By Peter Vecsey
There’s nothing I like better than telling an untold story… other than to hear stories unheard.
Like the ones below from Nick Curran, who was the NBA’s director of public relations from 1969-‘76. Walter Kennedy, the league’s first commissioner, (predecessor Maurice Podoloff was actually its president from 1946-‘63) hired the 28-year-old whose ambition was to become a major league broadcaster, but instead became a sportswriter.
Though having known Curran since the mid-70s, when I began covering the NBA full time after a half dozen seasons of profusely bleeding red, white and blue, I didn’t find out until yesterday we shared the same smudged profession. Both began our careers at 16. He wrote stories (“Someone quit and I told the sports editor I could do the job.”) and handled racing agate for the Worcester Telegram, New England’s sixth largest newspaper.
As a high school junior, I lucked into a job as a statistician in the New York Daily News (largest circulation in the country) sports department during the entire baseball season; five days a week, the 3-11 shift. It took me 12 years, two as an Army draftee, to attain status as a sportswriter.
Curran grew up in Norwood, Massachusetts and attended Boston University; its radio station was run by students. By senior year, he’d become sports director. Meeting Jesse Owens was a big thrill . Interviewing Ted Williams in 1961, the year after he’d retired, left him in a trance. It took place before an exhibition game at Boston University Field, the home of the Braves before they moved to Milwaukee.
“I brought along a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder,” Curran recalled with delight. “I was hoping for a one-minute answer to use on the show that evening. I asked Mr. Williams to talk about the science of hitting. He gave me 30 minutes.”
Upon graduation, Curran went from chronicling schoolboy sports and Worcester Tech College for one year to covering the Celtics. Highly regarded Phil Jackman left to join the Baltimore Sun, thus creating the coveted assignment. It culminated with Boston’s 7-game Finals win over the Lakers in 1966.
Curran remembers calling Red Auerbach to ask if K.C. Jones, who had defended Jerry West as well as humanly possible, would play in Game 7. K.C. had hurt his knee, necessitating a brace, made by the team doctor.
“If he can walk, he’s gonna play!” Auerbach growled.
“Sounds a little bit like Red, huh?” Curran noted.
How did Curran feel interviewing Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and the rest of Boston’s Hall of Fame cast at such a young age and with so little experience? I wondered.
“It was a joy talking to them one-on-one, and writing stories I knew people would be reading the next morning over a cup of coffee. I usually had about 45 minutes to organize my thoughts and knock out a story in time for the last edition. It taught me discipline.”
Nine seasons later, the Warriors upset the Bullets in the title round, beating them four straight. The two head coaches, K.C. and Al Attles, were black. What’s more, so were their assistants, Bernie Bickerstaff and Joe Roberts?
In 2017, Curran interviewed Attles for an online story. “I asked him if he remembered the reaction, if any, when he coached against K.C. in the 1975 Finals, making history? It was the first time both head coaches in the Finals were black. Al said, ‘Nothing happened. It was no big deal. No one asked me about it.’”
I can vouch for that. I covered that series; I didn’t hear a question about it, or see any mention of it in the papers. To the credit of everyone on the scene, four-for-four black coaches on the sideline went unreported, if not completely unnoticed.
When Kennedy hired Curran June 1, 1969, there were six people in the league office: the commissioner, assistant to the commissioner Carl Scheer, who left in 1970 to run the ABA Carolina Cougars (replaced by Simon Gourdine), office manager Connie Maroselli, Helen Marie Burns, Kennedy’s secretary, and receptionist Gail Davey.
Dolph Schayes was the part-time head of the referees; he had no office. There was no security; it was farmed out to different agencies. There also was no licensing or marketing departments/employees.
“We would do whatever it took to get the job done,” Curran said. The NBA had six lines. “You’d think the number would have a few zeroes at the end, but that would’ve cost extra. I love Walter, but he was very frugal ‘cause he didn’t have a lot.”
When Kennedy left in ’75, he was given a ten-year, $500,000 severance package, 50G per year, Curran said. “When he became commissioner in ’63, he made $35,000. My salary was $15,000. I made $88 a week in Worcester.”
Kennedy and Gourdine were lawyers. Both were involved in the authorization of trades, which meant understanding the language of contracts. Larry O’Brien took over June 1, 1975. He wanted nothing to do with approving trades, turning over full responsibility (almost) to Gourdine. Moreover, trades were restricted to business hours, and not on the weekend.
Gourdine happened to be on the west coast when Bucks’ GM Wayne Embry frantically called the league office Monday, June 16, 1975. He insisted on executing an immediate trade that would send Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--who’d covertly demanded a trade early in the ’74-75 season to either the Knicks or Lakers--and Walt Wesley to Los Angeles for Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers and Elmore Smith.
The reason for Embry’s heated rush to make the trade official: Bucks beat writer Bob Wolf was about to break the news that afternoon in the Milwaukee Journal.
Curran and the receptionist were the only ones in an office that had tripled to 18. “I told Wayne I had the authority to sanction the trade.” Gail Davey was instructed to retrieve the contracts of the six players. A conference call was then convened. Embry was on the line for the Bucks to discuss the condition and salaries of each player, whereas play-by-play celebrity Chick Hearn, also a part of the front office, represented the Lakers.
“My head was throbbing and I was sweating like never before,” Curran recounted. “I knew I was doing all the right things, but I was still scared to death I’d be fired.”
Curran made sure there were no hidden clauses, like a no-trade or bonuses. Physicals were required in case a team was trying to pawn off damaged goods. It couldn’t become legal until each player signed three copies before the trade, one for the team, one for the agent and one for the player.
“When we announced it to AP and UPI, our six lines lit up and stayed lit. The reaction nationwide was identical: How can the NBA allow Milwaukee to destroy its team?”
A fundamental function of Curran’s job was visiting teams and speaking to front office personnel, as well as the local media. Often that meant being on radio before a game or at halftime. Sometimes it meant doing a post-game show.
In 1972, Curran was in old Chicago Stadium. Six minutes into the game, Norm Van Lier got assessed two technical fouls within seconds of each other as a result of cursing out the refs, slamming the press table with his hand and generally being out of control.
Following the Bulls’ loss, famed play-by-play announcer Jim Durham invited Curran to be a guest on his two-hour studio call-in show. The first voice on the line was Van Lier, who, not profanely, aimed his wrath at the officials, in great detail, for close to 15 minutes.
The lingering suspicion is Durham’s producer reached out to Stormin’ Norman. For the remainder of the show, Curran had to endure verbal attacks from an amped-up audience regarding the whistle blowers and the league for its alleged horrible hiring and training practices.
Curran flew to New York the following day and reported what had happened to Kennedy. A tape was secured from WIND radio, and Van Lier was suspended one game and fined $500, the most allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time.
The next time Curran ran into Van Lier, Norm got back his money’s worth.
“He reamed me good.”
In 1969, Curran attended a Christmas party hosted by Dave DeBusschere at his Garden City home. He was standing near the door when Bill Bradley rang the doorbell. He was wearing a roman collar and a black suit.
“Confessions will be held downstairs,” Bradley notified DeBusschere….”for the ladies.”
Where would Bradley get a Roman collar and black suit like priests wear, you might wonder? Curran did. “He said he went to a supply store on Madison Avenue behind St. Patrick's Cathedral, and bought it just for the party.”
Life after the NBA for Curran encompassed 28 years as a financial adviser with Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley. In 1975, he was ordained a Deacon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. In 2014, he earned a Masters Degree in Journalism from the University of North Carolina.
During my educational conversation, he alerted me to his age (80) by stressing he was born in the same year and same month as DeBusschere.
He and Eileen live in Santa Barbara. She grew up in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. As mentioned, he grew up in Norwood, MA, a short drive from Fenway Park.
“I married her anyway, 47 years ago. Best thing I ever did.”
From Hang Time to Prime Time, written by Pete Croatto, the NBA’s growth in the mid-70s to the mid-80s (Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA), reaped so many rave reviews from those eminently more eligible to recognize what’s worthwhile and worthless, triggered me to order a copy.
It’s meticulously accurate and detailed, friends testify, the product of interviewing 315 people, including this correspondent.
While I impatiently anticipate the mid-February delivery date, Croatto kindly advanced me some David Stern anecdotes.
It's Fantastic was based on...a joke:
Most basketball fans of a certain age know the NBA's "It's Fantastic" ad campaign to promote the league. What was a staple for 1980s NBA fans was David Stern's creation, according to Barbara Ward, an administrative assistant in the league's office in the early 80s.
Stern had a go-to joke: A man is asked how he's doing. The man replies, "I'm doing faaan-tastic." Again and again and again. Finally, he delivers the punch line after his go-to phrase: "That's what I say when I'm bullshitting you."
Ward left for Harvard Law School after the inside joke became a national ad campaign. When she ran into Stern, she mentioned the commercials.
"David, pretty funny."
Saving a television deal:
In 1978, then NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien had reached a handshake deal with CBS Sports president Bob Wussler on a new television deal. Everything was fine--until Bob Wussler resigned. New president Frank Smith did not share Wussler's enthusiasm. In fact, he wanted the NBA off his network.
A meeting was arranged. O'Brien and his trusted number-two man, Stern, met with Smith and Neal Pilson, director of business affairs at CBS Sports. Wussler delivered the news to O'Brien, who was agog. We had a deal with Wussler. What's going on?
Shortly after the verdict was dropped, Stern asked Pilson to meet him outside. Stern proceeded to get into Pilson's face, and put a finger in his chest. "You can't do this to Larry! You can't do this to the NBA. You had a deal. You have to stay with it. We need to continue on CBS!"
Pilson walked away on Stern's side. Wussler's decision was tabled, and Pilson convinced Smith to keep the NBA on CBS--and away from national irrelevance. Stern's plea for mercy bought the NBA time that it desperately needed.
The soft side:
Much has been written about David Stern's tenacity and his combativeness, but what really surprised me was how devoted he was to his employees.
Stern and Don Stirling, a longtime employee at NBA Properties, had stayed late at the NBA offices before they were picked up for a flight to Los Angeles. It was the kind of day that demanded rest at any possible moment. Stirling and Stern got in the car. Stern started calling doctors; he wanted to help an NBA employee who had been diagnosed with serious illness.
Rick Welts, now the president and COO of the Golden State Warriors, saw the kinder side of David Stern when he started at the NBA in the early 1980s. He'd spend hours chasing down corporate sponsors for the league only to be told no repeatedly. Hard days led to nights where he arrived home in despair. But "Uncle David" would inevitably call, offering encouragement and care. The next morning, Stern would have more leads, more enthusiasm.
Compassion and combativeness defined David Stern, in my opinion, underlines Croatto.