Donald Ringsby, Denver Rockets executive

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Donald Ringsby, Denver Rockets executive

Postby rlee » Wed May 05, 2010 12:44 am

Donald Ringsby, Denver Rockets executive
Reporter Irv Moss writes about stars from the past
By Irv Moss
The Denver Post

To his credit, Donald Ringsby ignored the unexpected and quickly learned the difference between a basketball and a truck tire.

His change of focus was a necessity. When his father, Bill Ringsby, stepped up to salvage attempts to make a Denver franchise a charter member of the American Basketball Association for the 1967-68 season, Donald Ringsby moved from the family trucking business into the front office of the basketball team.

"Initially, I had the title of president. But my father was the guy running the show," Donald Ringsby said recently from his Denver office. "I was 30 years old and had no background in basketball."

Bill Ringsby, at the request of Jack Ashton of the Denver Metro Sports Committee, had agreed to pick up the pieces of a broken ownership. Los Angeles businessman Jim Trindle had put up the $25,000 franchise fee, but his ties with Vince Boryla, a prominent Denver sports figure, dissolved before the first season. Boryla conducted the Denver franchise's first player draft and his selections included Southern Illinois' Walt Frazier in the first round and the University of Denver's Byron Beck in a later round.

After a shaky beginning, the ancestral connection to the Nuggets team that last week was eliminated in the first round of the NBA playoffs began.

The Mile High City's entry into the ABA was called the Denver Rockets, named after the slogan of the Ringsby Trucking company. The uniforms took on the orange- and-black colors of the Ringsby Rockets trucking service.

Dick Eicher, with longtime connections to Denver basketball, was hired as general manager. Bob Bass, a relatively unknown coach in the collegiate ranks, was hired to coach the Rockets. Beck was the first player signed by the team; his No. 40 jersey was retired by the Nuggets in December 1977 and hangs from the rafters in the Pepsi Center.

The Rockets played most of their games in the Auditorium Arena, a venue that has been converted for other uses. Ringsby said ticket prices ranged from $1 to $4.

Eicher and Bass departed after the Rockets' second season amid speculation that the basketball team was being run too much like a trucking company.

"My dad ran the basketball team as he saw fit," Ringsby said. "He was used to making all the decisions in a very competitive, privately owned business. Basketball was entertainment."

The Rockets' fortunes greatly improved when they signed college underclassman Spencer Haywood for the 1969-70 season as a financial hardship case in what proved to be a landmark decision for pro basketball. The season started slowly before Haywood led the Rockets to the ABA's Western Division title, the first big-time professional championship for a Denver pro team.

To replace Bass, Ringsby hired John McLendon, an icon in college and international basketball circles, as the first black head coach in the ABA. The Rockets won just nine of their first 28 games under McLendon. He was replaced by Joe Belmont, who led the team to a 42-14 record the rest of the way. The Rockets lost in the Western finals to the Los Angeles Stars 4-1.

Haywood bolted to the NBA after one season in which he averaged 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds, and the Ringsby ownership of the Rockets ended after the 1971-72 season.

Denver's franchise ended up being included in the ABA-NBA merger that took effect for the NBA's 1976-77 season. But by then the team was called the Nuggets. Houston's NBA team was the Rockets.

"I thought that was a little insulting," Ringsby said. "We had the Rockets name before Houston, but the NBA had all the cards."

Ringsby takes heart that the ABA 3-point shooting line became a fixture in the NBA, but wishes the red, white and blue basketball of the ABA had been adopted as well. And he regrets not getting out of the pro basketball business sooner.

"We had a chance to sell the team to Bill Daniels after the 1969-70 season," Ringsby said. "We were on top of the world and didn't sell. That was a mistake. I found out that the attention a sports franchise can bring is very intoxicating. The publicity makes you think you're pretty important. I miss the people, but I don't miss the spotlight. I like a more private life."
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