Having the Ball in His Court Is Not New to Larry O'Brien of the NBA, JFK, LBJ & Watergate
As inconspicuous as anyone 6’11” can be, Jim Chones stands patiently near the banquet table. He is waiting to see Larry O’Brien, commissioner of pro basketball and guest of honor at the sport’s annual Hall of Fame luncheon in Springfield, Mass. O’Brien is besieged by friends, backslappers and autograph seekers.
Chones, a center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, finally realizes that O’Brien cannot disengage himself, and leaves.
Later, walking to his car, O’Brien asks an aide, “Who was that player waiting to see me? Call him and find out what he wanted.” Chones has a minor contract problem. O’Brien resolves it. The favor is a small one, but Chones will not soon forget.
At 60, Larry O’Brien has lost none of his political instincts—gifts as marvelous in their way as those of Celtic star John Havlicek, who like O’Brien is rarely flashy, seemingly tireless, running-hustling-running, ultimately overwhelming. “Before Larry took this job,” recalls Mike Burke, president of the New York Knickerbockers, “there would be a league meeting and off in one corner two or three owners would be making a date for dinner. In another corner other people would be talking about something else. Absolute chaos. O’Brien took charge right away, not by saying, ‘Here, I’m Larry O’Brien and I’m going to do it all,’ but by setting the framework within which problems could be worked out.”
Burke should know. While it was he who recommended that the National Basketball Association hire O’Brien, Burke became the new commissioner’s first object lesson. In 1975 he signed George McGinnis, in violation of league rules, since Philadelphia had a valid claim on McGinnis’ considerable talents. O’Brien, barely on his first day in office, heard both sides. Then he announced that the deal was canceled and the Knicks would be assessed about $100,000 in legal fees and lose their next No. 1 draft choice. Burke recalls passing O’Brien outside the hearing room. O’Brien looked at him with a slight smile and said, “Even the round ball takes some strange bounces, doesn’t it?”
Not long after, O’Brien mediated the merger of the American and National Basketball Associations. Then he took on negotiations with the players’ association and he and the players’ lawyer, Larry Fleisher, came up with a settlement that satisfied both sides.
Later O’Brien worked out a new $47.9 million contract for television rights with CBS. He settled the New York Nets’ dispute with the Knicks over the Nets’ move to New Jersey. He ordered compensation in money and manpower for teams that lose players under the new free-agent agreements. He cracked down on surging on-court violence, most recently fining Los Angeles’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar $5,000 for slugging Kent Benson of Milwaukee.
All this has not been done to unanimous applause, of course. His compensation rulings have been criticized, principally by Los Angeles Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke. He complained bitterly about O’Brien’s ruling that he must give Golden State a draft choice and $250,000 for signing free agent Jamaal Wilkes away from the Warriors. Other critics point out that for Jabbar, who is as wealthy as he is tall, a $5,000 fine is meaningless.
Still, the owners saw fit last January to tear up the original contract they had given O’Brien—three years at $175,000 per—and replace it with $250,000 a year for seven years. “When I took this job I wondered sometimes if it could hold my interest,” O’Brien says. “It turns out that I’ve been in as many smoke-filled rooms with the NBA as I ever was in politics.”
“The dimensions of what Nixon did floored me,” O’Brien says, surprisingly ingenuous for a lifelong politician. “But you can’t become cynical. That was an aberration in style and concept. I have always been proud to be involved in politics.”
O’Brien came to the NBA after ending his political career with a strange, unhappy triumph. He and the Democratic National Committee, whose chairman he had been in 1972 (and once before), settled their suit against the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President. O’Brien received $400,000 for the June 1972 Watergate break-in, which he gave to the DNC.
O’Brien’s office had been the main target of the burglary. The Republicans feared his expertise as a political organizer so much, John Ehrlichman told the Ervin committee, that the Nixon aide had hounded the Internal Revenue Service to find something incriminating in O’Brien’s tax returns. (“I was audited and reaudited,” O’Brien says. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening.”) In addition, during a respite from politics in 1969, O’Brien had run a public relations company. One of his clients was Hughes Enterprises. The CREEP staff wanted to know if O’Brien was aware of the contributions Howard Hughes had made to the campaign through Nixon pal Bebe Rebozo. (O’Brien says he was not.)
O’Brien filed his original suit three days after the break-in and tried to make it an issue in the ’72 election, but he was preoccupied as George McGovern’s campaign chairman with a favored Nixon, the Eagleton fiasco and a rebellious staff that considered O’Brien part of the old politics they were trying to rise above. Two years later, when the extent of the Watergate corruption became known, O’Brien had quit politics and was working on his autobiography, No Final Victories. “I remembered Jack Kennedy once told me to invite an old guy for the signing of a bill he had always been interested in,” O’Brien says. “It was a nice gesture, but I thought, ‘I don’t want to be one of those people who hang around Washington so long they can’t leave! I don’t want somebody to be doing favors for good old Larry O’Brien.’ ”
“There were two topics of conversation around our dinner table at home,” recalls Mary Plazcek, O’Brien’s sister, “politics and sports.”
O’Brien was born in 1917 in Springfield, Mass. Both his parents were Irish immigrants, and while Lawrence O’Brien Sr. ran a bar and restaurant, his real passion was the Democratic party.
Springfield is also where James Naismith invented basketball, and young Larry was an enthusiastic player. “They didn’t call me the Mattoon Street Gunner for nothing,” he says. “The first game I played with the j.v., I threw a half-court hook shot as soon as I got the ball. Missed. Next time down, same thing. Missed again. The coach took me out. It was the last game I ever played.”
After graduating from high school, Larry began tending bar at his parents’ restaurant while going to law school at night. When he won the presidency of the local bartenders’ union in 1939, it was the first—and, as it turned out, only—elective office he would ever run for. But he knew that he wanted to get into politics.
After Army service in World War II and marriage to Elva Brossard, a friend of his sister’s, he went to work for Foster Furcolo, a local politician. Furcolo won a seat in the House in 1948, with the help of O’Brien’s volunteer workers. (One of his axioms: a newly registered voter is likely to be a Democrat.) Furcolo won again in 1950, but O’Brien left Washington after a split with his boss.
He was contacted by Rep. John Kennedy in 1951. The two had met when Kennedy campaigned in Springfield in 1947; now he was considering a tough Senate race against Henry Cabot Lodge. Intrigued by Kennedy’s patrician family as much as by the candidate himself, O’Brien was soon running the campaign, kibitzed by father Joe and brother Bob.
The gospel according to the O’Brien Manual worked. It was a compendium of political tactics with such chapters as “Make the Message Simple” and “Never Pass Through a Residential Neighborhood After 7:30 p.m.” (to avoid disturbing prospective voters). Kennedy won by 70,737 votes, a landslide. Though O’Brien refused a staff job, he stayed in touch with the Kennedys, attending Jack’s and Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding in 1953, working with them in the 1954 and 1956 campaigns. After Kennedy was reelected to the Senate in 1958, O’Brien was committed to the presidential campaign.
“The other day when I went to Ken O’Donnell’s funeral and stood next to Jackie, it all came back to me,” O’Brien says. “The motorcade. Not believing that those were really shots. Then not believing that the President had really been hit, not believing that he had been badly hurt. Not believing finally that he was dead.”
During the flight back to Washington with Kennedy’s body, President Johnson asked O’Brien to stay on the White House staff. While O’Brien had some reservations—he recalls being upset with LBJ for addressing Mrs. Kennedy as “Honey”—he finally agreed. Thus began a remarkably successful partnership, with O’Brien shepherding Johnson’s Great Society programs through Congress. Says Hugh Sidey, TIME Washington columnist and author of books on both Kennedy and Johnson, “O’Brien had total dedication to that job. He lived it day and night. In the world of politics, he was extraordinary; he never misled you and never lied or attempted to cover up. His word was his bond. He was always a gentleman.”
After heading Robert Kennedy’s campaign that ended with assassination in Los Angeles (“I flew straight back to Washington, thinking, ‘I can’t go through all this again’ “) and Hubert Humphrey’s grueling 1968 loss, O’Brien left politics temporarily. He struggled seven unhappy months in 1969 as president of a Wall Street brokerage firm and worked on his PR accounts. He returned as chairman of the Democratic party in 1970. Tending to agree with then treasurer and current chairman Robert Straus’ gibe, “Larry, you couldn’t raise a thin dime,” O’Brien devoted himself to working for public campaign funding and sniping at President Nixon’s policies. He chaired the 1972 Democratic Convention masterfully. Then came the McGovern defeat.
“I always loved pro basketball and used to say I wished I could own the Boston Celtics,” O’Brien recalls. “Back then it was a joke.”
Living in New York while he worked on his book, O’Brien and Elva attended plays, stocked their wine cellar and went regularly to the Knicks games, where he met Burke. When the NBA became deadlocked in a search for a successor to retiring commissioner Walter Kennedy, Burke suggested O’Brien. After consulting his attorney—son Lawrence Ill, now practicing in Washington—O’Brien took the job.
He denies speculation that he was hired for his influence in Washington so as to avoid antitrust problems with the merger of the two leagues. Houston board chairman William Alverson cautiously says, “Certainly everyone was aware of his prior connection with the government. Certainly no one felt that was going to be a hindrance.”
O’Brien laughs that the other day he ran into Washington columnist Mary McGrory, who asked, “How have you been, Larry? How are things with baseball these days?”
While he acknowledges that the NBA front office is not the White House, O’Brien seems not unhappy out of politics. “I worked hard for people I admired, and did things for Presidents—cajoling, pleading, handshaking—I could never do for myself,” he says. “But I never put anyone on a pedestal. I have always tried to remember that I am pretty good myself.”