The new comedy film “Semi-Pro” has a familiar feel in connection with Malibu resident Ozzie Silna’s multimillion-dollar deal with the ABA/NBA three decades ago-but Silna made out better.
By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times
The upcoming Will Ferrell comedy, “Semi-Pro,” about a one-hit wunderkind who uses the profits of his only pop-tune hit to buy an American Basketball Association franchise-the worst team in the league-slightly echoes the storyline of Malibu resident Ozzie Silna and his brother, Daniel, when they bought an ABA team 30 years ago.
In both the fictional and real life stories, both team owners (Ferrell’s character, Jackie, and the Silnas, respectively) vie to be one of four ABA teams to be chosen by the NBA in a merger deal. Whether Jackie’s team in “Semi-Pro” makes the cut is unknown as the film won’t be released until Saturday; Silna’s team, however, didn’t make it, but he, Daniel and their lawyer, Donald Schupak, made out big.
As part of the real life merger, the three negotiated a deal with the NBA and the now-defunct ABA back in the mid-70s, which has brought them $168 million so far.
For those too young to remember, the ABA was, in the words of former Laker player and current Malibu resident Tommy Hawkins, “The upstart, new league that challenged the NBA establishment and was maybe the greatest boon to the NBA players pool ever.”
Founded in 1967, the ABA competed with the big league NBA through a flashier style, a longer shot clock and the introduction of the three-point field goal. Its higher salaries attracted name players, including Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and its freewheeling style attracted fans.
In 1974, Silna, a textile magnate, and brother Daniel bought the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, which they promptly moved to St. Louis and renamed them Spirits of St. Louis.
“St. Louis was the biggest American city in the country that still didn’t have a basketball team,” Silna said. “I thought we’d be in a good TV market.”
But back then, “a TV contract for basketball was nothing,” Silna said.
After a few struggling years, with the NBA nervously watching, merger talks came up between the two leagues.
“There were still seven teams in the ABA,” Silna said. “At the time, it seemed that the NBA would only absorb six teams, so we all agreed that whatever team was not taken by the NBA should still get a portion of the future TV revenues. It only seemed fair.”
Silna had no intention, however, of being the team left out.
“They only wanted to merge with the top teams and they tried to make us out to be one of the worst,” Silna said. “But we were fourth place in the first season. During the playoffs, we lost our first game, then won four straight, playing against Dr. J.
“I never imagined my team wouldn’t make it,” he continued. “I was playing guys like Moses Malone and Billy Cunningham. My biggest star actually was a little 5′, 7″ white guy-Bob Costas-who was my announcer.”
As the merger approached, one ABA team folded and another, the Kentucky Colonels, was bought out for $3 million. Two other teams did not complete the ’76 season. When the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs merged with the NBA, it left the Silnas holding the consolation prize-a one-seventh portion of whatever the ABA’s share of NBA-negotiated television revenues would be, as long as the NBA existed (attorney Schupak receives a portion as well).
“But I didn’t make anything at first,” Silna said. “I think our first share was about $300,000. Football and baseball were so much bigger.”
Then came the era of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Network broadcast revenue exploded and league teams were suddenly sharing multimillion-dollar contracts. Thanks to the Silnas’ prescient contract to share in the former ABA teams’ revenue, they collected a check each year from them.
“At first, they offered to buy me out,” Silna said. “Two million dollars. But I had already put five million into the team and I didn’t want to lose.”
Additionally, Silna and his brother were contractually tied to the former ABA teams’ revenue in perpetuity, despite rafts of legal teams trying for years to scuttle the deal.
To date, Silna’s agreement to disband the Spirits of Saint Louis has yielded him, his brother and Schupak approximately $168 million, but he points out that NBA teams are now valued vastly beyond that.
Since the dream deal, Silna has returned to his textile roots and manufactures all the embroidered insignia for the U.S. Armed Forces. His children are pursuing careers in entertainment and the arts. He also is one of the more vocal local environmental advocates, helping to galvanize grass roots activism. And he still watches a little basketball now and then.
“We did have a lot of fun,” he said.
Hawkins meets up with Silna occasionally at the local Starbucks. When told of how much Silna’s agreement has brought him, he whistled. “Well, I guess Ozzie can pick up the coffee next time,” he said.