The 1967–68 season was to be the ABA’s first. The upstart league was at that time not much more than a thinly veiled attempt by a consortium of risk-taking businessmen to force their way, likely via merger, into the NBA. The ABA had convinced retired NBA legend George Mikan to be its first commissioner, but they could not, until Barry, convince any NBA players to jump leagues.
Barry’s rationale was simple. Bruce Hale was the coach of the ABA’s Oakland franchise. Hale was his father-in-law. If that’s where he wanted to play, and the money was the same, why shouldn’t he be able to go where he pleased? In today’s sports world, such thinking would not raise an eyebrow. But in Barry’s day, no athlete had demanded his rights in such a way.
It sounded good in theory. But Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli, a free spirit who likely agreed philosophically with Barry, just could not bear to let his star player go. He filed an injunction and later a San Francisco judge said the reserve clause was binding.
The ruling was that Barry had to play for the Warriors or sit out a year. Barry chose to sit. He chose principle. He chose sacrifice. He lost his case (as did Curt Flood), and missed a full year in the prime of his career, which became two years after an injury sidelined him for most of the following season. What was the gain for Rick Barry? A lost two years and, after the Oakland Oaks folded, a series of transactions that led him to teams and places he never wanted to go. And what was the gain for everyone else?
The ABA had its first NBA player and a legitimate jumping off point to launch a bidding war. That bidding war gave players an option to choose between leagues. It increased their average salaries from $18,000 in 1967 to $110,000 in 1975. When the NBA wanted to stop the spending madness by merging with its rival league, do you know who blocked it? The NBA players. Why? To keep the salary war going.
The ensuing legal action became what is known as the Oscar Robertson suit. In his otherwise extremely forthright autobiography, The Big O, Robertson recalled the ABA’s genesis. He wrote, “[The ABA] stole the flashy young star, Rick Barry.” No, they didn’t steal him. Barry went on his own—the harder road—and the ABA was legitimized because of it. Barry’s stature gave other NBA players and top college players the green light to go to the new league. Through his highly publicized lawsuit to invalidate the reserve clause, Barry pioneered the idea that every professional athlete could control his own contract. The ripple effect of his actions was profound.
The existence of the ABA created the conditions for the Oscar Robertson suit. In September 1971, the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly convened to discuss a bill to grant the NBA a so-called “Sherman waiver.” Such a waiver would allow the league to proceed with the ABA merger despite the court-ordered injunction blocking it. “The players recognize the unfairness of a system of professional basketball which allows them to negotiate with only one team,” Robertson said in that hearing. “They have gone through the experience of no competition prior to the ABA’s existence and of great competition since 1967. They understand that every player has been dramatically helped by the competitive aspects of a second league. All of their salaries have increased, from the last man of the team to superstars.”
Do you think Rick Barry had anything to do with that? Do you think that the crack in the dam that Barry created ultimately led to the watershed moment for players’ rights in professional basketball?
Later in the hearing, the Big O went one-on-one with pro-merger Sen. Roman Hruska.
Robertson: I think it is terribly wrong for anyone to limit anyone’s ability to earn money no matter where it may be, whether it is in business or sports. I think any time you limit a person as to where he can go, such as the case was prior to the two leagues, I think it is terribly wrong.
Hruska: Is it wrong to limit the amount of money a man can earn?
Robertson: I think in America it is.
Hruska: Does the draft system do that?
Robertson: I think if you only had one league, that is true. As long as you have two leagues, there is no telling what a person can earn.
A year later, in September 1972, the subcommittee granted the NBA a Sherman waiver approving the NBA–ABA merger. However, the committee declared, among other things, that the reserve clause was illegal and that until there was either a settlement or verdict in the Oscar Robertson lawsuit, the injunction blocking the merger would not be lifted.
Ipso facto the ABA was the death knell for the NBA reserve clause. Consider this syllogism: No two leagues, no end of the reserve clause. No ABA, no two leagues. No Rick Barry, no ABA. Therefore, no Rick Barry, no defeat of the reserve clause.
In no way do I mean to diminish the courage of Oscar Robertson, who no doubt lost professional opportunities after his playing days due to lingering owner resentment. But he did what he did and Barry did what Barry did. Barry simply did it first, and what he did was condition predicate for Robertson’s actions and all that followed.
Oscar Robertson retired from the NBA in 1975. The Oscar Robertson lawsuit was finally settled as a condition of the 1976 merger between the NBA and ABA. The settlement included the abolition of the reserve clause. Now, the average NBA salary is greater than $4 million annually. Bill Bradley once told me that every player in today’s NBA ought to thank Oscar Robertson. No, thank Rick Barry. Rick Barry made this happen. He took the risk. He took the hit. Send him the thank you notes.
This article is adapted from Dave Hollander’s forthcoming book on the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors, Miracle at the Cow Palace: The Most Unsung, Underrated, and Misunderstood Team in NBA History.