did not have NBA franchises. The new league was colorful and changed some rules to make the game more interesting, they had a multi-colored ball, the three-point shot, and encouraged their players to play and look as wild and free as they liked. They played a fast-paced, wide-open, and appealing game. They competed directly with the NBA for players, offering big contracts to NBA stars (Rick Barry was one of the first players to jump to the new league). They offered big money to college stars, often jumping the gun on the NBA, drafting players before their college eligibility was up, even plucking Moses Malone straight out of high school. The ABA developed a star system and their big names included Barry, Malone, Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, Dan Issel, David Thompson, Marvin Barnes, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Spencer Haywood, George McGinnis, and Maurice Lucas. Player's salaries bloomed in this newly competitive environment, alarming both leagues. But when the ABA and the NBA started merger discussions in 1970, Oscar Robertson sued the NBA, claiming a merger would damage player's free agent rights. (A suit not unlike the Curt Flood lawsuit in baseball with an important difference, Flood was a good player, but Oscar Robertson was Oscar Robertson, already a ten-time all star, a league MVP, a future Hall-of-Famer. This was a lawsuit that could not be dismissed casually.) The suit lingered in the courts and would in effect, prevent a merger for another five years.
By 1975 It had became obvious that the best ABA teams were probably as good as their NBA counterparts (they were certainly more fun) and both leagues were reeling financially. The war to sign basketball stars had cost both dearly. The Kentucky Colonels, ABA champs, were desperately selling off players to pay their bills. ABA teams were breaking ranks and threatening to apply for membership in the NBA.
Desperate for a solution, the NBA hired Washington insider and former Postmaster General Larry O'Brien as league commissioner. O'Brien forced the league to settle the Robertson lawsuit, and, recognizing that NBA teams could no longer hold rights to their players in perpetuity, he agreed to free agency in the landmark 1976 CBA agreement. He also quickly moved to merge the two leagues. Four ABA teams took spots in a new, expanded NBA (the New Jersey Nets, the Denver Nuggets, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Indiana Pacers).
Though short-lived, the ABA's legacy is a rich one, leaving behind the three-point shot, the dunk contest, and a high-flying daredevil style; pro basketball became much of what it is today, a series of vibrant circus-events in a venue crowded with raucous fans. And it did something else, it proved to the owners and officers of the NBA that the players were the game, and essential in every way to the success of their product and their continued success.
But for the NBA, the war had come at certain cost, free agency was a fact of life, and Larry O'Brien, though he saw growing revenues and signed landmark television-rights deals, also saw teams under increasing financial duress. O'Brien knew he had to try and find a new way to do business. Finally, during the 1984 CBA negotiations, O'Brien brought the player's union a radical suggestion... the owners offered to split the proceeds of the league-wide gross earnings. They offered the players the lion's share of the gross... 57 percent of all basketball-related income. The owners would take the remaining revenue and out of it pay all team-related related expenses. But in exchange the union must agree to a salary cap. The league and its owners had learned their lesson, as powerful as the NBA had become, it could not act as a monopoly, and it could not treat its most valuable assets as anything other than its partners. The players accepted the offer and the salary cap was established, the first agreement of its kind in American professional sport.
It's interesting to note, that during this period, a young lawyer, who started as the NBA's General Council in 1976, later to become Executive Vice President of the league, saw it all happen first hand and is often credited for shaping the concept of the salary cap and the player's/owners split. His name is, of course, David Stern. In 1986, upon O'Brien's retirement, Stern was named the commissioner of the league.
It's now 2011. It seems that perhaps both sides of the current NBA labor conflict should look back to the events of the late seventies and early eighties. The player's must realize that their partnership with franchise owners and their huge salaries are not a god-given right, but an opportunity that has been built up over many years by those who've come before... by players, by fans, by Larry O'Brien and David Stern, and indeed by the franchise owners who had the foresight to invest in the game, building it up from what it was, a minor sport played on blacktop and backyard courts, or dark high school and drafty college gyms.
The owners must remember that it really is the player's game, that as franchise holders, they are stewards, allowed to profit through the magical abilities and feats of others. Are the owners so arrogant as to think that the players (and their representatives) couldn't come up with a plan to start another league, and quickly? There are certainly enough idle arenas in large-market cities without NBA contracts (Anaheim, Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle, etc.). Fans would almost certainly embrace a young league filled with all-stars. What would happen if players agreed to quickly draft teams, make arena deals, and roll out the ball. At first, the player's would be playing for gate receipts and probably have to pick up some of their own expenses but that hand-to-mouth pattern wouldn't last long.
Has David Stern really forgotten the ABA? Does he not remember the bloodbath of the seventies? Does he not remember the deal he helped create that saved the league? As you hear his warnings about "losing a season" and "enormous consequences" do you wonder if he hears the sound of his own voice? Because the consequences might ultimately be much more severe for ownership and for the league than for the players.