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April 23, 2020

The Time Machine: Finding Safety in Sports: Larry O’Brien and the Post-Watergate NBA

By David Kurlander

These days, the thin barrier between sports and politics is particularly diffuse. Last week, President Trump announced the inclusion of sports commissioners (including his friend, WWE president Vince McMahon) on his Committee to Reopen America and talked at length about his support for fan-less leagues. Trump has also game-planned with former Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez and performed an odd Twitter courtship with beloved Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Trump, who seems more comfortable talking football than testing kits, is not the first politician to leap from political crisis into the safer harbors of the sports world. Almost fifty years ago, the pivotal presidential advisor Larry O’Brien emerged from the rubble of Watergate to help save the National Basketball Association. 

In 1974, Larry O’Brien knew he was done with politics. He had left Washington D.C. for New York City to write his riveting memoir, No Final Victories. The nostalgic tome told of his youth hosting Democratic Party bosses as the son of a bar owner in Depression-era Springfield, MA. He recalled meeting young Congressman John F. Kennedy, spearheading his 1952 and 1958 Senate runs, and barreling into the White House to manage the legislation of the New Frontier. He watched in person as JFK died in Dallas. He recounted staying on with LBJ and leveraging a stint as Postmaster General into a drive to hire more African American postmen. And he wrote devastatingly of his brief time on the trail for Bobby Kennedy, only to watch him bleed to death in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel.  

A reeling O’Brien became Democratic National Committee Chairman and somehow avoided disaster at the 1972 DNC in Miami. Though hesitant about progressive Democratic frontrunner George McGovern, O’Brien pushed perennial candidate Hubert Humphrey to drop his last-minute blitz on the nomination and beckoned the powerful but problematic George Wallace, who had been paralyzed by a would-be assassin two months earlier, back into the party. O’Brien was rewarded with the McGovern campaign chairmanship.

But O’Brien called Fall 1972 “the worst three months of my life.” He failed to corral moderates into McGovern’s coalition, oversaw the painful withdrawal of VP choice Thomas Eagleton, and watched McGovern win exactly one state. O’Brien quit after the election, wanting to avoid “a bitter, bloody fight for the chairmanship of a deeply divided party.”

In the most significant development of O’Brien’s tough stretch, he followed with increasing anxiety the revelations that CIA-affiliated burglars had broken into his office in the Watergate hotel. When the burglars were tied to the White House, O’Brien became despondent. “My life has seemed to be cut off from reality,” he wrote in No Final Victories. He recalled being approached by a man on a plane at the height of the scandal: “Oh, I know you! You’re the victim of Watergate!” 

After O’Brien published his book, he and his wife Elva—according to a colorful People profile—“attended plays, stocked their wine cellar, and regularly attended Knicks games.” At one of these games in early 1975, he reconnected with Mike Burke, an early CIA operative and CBS higher-up who, in some truly weird 1970s corporate juggling, had ended up owning both the Yankees and the Knicks

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Burke asked O’Brien to apply for the open NBA Commissioner position. O’Brien initially turned it down. Even though he was from basketball’s birthplace, O’Brien wasn’t a baller, beyond enjoying season tickets. “They didn’t call me the Mattoon Street Gunner for nothing,” he told People. “The first game I played with the J.V., I threw a half-court hook shot as soon as I got the ball. Missed. Next time down, same thing. Missed again. The coach took me out. It was the last game I ever played.”

Once O’Brien researched the League’s serious problems, however, he realized he could stop a McGovern-style meltdown. Players were bouncing between the NBA and the American Basketball Association, a smaller league that held flamboyant promotions to survive. The NBA tried to acquire the ABA in 1970, but the Player’s Union blocked the effort, filing “The Oscar Robertson Suit” in New York District Court. Robertson, the superstar Union head, argued for a free agency platform along the lines of what player-activist Curt Flood was pushing in baseball—that players could negotiate their contracts with the highest bidder, rather than being stuck with a team for life. The suit had lingered for five years.

O’Brien accepted Burke’s offer to become NBA Commissioner in June 1975 and quickly started cleaning up. His first action, ironically, was to stab Burke in the back by rejecting the Knicks’ questionable deal to acquire George McGinnis from the 76ers. As Burke related in his own autobiography, he and O’Brien bumped into each other shortly after: “The ball takes some strange bounces,” O’Brien said. “Even a round ball,” Burke, defeated, retorted.

In nine months, O’Brien pulled off a progressive settlement of the Robertson Suit. “Years of struggle were justified, generations of players vindicated,” Robertson reflected. O’Brien then acquired the ABA’s most profitable teams, merging the Leagues. “It turns out that I’ve been in as many smoke-filled rooms with the NBA as I ever was in politics,” O’Brien admitted. Roger Kahn gawked in Esquire at O’Brien’s somehow-successful switcheroo: “O’Brien in basketball and Ford in the White House? If there is a God, he has an irresponsible sense of humor.”

O’Brien found solace in a bouncing ball. He led for eight years, negotiating a massive contract with CBS and expanding bargaining deals for players. Even with the victories, however, David Halberstam reported that at retirement O’Brien was haunted by the past, an “oddly disengaged commissioner, a man more than a little disappointed in the way his life had turned out, as if somehow the bright promise all those young men had sensed in early 1961 had never quite been fulfilled.”

O’Brien did important work as NBA Commissioner, but even great basketball could not fix the fracturing of American politics. We will also find joy in reopening sports, but we should remind our leaders—with O’Brien in mind—of what else needs mending. 

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