Larry O'Brien carries with him a sense of old-shoe intimacy, as though he were a one-man back-room poker game.
If the 62-year-old commissioner of the NBA could get every sports fan in America alone in a smoke-filled room, then pro basketball would be the national pastime.
This Irish rouge -- part grandfather, part arm-twister -- demonstrates that infinite good cheer and an infinite capacity for the drabbest details can coexist and prosper.
More important, after a lifetime as a kingmaker in politics and a czar in sports, OBrien has proved that a man can emerge from a world of infighting and high finance with his character neither cynical nor sullied.
During this NBA All-Star weekend in Washington, O'Brien will preside over a perplexing, yet healthy, sport which, he says, "has never been so stable or given me so much cause for pride."
Were it not for O'Brien's leadership in the last five years, it is doubtful that the much-troubled NBA could approach its midwinter gala with such enthusiasm.
If the NBA has a central figure, it is not 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or 6-10 Moses Malone. It is 5-9 Larry O'Brien, who ducks the spotlight while holding everything together with a painstaking efficiency.
If Larry O'Brien were assigned to command the pearly gates in heaven, he could convince you that he was nothing more than a humble night watchman. It is his gift.
Sitting in his 15th floor office this week. O'Brien proposed his feet up on the desk, drew on his millionth cigarette of the day and studied the view from the top.
Looking out the window, O'Brien watched the rush-hour traffic creeping down a mile of Fifth Avenue, running in a straight line toward the horizon with Manhattan skyscrapers on either side.
Silhouetted on the horizon, the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood against the red dusky sky like pillars of fire. Or, perhaps, like Russell and Chamberlain rising for a rebound.
"I was always a ref baiter and a screamer," recalled O'Brien.
"Maybe it was being raised in Springfield [Mass.], the birthplace of basketball. Or maybe it was all those snowy nights of driving to see Bob Cousy in the Boston Garden where the Celtics were THE team. But I was always a typical fan.
"Even when I was Democratic national chairman and took political friends to Madison Square Garden for a doubleheader, I always warned them, "If you don't want to stay for both games, don't come with me, because I'm staying until the end.'"
In his days as a Knick fan, he had seats "right across the aisle from Walter Kennedy, who was NBA commissioner then. Walter always looked straight ahead -- stony-faced. It bothered me a little that he looked so uninvolved.
"Now, I sit in the same seat he did," O'Brien said. "And I sit there stony-faced, looking straight ahead.
"I find myself watching the refs, or wondering what awful thing can happen that will show up on my desk the next morning."
O'Brien has brought the same tactics to running the NBA that distinguished the campaigns he directed for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Then, he was a classically efficient Irish politician -- perhaps the first to applying the techniques of Boston ward politics on a national scale.
Whether it was collecting card files of voters all over the country, or doing telephone drudge work, or briefing a candidate on everything from bombs to babies' names. O'Brien did it well, and often is credited with establishing the style of modern saturation campaigning. O'Brien was, perhaps, the daddy of The Organization.
"I've thought back on the decision to become NBA commissioner far more than I thought about it at the time," O'Brien said. "After I closed out my life in politics, I assumed it would be difficult to find the next thing.
"I came to the NBA on a trial basis -- as the new kid on the block. But, I discovered that the same techniques applied here, too.
"I've been in many a smoke-filled room until 3 a.m. in merger negotiations. And I've even gotten up and locked the door.
"You have to sit down and talk protractedly and intensely. You have to accept in good spirit all the tedium of procedures and rules and details. You must lay a groundwork of exhaustive mutual understanding.
"I work on the assumption that nothing is simple.
"However, when you arrive at the point where all negotiations arrive -- at an agreement on a concept, but a disagreement on terms -- then someone has to cut through the underbrush and get to the bottom line."
O'Brien is often that someone.
"There comes a time," he said, "when you close the door, pull up your socks and don't leave until you've made a decision."
O'Brien has pulled up his socks, and the NBA's bootstraps, time and again.
First, he got the warring leagues -- NBA and ABA -- to merge. New stars like Julius Erving and Moses Malone, hiked the NBA's attendance.
Then, O'Brien reached a 10-year-out-of-court settlement in the Oscar Robertson case that established a compensation rule for NBA free agents.
To see O'Brien's ire rise, merely ask the Great Compromiser about the New York District Court judge who has overruled his compensation decision in the Marvin Webster deal, claiming that O'Brien shortchanged the Knicks and gave Seattle a sweetheart deal.
"I tried like the devil to get expert opinion," O'Brien said. "The judge has made his ruling with no expert input as to the relative worth of the players involved . . . It is difficult not to think that Judge Carter may have been swayed by the Knicks' injuries last season."
In other words, the fan in O'Brien has been slapped in the face. How dare a judge tell him that Marvin Webster isn't worth Lonnie Shelton, $450,000 and a No. 1 draft choice?
O'Brien has alway been at his best when, in his deep, soft and relaxed voice he can calm the waters by saying whatever topic is under debate "I, at first blush, did not think of this as a plus, but, I have become persuaded."
His persona as The Great Compromiser and The Man Who Gets Things Done may have saved more than one NBA team from its creditors.
"There hasn't been a year when a franchise wasn't in danger," said O'Brien, telling tales on the a.m. meetings when bill collectors were placated in Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans, Utah and Indiana.
"The worst was the New Jersey Nets," O'Brien said. "We went an entire summer unsure as to whether they would make it. We even had two schedules made for the next season, one with them and one without them."
Now, thanks in part to a multiyear $74 million television contract that O'Brien wheedled from CBS, he can say, "I don't have a financially troubled franchise on my desk for the first time in my tenure."
Perhaps O'Brien has been most firm -- a dictator rather than an orchestrator -- in the matter of violence.
Although he does not speak for the record, he nodded agreement when it was pointed out that every other major pro sports has a whiff of blood about if: baseball with its crowd riots, the NFL with Jack Tatum's book "They Call Me Assassin," and the NHL with its recent punch-out between players and fans.
"We will not tolerate violence in any form," O'Brien said, uncharacteristically thumping his desk with his forefinger.
"When violence and intimidation become central to a sport, it erodes your desire to be part of it. We live in a climate today where rules and procedures have lost their traditional respect.
"From the cop on the beat to the referee to the president, the man in authority in this country -- the decision maker -- is under attack. There seems to be an instinct afoot in our country to tear down whatever rises up as excellent."
Against the record of his early NBA successes, no man was more shocked than O'Brien a year ago when the NBA was widely perceived as a league with serious problems in attendance and TV ratings.
O'Brien could solve many a problem, but he could not go into millions of homes and persuade folks that the NBA was the game they wanted to see.
"I cleared my desk of all the problems that were in it when I arrived," O'Brien said. "Then I found a whole new set of them."
Those new difficulties concerned the quality of the NBA game itself. Was the schedule too long? Were players too highly paid and too lackadaisical until the playoffs? Was a predominantly white audience uninterested in predominantly black players? Did too many teams make the playoffs?
League administrators even dared say O'Brien had no lifelong "basketball people" in his inner circle who could guide him toward the proper hand-check rule or the right way to combat the creeping disease of zone defense.
"I have no overall vision of how the game should be played," O'Brien said.
"I am not consciously directing it. We focus on the problems of the moment and do what seems to make sense."
Nevertheless, even in these areas, O'Brien is as adept an interpreter of data as any political poll watcher.
"I was shocked to learn at the end of last season that attendance in our league had fallen by only seven fans per game -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent," O'Brien said. "I was led to believe, at least by what I read, that we had a grave crisis.
"This year, attendance is slightly up overall," O'Brien said. "But it has increased in each four-week period. So, the graph is distinctly upward."
As for TV, that maker and breaker of candidates and leagues, O'Brien has unusually pointed words.
"Last season, our Sunday game on CBS had no lead-in. You turned on the game and it was already underway. Our halftime shows have been gimmicky for several years. And our shows had no decent close-outs.The viewer was just left in midair as soon as the game ended.
"Now, we have good thematic leadins and close-outs. And our halftime shows cover the week's news in the league."
Also, the NBA has learned the folly of regional telecasts.
"We have to put our best foot forward," O'Brien said.
That means orchestrating the season to suit TV.
"We realized we were in a difficult situation," O'Brien said. "We had to make an up-front selection of what we thought would be our best games, then schedule them for Sunday and show one national game each week."
A steady diet of glamor teams Sunday's on CBS -- Boston, Los, Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington -- has boosted ratings, according to O'Brien, back to their tolerable, if not spectacular, level of two years ago. o
"Our latest possible date last year was June 8," O'Brien said. "Now it's May 18."
"As you get older, you get a pretty good feeling for the ebb and flow of life," O'Brien said, watching the sundown from his Fifth Avenue perch. "You probably become a bit deja vu. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
"Having been present at the moment of two assassinations gives you a different perspective for the rest of your life. Much of what disturbs you and confronts you seems to fade.
"I don't want to exaggerate the role of sports in society. Many of my political friends might even call them trite or insignificant.
"Nonetheless, I have a great respect for athletes. They are subjected to total testing. They must perform and entertain under the constant judgment of a scoreboard.
"That measurement of performance is something you lack in politics. Until recently, the public tended to forget the promises that had been made to it. You operated under an assumption that an accurate scorecard would not be kept."
"My wife and I are theater buffs," O'Brien said. "That's always been my other love.
"Sports seems to have many of the qualities of politics and theater. It has the capacity to involve and excite and entertain you. Perhaps it is hard to understand the lifelong hold that sports has on us, but it must be important if it can do those fundamental things to us."
O'Brien took his feet off his desk, stubbed out his cigarette.
"All the tricks of politics and salesmanship are used in professional sports," he said, "but the promises we make and the expectations that we arouse are all brought to instant judgment.
"That," he said, "is why this job is more difficult than some of my old friends might think. It is not easy to decide where we are and whither we tend."
O'Brien looked out his other window and stared eye-to-steeple at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which loomed across the street, just a few yards away.
"That's just there," he said with a grin, "in case I need to pray."