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Breaking Their Spirits

by Robb Reel

How many franchises are there in the NBA?

No, it is not 30 -- that's the number of teams.

So how many franchises are there?

[Yes, this is a trick question]

Let's go at this another way.  Remember when the Grizzlies were immigrating from Vancouver?  Remember when the now-Pelicans were leaving Charlotte?  Remember when the now-Thunder said "So long" to Seattle?  What cities -- other than there eventual destinations of Memphis, New Orleans and Oklahoma City, respectively -- kept coming up?  Nashville, Louisville, Las Vegas.  Even Pittsburgh got some chatter.  Kansas City got a love of love after foolishly building a new arena that still doesn't have a tenant.  Early in every discussion, one city would get mentioned, almost in passing, before quickly being quashed.

St. Louis.

That's because the Gateway to the West already has a franchise.

You're saying, "What?  There's no team in St. Louis.  Robb, you're crazy!"

Yes, I am, but not about this, and while there may be no team put on the floor for the last 37 years, there is indeed a franchise in the NBA in St. Louis.

Or at least 57 percent of one.

More on that in a moment.

[For those of you playing our Home Game, that makes the answer to the question about: 31]

A long time ago in a basketball galaxy far, far away, there were two professional leagues.  This will come as a shock to those of you young enough not to remember before ESPN and its hype machine declared Michael Jordan the "Greatest Player of All Time."  He's not, by the way, but that's another topic for another time.

After nine season of the American Basketball Association, seven teams were left standing.  Rather like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, franchise had been dropping dead in the last few years of the ABA.  This is not just the plot to "Semi-Pro" starring Will Ferrell and Woody Harrelson, this really happened, although the Flint Tropics did not.  At the close of the 1975-76 season, the Virginia Squires went bankrupt.

And then there were six.

The older NBA establishment was tired of fighting but had the cash-strapped ABA over a barrel.  Now, many of the powers that be had been around in 1949 when the old Basketball Association of America absorbed remnants of the National Basketball League, and rechristened itself as the National Basketball Association.  The word "merger" is often used, in regard to both '49 and '76, but is generously imprecise on each count.  The NBA quietly only wanted to take four of the remaining ABA teams.  So the machinations began.

The Kentucky Colonels were owned by John Y. Brown, Jr.  Brown made his fortune when he bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from Harland Sanders in 1964 and made it a national chain.  He would later go on to own the NBA's Buffalo Braves, then the Boston Celtics, become governor of Kentucky, and was part of the start-up to what has become Texas Roadhouse.  Described as meddlesome by all Colonel personnel, Brown took a $3 million payment to fold the team rather than pay a $3 million fee for it to join the NBA.

And then there were five.

You already know the epilogue of four of those teams.  The Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers, the now-Brooklyn Nets and the San Antonio Spurs have all, to varying degrees, been quite successful since "merging" into the NBA.  What you don't know is that each of those clubs is not a "whole" franchise.  That's because three guys in St. Louis made a brilliant move... to not field a team.

Ozzie and Daniel Silna made their money in polyester.  [The leisure-suit craze of the 70s alone probably made them Oprah-rich.]  In 1974, they had tried to buy the Detroit Pistons but the NBA wouldn't let them into their elite circle.  Instead, they bought the ABA's Carolina Cougars and moved them to the largest city without a pro basketball team: St. Louis.  They named the team for the plane that carried Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic on his famous solo flight.  Two seasons of ups and downs, with some dizzying twists that included the team nearly moving to Utah, culminated in June 1976.

It is still called "The Deal" by many around the sports world.  The SIlna brothers and their attorney/minority partner, Donald Schupak, agreed to fold the Spirits.  They received an upfront payment of $2.2 million, measurably less than Brown got to decommission his Colonels.  The genius was the back-end clause.  The group would receive one-seventh the TV revenue paid to each of the four ABA teams joining the NBA.  That's one-seventh of Indiana's TV money, one-seventh of San Antonio's share, one-seventh of the share for the Nets, and one-seventh of the TV money from Denver.

That's a total of four-sevenths, or 57 percent, a bit more than half.

[Math is hard; let's go shopping.]

But that's not the best part.

The clause contained two very important words:

"... in perpetuity."

That's a lawyer's fancy, highfalutin way of saying:


Since 1976, that succinct prepositional phrase has meant $300 million.  With the current television deal, the group gets about $14.5 million annually.  Each Silna brother receives 45 percent and Schupak the remaining 10.

The NBA has tried a few times to buy out "The Deal" and has reportedly come close a couple of times.  However, proving they are just as savvy now as they were during the Bicentennial, the men are now suing the NBA for other revenue they believe they are owed  via Internet licensing, clearly unforeseen 37 years ago, and packages such as NBA League Pass.

[Image courtesy of "Free Spirits" -- an ESPN "30 for 30" film]

The men who brought us the great Moses Malone -- a man higher on my all-time list than Jordan, for the record -- and began the broadcast career of a man named Bob Costas, are still better at this than anyone else.  After nearly four decades of holding a franchise and being paid to not put a team together, they have found yet another wormhole to a potential windfall.  Frankly, I am not surprised they are outsmarting the megalomaniacal David Stern and I applaud them for it.

Despite the NBA's efforts to crush them, their Spirits -- and their net worth -- are still soaring.