In 1969, one of the most significant battles in professional basketball history involved no shots. There were no screaming fans, no crowded arenas. Instead, the battle lines were in a New York hotel room. The American Basketball Association had just completed its second season and was awash in red ink. Franchises were bouncing across the countryside like Tigger on energy drinks. The NBA and ABA waged war over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the most significant collegiate prospect in a generation, and each side got only one swing.
Abdul-Jabbar, still known as Lew Alcindor before his conversion to Islam, led UCLA to an 88–2 record and three straight national championships. He was the top prospect in the 1969 drafts, a player who would strengthen the NBA’s superiority or put the fledgling ABA on the map. The stakes were enormous.
The ABA had a plan to get Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In Terry Pluto’s narrative history of the ABA, Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, former Indiana Pacers general manager Mike Storen was in the group of executives strategizing how to get Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s name on an ABA contract. With their dismal 17–61 season in 1968–69, the New York Nets had the top pick in the ABA draft. The Milwaukee Bucks won the coin flip from the Phoenix Suns after the two NBA expansion teams finished last in their respective divisions.
After the respective drafts, Abdul-Jabbar told both sides he would be home in New York for one day. He’d field each league’s best offer, decide, and move on. Storen remembered the ABA spent about $10,000 to investigate Abdul-Jabbar to determine a strategy. They learned two things.
“Alcindor would make the decision himself,” Storen said. “It wouldn’t be Sam Gilbert (UCLA booster and Abdul-Jabbar’s agent). Nor would it be (UCLA coach) John Wooden, or Alcindor’s parents, or a friend. Alcindor had enough confidence in himself to decide himself.
“Once he made that decision, he would stick to it. He had a very strong strain of loyalty, and you could place a lot of faith in what he said.”
The ABA hatched a plan to make Abdul-Jabbar an instant millionaire. But ABA Commissioner George Mikan stepped in, and things went sideways from there.
The $1 million check debacle
The ABA’s plan to make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar an instant millionaire was literal. They were going to offer an enormous contract, but they would seal the deal by presenting him a cashier’s check for $1 million.
Mikan went into the meeting with the check in his pocket. The Nets made the first presentation, with Mikan and Nets owner Arthur Brown doing the talking. The money would be the closer. Storen was confident, at least until Mikan left the meeting.”
“They came out, and I said, ‘That check got us where we wanted to go, right?’” Storen said. “Mikan said, ‘We decided that it wasn’t necessary to give him our best offer. We figure when he comes back to us, then we’ll use the check for the second round of talks.’ I screamed, ‘You did what?’”
Mikan told Storen that Abdul-Jabbar would come back after he got Milwaukee’s offer. When Storen pressed the commissioner about whether the player made that statement, the answer wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Mikan said, “The kid did say that he would make the decision.”
“I was really screaming. ‘You dumb SOBs, why did we spend all that money to find out all this information if you’re not going to use it? How could you guys not give him the check?’”
It was over. Abdul-Jabbar accepted the Bucks’ five-year, $1.4 million offer. The ABA tried to give him the check at the airport, but it was too late. The ABA lost.
The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar negotiations finished Mikan
Mikan resigned not long after the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar negotiations went sour. He told Pluto that he didn’t think the ABA ever had a chance:
“I can’t prove that Alcindor had a deal cut in advance with the NBA, but I think he did. We never got a chance to negotiate. I know that Alcindor’s parents had tears in their eyes when they saw that check and couldn’t take it. In fact, I still have a copy of that million-dollar check.”
We know how it turned out. The ABA hung on until 1976 before four of its teams joined the NBA in a merger. Abdul-Jabbar played 20 NBA seasons, winning a record six NBA MVP awards and retiring as the league’s all-time leading scorer.
It remains the most prominent “what if” question for those old enough to remember the ABA. How different would basketball history have been if Mikan had just given Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the $1 million check?
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.