This was going to be the summer of peace and contentment in the National Basketball Association. No more ABA-NBA war, no more rookies matching one outrageous salary offer against another, no more talk of franchise folding and owners going bankrupt.
So why are so many NBA people complaining about more than the heat and humidity this July?
Everywhere you look around the league, someone is involved in a hassle. The Nets want to move to New Jersey, the Knicks don't like that a bit, so the two teams are matched in a court battle. The Pacers, despite being located in the heart of Indiana basketball country, staged a telethon, of all things, to keep the team from going under. Some 50 free agents remain unsigned, victims of a new NBA malady, the Gross Effect.
"All the merger did was end one set of problems and start another," said Detroit general manager Bob Kauffman. "With all the teams in this league, it's hard to have everyone satisfied at the sametime."
Net's owner Ray Boe is serious about moving his team to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. So serious that he already has opened an office in Hackensack, from which Net representatives can better sell season tickets. The Nets plan to play at Rutgers University's new 8,200-seat gymnasium until their 20,000-seat Meadowlands' facility is ready in 1979.
"Oh, we probably could wind up back on Long Island before this is over," said a Net official, "but we aren't even thinking about that. We plan to stay right here in New Jersey."
Even an emergency meeting of NBA owners last week, which ended with commissioner Larry o'Brien issuing a Bowkie Kuhn statement ("Whatever the Nets' status was this morning, it is this evening"), couldn't budge the Nets.
The NBA would rather not have the disagreement settled by the courts, especially since the Nets are contesting a basic league rule that teams are lord and master over all lands within 75 miles of their hearquarters. That type of territorial monopoly, the Nets maintain, can be fought through an antitrust suit.
The courts, however, apparently will be the final referee.As it stands now, the same New York judge who presided over all the various merger suits will decide this latest wrangle.
The Nets argue that their very survival is at stake. A combination of a bad team (minus Julius Erving), terrible attendance (6,400 average per game) and the high cost of merging (the Nets alone owe the Knicks about $3.2 million) has turned them into a losing proposition. Boe claims another year on Long Island will end his franchise quicker than Nate Archibald can dribble up court.
All the knicks can see is a franchise located within jogging distance of Madison Square Garden. They see New Jersey fans who once rooted for Willis Reed embracing Kim Hughes. They don't like that idea at all.
But a larger issue - state pride - is at stake here. "What the state of New Jersey is wondering," said the Net Spokesman, "is now Pennysylvania and New York, both neighbouring states, can have franchises and New Jersey can't."
The only major decision to come out of the NBA's annual meeting this summer concerned the four former ABA franchises that joined the league last season. The owners decided that the NBA expatriots could have until June, 1980, to make the final merger payment of $800,000 per team.
There was excellent logic behind the move. Forcing the payment on schedule this year could have forced some of the four clubs to fold up. And that would have created problems the NBA wanted to avoid.
Even so, the ABA clubs are still responsible for paying the so-called "windup expenses" of their expired league. Most of that sum (about $18 million) involves money owed to the ABA clubs who went out of business and the players who weren't picked up by the NBA.
And these clubs all face shaky times down the road, despite impressive attendance figures everywhere except with the Nets. San Antonio, for example, took out a $5 million loan last year to cover major expenses and the eventually will have to pay it off. In the meantime, the Spurs are adding 6,000 seats to their arena as one way of increasing gate revenue.
Indiana almost saw every one of its players become free agents after the franchise couldn't meet a May payroll.
Loans from community busines saved the Pacers at that time and then a 16 1/2-tour telethon last month enabled the club to sell 8,000 tickets for next season. That was an impressive enough showing of community support to attract additional owners and $800,000 in new equity.
If the club can now convince the Securities and Exchange Commission to allow it to sell stock (the SEC turned down a previous bid), then the Pacers feel they can raise $3.5 million, which will in essence allow the owners to start over from the scratch.
Toss in the fact that the Pacers an awful draft and the Nets' first-round pick. Bernard King, is having trouble with the law and it's easy to see why the ex-ABA clubs are a major concern within the NBA hierarchy.
But the Pacer staff is taking everytiing is stride. "We've had one owner and three management changes since I've been here," said one staff member. "After a while, you feel no matter hwo bad things get, they'll be solved somehow."
Those 50 or so free agents who remain unsigned by any NBA club this summer can blame Bob Gross for part of their plight.
Gross is that unheralded, limited skill athlete who found himself covering Julius Erving in the NBA final for Portland. While Gross hardly stopped Dr. J, he showed what team play instead of individual talents can do in contributing to Trail Blazer victories.
Not that this team concept is a new idea in the NBA. But Gross' performance reinforced the notion in the minds of many general managers who now are saying that signing a high-priced free agent without considering his effect on team chemistry is bad business.
"Why pay for a Bobby Danbridge," said one league general manager, who admits he has considered signing the Bucks' forward, "when you might get a Bobby Gross instead who makes a heck of a lot less money and can do great things for your team?
"If I was a player now, I'd enjoy this free-agent status, but I'd have to use common sense. The salary structure in the NBA is already high enough and most teams can't afford to get in a bidding war."
NBA teams just have to look at baseball to see what damage high salaries have had on teams like the Yankees. And basketball's initial season with so many free agents also has an additional problem baseball never faced: compensation.
Clubs are afraid that if they sign a top free agent, like a Dandridge or Sidney Wicks, commissioner O'Brien might think he is Pete Rozelle and mandate large compensation doses, such as Pete Maravich to Atlanta as compensation for New Orleans ingning Truck Robinson.
"We ended the war to keep from going broke," said Cleveland coach Bill Fitch, "but if you go broke in peace time as well, what's the use of continuing business?"
Only teams like New Orleans which already have given up loads of future high draft choices and have few top caliber players on their rosters, are logical intries into the free-agent wars. The Jazz hardly can be hurt, player-wise, by any compensation eddict from O'Brien.
There has been such little activity in the free-agent area that Larry Fleisher, counsel for he NBA Players' Association, has charged league teams with deliberately trying to avoid signing these players. He said if signings don't pick up by the end of the month, he would consider taking the league to court.
"There are only six players out of 50 free agents anyway," said Fitch. "If I was any of 25 of those 50, I'd sign the first contract they put in front of me." Or, as the Bullets's Bob Ferry put it, "there are going to be a lot of players come training-camp time without contracts who suddenly realize they aren't quite as valuable as they thought."
Dandridge, waiting in Richmond for a contract with some NBA team to be named later, doesn't consider what is happening in quite the same light.
He looks around and sees such stars as Wicks, Gus Williams, and Jim Cleamons without contracts and he admits he is disillusioned.
"I'm less enthusiastic about being a free agent than I was six weeks ago," he said. "I don't understand why compensation is such a problem. if you are good, a team should want you, because you'll make them better.
"I wanted to have my family moved by now, so I could settle in a new city before the season began. Things just aren't working out like they were supposed to."
The same could be said about the rest of the NBA.