Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Meet the American Sports Legend and Pioneer You've Probably Never Heard Of

Dennis Murphy commemorates the WHA, which he founded
Dennis Murphy isn't a household name among American sports fans. But he sure as heck should be. Murphy, an entrepreneurial genius and true game changer, founded the American Basketball Association (ABA), World Hockey Association (WHA), World Team Tennis (WTT), and Roller Hockey International (RHI), among other groundbreaking, tradition-rattling leagues. 

In his exceptionally entertaining and nostalgic new autobiography Murph: The Sports Entrepreneur and His Leagues, edited by Richard Neil GrahamMurphy, now 86 but still sharp as a tack, shares a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes stories about the formation of these legendary sports leagues, and more. Any fan of American sports over the last half-century will find this book impossible to put down. 

I thought I knew a bit about the ABA, but Murphy schooled me. Co-founded by Murphy in 1967, the league, which lasted until 1976, popularized the 3-pointer and the dunk and produced such legendary players as Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Rick Barry, Larry Brown, George Gervin and Moses Malone. Four ABA teams - the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs) - eventually moved to the National Basketball Association (NBA).

I was a huge ABA fan as a kid. My favorite player was Willie Wise, who played college ball at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown. In 1969, when I was eight years old, Wise and the rest of the players from this virtually unknown little Midwest school shocked the basketball world by making it to the Final Four, where Drake lost by three points in a poorly officiated game against a seemingly invincible UCLA Bruin team led by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). 

I watched every Drake home game that year with my family, and continued to follow Wise, who became an all star in the ABA with the Utah Stars. Here's a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times sports section about Wise and that amazing Drake team. 

Murphy remembers Wise well. "He was an outstanding player in our league," says Murphy. "The ABA was a really fun experience. We had terrific players and great owners. I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish with that league, and of the influence the ABA still has on professional basketball today."

The ABA was also known for its colorful red, white and blue basketball. I proudly owned one of those basketballs as a kid and learned to dribble and shoot with it. Murphy says the league surprisingly didn't have a patent on that ball, and lost millions as a result.

"We blew it with that one," he says with a laugh. "George Mikan was the ABA's first commissioner, and he had a lawyer representing him, but when we got the red, white and blue ball, Mikan thought someone would take care of the rights to that basketball. We didn't have a patent on the ball, and a company took it and they did very well with it. We messed up. You can't blame the company for being smart."

Murphy's recollections sound like a page out of the script of the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro, which chronicles a fictional team in the very real ABA. For example, Murphy explains that while all the teams in NBA have cheerleaders, that all started with the ABA. 

"Now we have the Laker Girls, etc, but we started all of that in Miami," says Murphy, who in addition to forming the league also ran the Miami Floridians franchise. He says the man who was behind the cheerleader idea was Rudy Martzke, the public relations man for the Miami team who later became a well known sportswriter. 

"The idea was that we needed to get attendance up at the games," says Murphy. "So he came up with the idea of the bikini girls. We always had them on the visiting side, so the visiting players would look at girls rather than pay attention to the game."

The WHA was just as exciting and savvy as the ABA - and is equally near to my heart. In addition to Wise, another childhood hero of mine was WHA player Pete MaraGrowing up in Des Moines, I was also a big hockey fan who with my best friend went to just about every home game played in the 1972-73 season by the Des Moines Capitols, who played in the International Hockey League (IHL). 

The Caps' leader was Mara, who brought the championship to Des Moines the following season and was awarded the Leo P. Lamoureux Memorial Trophy as the league's leading scorer and the James Gatschene Memorial Trophy for outstanding playing ability and sportsmanlike conduct. Pete went on to play two seasons in the WHA - one with the Chicago Cougars and another with the Denver Spurs and Ottawa Civics. 

The league, which debuted in 1972 and ran through 1979, was a worthy competitor/adversary to the stalwart National Hockey League (NHL). A pebble in the NHL's shoe, the WHA cannibalized NHL rosters, established teams in major cities that didn’t host NHL teams, and successfully challenged the reserve clause that bound players to their teams. 

This gave NHL players the opportunity to seek "greener" pastures in the WHA, and players such as the legendary Bobby Hull did just that. Hull signed a record 10-year, $2.75 million contract, and 66 NHL players followed Hull’s lead. The WHA disbanded in 1979, but not before four teams joined the NHL – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets.

Dennis Murphy with hockey legend Gordie Howe
"Just like with the ABA, we had great owners in the WHA," says Murphy, "and we and had great players like Gordie (Howe) and Bobby (Hull) and of course Wayne (Gretzky)."

When the WHA was first established, Murphy says owners lobbied to have a bright orange puck so fans could follow the action more closely. But Bill Hunter, the owner, general manager and head coach of the Alberta Oilers, who were renamed the Edmonton Oilers the following season, wouldn't have any of that.

"Early on, we had league meetings down in San Diego at La Costa Country Club, and some of us came up with the idea of having the orange puck," Murphy recalls. "But Bill, who was a Canadian through and through, didn't like the idea. He gets up on table and starts shouting, 'No orange puck, that's bush league. You Americans stick to basketball and let us Canadians run hockey.' We all laughed. But he got his way. We gave up on the orange puck. We backed off."

Murphy says that  to this day people in professional hockey are still trying to add some color the puck design so people can follow the puck. "They're even talking about lighted pucks now," Murphy says. "They haven't done anything, and I can see why. No reason to change what works."

But Murphy always changed what worked, and in many cases he made it better. Murphy also was way out in front of the curve when he co-founded World Team Tennis, which gave women equal pay in sports for the first time.

Just why Murphy isn't more famous, and why he is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame are mysteries to me. It may be because he seems to enjoy being relatively anonymous. Even his new book is more about the people with whom he worked than it is about himself. 

Murphy is quick to credit his fellow executives, owners and players in the leagues he co-created but less interested in congratulating himself. So allow me do it for him. Thanks Dennis, for giving the world so much joy. The groundbreaking sports leagues you created brought a lot of entertainment to sports fans like me across the country and the world.


  1. Jamie,

    Thanks so much for writing this article. I appreciate the shout-out you gave to me, and I know that Murph is going to be thrilled. At 86, he is still trying to create new sports leagues as well as one idea that I think is brilliant and WILL definitely succeed: A Women's Sports Walk of Fame outside of Knott's Berry Farm! :)

    Thanks again. Brilliant article.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Richard.

    2. Jamie,

      I know how much time and effort that an article like this takes. You are very welcome. Keep rocking!

  2. About time the mainstream media started to take notice of such a historic sports icon. Kudos to you.

    1. You're right, Elliott. I never knew how hard educating people is... I am more impressed with teachers every single day!