VA. Squires: A time to remember. And forget

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VA. Squires: A time to remember. And forget

Postby rlee » Sun Jan 26, 2014 6:13 am

Virginia Squires: A time to remember and forget
By Andrew Wagaman
The Virginian-Pilot

hamptonroads.com/2014/01/virginia-squires-time-remember-and-forget

Earl Foreman marched slowly down the red carpet that covered Scope’s mezzanine hallway.

That night, the Virginia Squires’ owner was to help host the sold-out, nationally televised 1974 American Basketball Association All-Star Game.

Two of his players – Jim Eakins and a 21-year-old named George Gervin – were to suit up for the East team. And Foreman’s wife, Phyllis, had carefully planned a pregame luncheon across the street at the Holiday Inn-Scope.

But as Foreman walked, he saw the sports editor of The Virginian-Pilot standing at the other end of the hallway, a breaking wire story in hand. Foreman took the paper and held it at arm’s length.

“I don’t have my glasses,” he said.

It didn’t matter.

The word was out.

___

Forty years ago this week, the ABA All-Star Game became the most prominent sporting event ever held in Hampton Roads.

Norfolk hosted the NCAA Women’s Final Four in 1982, an event most notable for being the first.

Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker won his first of many boxing titles here. And pro golf and tennis tournaments in the region have come and gone.

But the 1974 ABA All-Star Game featured some of the best basketball players of the era – Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Artis Gilmore, George McGinnis and Gervin – whose true greatness would be demonstrated over the next decade.

The game also was played the day before the Virginia franchise was tucked into its deathbed.

The news broke before the all-stars hit the court: Foreman, who had for some time lived on the edge financially, had sold the franchise’s last major asset: George Gervin.

ABA Commissioner Mike Storen tried to intervene, going so far as to veto the trade for being “detrimental to the league.” Losing Gervin, he said at the time, “would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. If he went, we could never play in Virginia again.”

But a federal court ruled that Storen had overstepped his authority, and Foreman got the $225,000 he needed to continue operating the Squires, at least for a time. The San Antonio Spurs got Gervin, the finger-rolling player nicknamed “The Iceman,” who went on to score more than 26,000 points in 15 seasons in the ABA and NBA.

After the all-star break, an already frustrated Virginia fan base effectively boycotted the team. Over the next two years, the Squires set marks for futility on the court and at the gate.

While Gervin commenced a Hall of Fame career in San Antonio, the first and only major-league franchise in Hampton Roads went on to fold, just a month before the NBA-ABA merger.

“When George left, the ship sank,” former Squires guard Roland “Fatty” Taylor said in an interview last month.

And today, the people of Hampton Roads are left to wonder what could have been if the Squires had held on to their best players. If the teams could have gained a solid foothold. If the All-Star Game of 1974 had been a beginning, instead of the beginning of the end.

___

The Squires didn’t make the front page much in those days, what with Watergate, the oil crisis, a stock market crash and the Vietnam War.

Still, the tumult was big news in the sports section. On good days, the basketball franchise was merely “bathing in a sea of red ink”; other times, stories and headlines would speak of it “drowning.”

The franchise, originally from Oakland, Calif., was in debt before Foreman, a Washington lawyer, purchased it in 1969. That was par for the course in the ABA.

“Financially, it was a disaster,” Foreman, 88, said last month from his home in Chevy Chase, Md.

But he had a way of finding and acquiring talent. “Earl was a magician,” Gerald Friedman, a minority owner of the Squires, recalled.

“A lot of those signings went on cocktail napkins,” said Denzil Skinner, the first director of Scope, “and probably were worth about as much as the paper they were written on.”

Less than six months before the All-Star Game, Erving and Gervin both played for the Squires. The future Hall of Famers played 28 games together after Gervin arrived in January 1973.

A Detroit native considered shy but poised, Gervin was an Eastern Michigan University dropout who had landed in Norfolk after a scout saw him score 50 points in a semipro game.

Standing 6-foot-7 but weighing less than 180 pounds, the 20-year-old needed to add bulk to thrive in the pro game.

“We fed him milkshakes at practice every day,” head coach Al Bianchi said.

But, man, he could shoot. When he first came to Scope to sign his contract, Gervin knocked down 18 of 20 3-pointers. Wearing jeans.

“That night, Earl called me and said he’d signed a player who could shoot better than Julius Erving,” Storen recalled. “I said, ‘Well, Earl, I don’t know what you’re smoking, but I’d have to see that to believe it.’ Of course it turned out that, as a pure shooter, it was more than true.

“It was an awfully exciting team for a period of time.”

The Squires’ attendance peaked that 1972-73 season at 6,300 a game – and almost 8,000 when they played at Scope (the team’s home games that year also were held in Hampton and Richmond).

But the financial losses mounted that summer, prompting Foreman to sell Erving to the Nets in August and Swen Nater – the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year – to the Spurs three months later.

At one point, a headline in The Pilot read, “Sale! Bargains!! Values Galore!!!”

By this time, a merger between the more-established NBA and the talent-rich ABA was a matter of when, not if. The uncertainty that did linger involved the question of how many ABA teams would get absorbed.

Storen believed that if the ABA was ever going to match the NBA’s hand at a merger “poker table,” its teams needed to be strong and competitive, top to bottom. Just after the Nater deal, he persuaded the owners to pass a resolution giving him the authority to restrict Virginia from unloading any more stars.

That didn’t faze the Spurs, an ambitious first-year ABA franchise with unusually strong financial backing and cutthroat leaders in trustees Angelo Drossos and Red McCombs. The Spurs’ attitude regarding league competition was Darwinistic: Only the strongest franchises would make it into the NBA after the merger.

“Money was no object,” said Jack Ankerson, the Spurs’ general manager at the time, who later moved into the Squires’ front office and ultimately settled in Hampton Roads.

“Angelo said, ‘Look, Nater’s fine, but if we want to be competitive, we need someone else. And I think we can get Gervin.”

___

Foreman, it just so happened, needed more money. In late November 1973, a Norfolk judge had issued a default-loan judgment for almost $50,000 against him.

By Jan. 13, the Spurs had a deal. They cut Foreman two checks totaling $225,000 and agreed to keep the sale secret until Jan. 31 – the day after the All-Star Game. Gervin would then leave Norfolk with San Antonio officials.

Now 81, former coach Bianchi says he can’t recall talk of a Gervin sale before the All-Star Game. But, by then, blockbuster moves had become routine.

“Players were acutely aware that the league was a little unstable,” Bianchi said. “Anything that happened was not really a big surprise. They just rolled with the punches.”

Rumors spread in the days leading up to the game, but they involved the future of the franchise and the league, not Gervin.

Foreman was supposedly selling the team to Tidewater Sports Group, led by minority owner Friedman.

And then there were the recurring reports that a merger was imminent.

All-star week activities began on Monday, Jan. 28, a somehow 70-degree day. ABA executives met that afternoon, and Drossos brought his general manager, Ankerson, along to the meeting. For the first time, he “got to see Earl Foreman in action.”

“(Drossos) said, ‘You watch; we’re going to nail Earl. He owes so much money to the league,’ ” Ankerson recalls. “Foreman left that meeting with more money! I walked out and said, ‘That is one smooth-talking lawyer. Look what he did to you guys!’ ”

“You had to be careful about what Earl said at 9 in the morning,” Storen said, “because he was simply positioning himself for the stance he wanted to take at 4 in the afternoon. I don’t think he ever deceived anybody; he was just smarter than most of the people in the room.”

A week earlier, Storen had heard about the Gervin deal. That Monday, he pulled Foreman and Drossos into a room and reiterated that he wouldn’t allow it. Drossos protested, but Foreman was having seller’s remorse and sided with Storen.

At that point, Storen would later testify, “it was only by my intervention that they did not come to blows.”

___

Wednesday was game day.

“Michelob and Pabst Blue Ribbon kept the beer barrels full, Scope never looked more beautiful or packed with fans and Hughes Network was delighted with the image it presented the nation,” Pilot reporter Frank Vehorn wrote.

It turned out to be a mirage.

Earlier that day, an ABA lawyer had been holding a news conference about an impending lawsuit against the NBA when reporters became aware of a wire service report from San Antonio:

The financially troubled Virginia Squires have sold All-Star forward George Gervin to the San Antonio Spurs.

Someone from the Spurs – Ankerson suspects it was Drossos – had leaked the news.

Pilot sports editor George McClelland showed the report to Foreman. Drossos joined them on the mezzanine, and Foreman and Drossos took an elevator upstairs. When they returned, all Foreman said was, “No comment.”

Later that afternoon, Gervin was one of 10 all-stars who unexpectedly skipped Phyllis Foreman’s luncheon. The others who passed on the meal hadn’t been pleased with the customary all-star gifts they’d received; Gervin said he only wished to avoid talk of the deal.

That night, the East beat the West 128-112, with Wilt Chamberlain doing color commentary. A crowd of 10,624 cheered on Nater, the recently departed Squire, as he scored 29 points and grabbed 22 rebounds. Erving, who had warmed up in a Squires jacket, also tallied a double-double. Gervin scored nine points.

Foreman said in the book “Loose Balls” that he decided during the All-Star Game that he wanted to keep Gervin. Afterward, he told the player, “You are not going anywhere.”

To reporters, Gervin promised, “I just wouldn’t go.”

Drossos and Ankerson left Norfolk without Gervin – or a refund of the Spurs’ $225,000 – the next morning. The big headline on The Pilot sports front read: “Gervin to Spurs? No way.”

Back in San Antonio, Drossos filed suit against Foreman in U.S. Western District Court there. Storen moved to intervene.

Gerald Friedman said the Tidewater Sports Group’s purchase of the Squires now hinged on Gervin’s fate, but he didn’t seem worried about the Spurs’ lawsuit.

“They’re just trying to save face,” he declared. “The commissioner already has ruled, ‘No deal.’ They don’t have a case at all.”

In the first game after the all-star break, Gervin hit the game-winning shot in the Squires’ win over the Kentucky Colonels. But a few days later, with the Squires in Salt Lake City, Gervin disappeared from the team motel. His agent had urged him to leave the Squires because of the lawsuit.

By Feb. 6, he was in San Antonio, though his belongings remained in Norfolk.

“We had to go out and buy him clothes,” said Ankerson, the Spurs’ GM.

That same day, Judge Adrian Spears issued a temporary restraining order.

“The Squires lost George Gervin in a Texas courtroom Wednesday,” The Pilot reported, “and Virginia’s first major league professional sports franchise tottered toward the brink of extinction.”

Gervin debuted for the Spurs on Feb. 8. He collected his clothes from Norfolk three days later.

It appeared that Gervin might end up going down in history as the Hall of Famer who played four games in a Spurs uniform. But on Feb. 19, Spears issued a preliminary injunction that kept Gervin a Spur.

He made it permanent on March 6.

“We may or may not have made (Spears) an honorary season-ticket holder after that,” Ankerson said.

The Squires visited the Spurs in early March, and Gervin scored 30 points. He told The Pilot: “I said I wanted to stay (in Norfolk), and I meant it. My friends were there.

“I’ve had to grow up, to understand. Swen found it’s a business. I found it out, too.”

When Gervin and the Spurs returned to Scope a week later, only 1,074 fans showed up.

The Squires finished with a record of 28-56, a 14-game drop from the previous season. Attendance had fallen 46 percent.

Friedman’s group decided not to purchase the franchise, but after the season, Foreman sold it to another local group of business leaders for a little more than $1 million.

The Squires went on to win an all-time league-low 15 games in each of their final two seasons. Scope sold out just once more after the All-Star Game, and the franchise folded a month before the June 1976 merger when it missed paying a $75,000 league assessment.

___

Told recently that the All-Star Game is still considered a high point for the Hampton Roads sports scene, Foreman said dryly, “I’m flattered. It’s a shame they didn’t feel that way 85 times a year.

“But, listen, the fans that came were wonderful. And that pep band at Scope was smashing – two really great trombone players. It was a happening!”

Was Foreman really a soulless businessman and master manipulator driven by the bottom line? Hardly, say some former colleagues.

“I don’t know how many really good businessmen owned basketball teams at that time. It was an iffy proposition,” former Scope director Skinner said. “But Earl loved basketball.”

Bianchi, the coach who got fired after the depleted Squires kept losing, said Foreman remains “a close friend.”

“He sold all my players, but I still think he’s a great guy,” Bianchi said. “Even if the deal was made at 2 or 3 in the morning, he always let me know what was going on and why we had to do it.”

And it was always the same reason.

Foreman had bought the franchise hoping that the merger – and its TV revenue – would happen sooner rather than later. But time wasn’t on his side.

“You couldn’t generate enough money to support a major-league team with the attendance we had,” he said. “Either television was going to do it, or it wasn’t. And it didn’t. Every league that’s good today was made financially viable by television.

“Unfortunately, the ABA never got it.”

___

But Storen wonders what might have been. He said he fought to keep Gervin in Virginia because he believed that it was a viable sports market. That belief hasn’t wavered in the 40 years since.

“I would suggest that, had Virginia been able to stabilize itself economically, it probably would have an NBA franchise today,” he said. “It deserves, and ought to have, a professional basketball team.”
rlee
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