The landscape was changing around Franklin Mieuli even before his Warriors rewarded him with a championship. The NBA was evolving from an enterprise into a business. CEOs and bean-counters were in. Flamboyant, self-made entrepreneurs were on their way out.
"Everything is measured in terms of cash and expediency," Frank Deford wrote in 1971, in one of his typically brilliant pieces for Sports Illustrated, "and Franklin Mieuli is awash in this world."
Mieuli squeezed out a few more good years as majority owner of the Warriors, most notably the 1974-75 title season, and a few not-so-good years after that. By the time he sold the team in 1985, it was acknowledged he was an owner whose time had passed.
He was a convenient target for criticism then. Now, looking back in the wake of his death on Sunday, it's easier to consider the man and the time in a more global context. And while it would be difficult to argue against the evolution that grew the NBA into the hugely popular global conglomerate we know today, something was lost in the transition.
That something was men such as Mieuli, passionate and resourceful dreamers who combined their own quick wits and a little spare change to build the world's first enduring professional basketball league. Mieuli was actually a latecomer to the party, purchasing the Philadelphia Warriors from Eddie Gottlieb. Gottlieb? Glad you asked. He was a Russian immigrant and tireless promoter who was the Warriors' first coach and GM, and second owner.
The NBA wasn't an easy sell in the 1940s and '50s. Wrote New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica after Gottlieb's death in 1979: "He promoted the team on street corners and he sold tickets and then he counted the cold house."
This was typical of the NBA during its infancy and adolescence. In many respects the owner, the frontman, was the team. The team was the owner. Thus, each franchise had a personality unto itself.
Danny Biasone stubbornly kept the Nationals in Syracuse when other league owners pressured him to move to a bigger city. Biasone was an Italian immigrant who landed at Ellis Island on Christmas Day, 1919. A sprightly 5-foot-6, he would sit on the bench to assist his head coach. He railed against his image as a skinflint.
"People accuse me of running a shoestring operation, paying off my players with clamshells," he once said. "Our payroll equals the best in the league."
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, it was written that owner Ben Kerner presided over the Hawks "paternally or tyrannically, depending on the point of view."
He booked the St. Louis symphony and trumpeter Al Hirt to perform after his team's games — anything to sell an extra ticket or two. When, after five consecutive division titles, his club foundered, he wouldn't hear of canceling the postseason victory party.
"The fans deserve it," he said. "Maybe we won't invite the players."
Ned Irish was the patriarch of the New York Knicks. As a sports writer for the New York World Telegram, he was sent to cover a college basketball game. According to fable, the gym was so crowded he had to climb in through a window, ripping his trousers in the process. That led him to dream of taking the game out of gyms and dance halls and putting it in larger venues. He wound up president of Madison Square Garden.
Red Auerbach infused the Boston Celtics with his own smug superiority. Jack Kent Cooke sold encyclopedias door to door during the Great Depression, grew up to own the Los Angeles Lakers, changed their colors to theatrical purple and gold, and built them the Fabulous Forum.
You could write a book, and people have. These men birthed a league that succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and comprised a genre that now seems as out of date as Eisenhower jackets. And while current Lakers owner Jerry Buss evokes memories of their wild-eyed independence, you could argue that Mieuli was the last of a dying breed.
He was a man of means who favored a five-and-dime wardrobe. He hung an ornate chandelier in the Cow Palace. He bought a cable car bell and rang it at his team's games. He was nicknamed The Phantom for his habit of disappearing for days at a time. One of his favorite hideaways, he once confessed, was working on fishing boats out of Santa Cruz.
"He's always been the kind of guy — well, he just sort of crops up," said former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, a friend of Mieuli's. "He's always been a floater. You're in a group with him and all of a sudden he's disappeared. I guess Franklin just doesn't like emotional goodbyes."
He's out of luck on this occasion. We insist.
Contact Gary Peterson at email@example.com.