The mergers of the original ABA and NBA and the AFL and NFL combined four professional organizations into the two of the most powerful sports entities in the world according to many historians. They are also two perfect examples of “free market” capitalism at work.
One of the principal legal architects of the ABA-NBA merger was Richard P. Tinkham. Tinkham was co-founder of the American Basketball Association along with Joe Newman. A 1957 law school grad, Tinkham co-founded the original ABA and the Indiana Pacers franchise in 1967, and served for two years as president of the ABA board of trustees. In 1972-75, he was instrumental in the creation of Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.
The NFL did not seem to take the AFL seriously until a brash young quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa. “Broadway” Joe Namath made a confident, some might even say cocky prediction that the upstart Jets would defeat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The Jets were victorious in their “quest for respect” but Tinkham said no such heroics would help determine the course of the ABA, NBA merger.
“First of all we [the ABA] had filed a lawsuit against the NBA. The judge presiding over the case suggested that we talk about a merger between the two leagues. I don’t know if the NBA was serious at that point or not but when a federal judge says that you should talk, you talk. Meanwhile, the NBA player representative had permitted us to play exhibition games between the NBA and the ABA. This was obviously long before the merger. Neither league was dominant in that exhibition series.
The Pacers, for example, beat the Knicks here in Indianapolis but neither league was dominant so at that point I think the NBA began to recognize that there are a lot of players out there and additional cities that can come into our league. So I think it was probably the exhibition series that really got things going.”
The NBA, at the point when the merger occurred, seemed to mirror NFL with a boring and predictable game plan. The NBA had the stars but the ABA had the game. With red, white and blue balls being launched from the twilights last gleaming three-point land, the younger and more energetic ABA seemed to be gaining ground by tapping into the solid demographic of the more established league while simultaneously creating a new demographic all its own.
Tinkham was asked if some of the innovations by the ABA could have also been an integral part of the merger. He said, “You’re about to get a scoop that from a book that will soon be released. It is being written by a former player and me. The title is; ‘We Changed the Game’ (and a city, too). In the book I refer to the first meeting between the merger committees in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria. Our committee knocked on the door of the suite of Ned Birish from the New York Knickerbockers who happened to be a lawyer as well. And Ned asked, “Which one of you guys is Tinkham?” My partners looked as if they were not even there because his tone was so hostile. I said, “That would be me, sir” And he said, “Tinkham, I want to tell you something. We don’t like people who sue us and I don’t know if there will ever be a merger but if there is, two things will never happen. There will never be a three-point play and we will never use that silly beach ball”
Richard P. Tinkham belongs to a small number of sports owners that prove day in and day out that some of these franchises represent more than wheel barrels of cash for physically endowed, athletically superior men and women. Tinkham was and remains a man who cares about his community. “Indianapolis had nothing downtown and we built a new 18,000-seat arena. It opened in 1975 and that was the beginning of the buildup of the downtown area.” Tinkham said sort of matter-of-factly.
One would be surprised when he was asked how he would like to be remembered after his journey on earth was completed. His answer did not just completely allude to sports. “My wife and I have had a hunger relief program for 26 years in downtown Indianapolis. I would like to be remembered as just a citizen who loved being a part of the community and contributed to professional sports. Also, I would like to be remembered as contributing socially through this hunger program.”
In my opinion, Richard P. Tinkham along with his football counterpart Dan Rooney of the Steelers, should have been canonized and cast in bronze decades ago. Boys and girls, listen to a call from the wild. It is always better, better, late than never.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-583-6741.)