LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ozzie Silna, who turned a fading American Basketball Association franchise into a four-decade windfall of nearly $800 million from the NBA in what’s commonly called the greatest deal in sports history, has died at age 83.
Silna’s younger brother and Spirits of St. Louis co-owner Daniel Silna told The Associated Press that his brother’s funeral was held Thursday. Ozzie Silna died Tuesday at a Los Angeles hospital after a brief illness, his brother said.
The two brothers made their millions without having to pay players, build arenas or hire coaches. They only had to sit back and cash the checks.
Banking on an eventual ABA-NBA merger, they bought the failing Carolina Cougars of the ABA in 1974 for about $1 million and promptly moved it to St. Louis, then the biggest American city without a pro basketball team.
After the 1975-76 season the NBA agreed to a merger, accepting four of the six remaining teams into the league. The Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs got in. The Kentucky Colonels, and the Spirits, did not.
As part of a concept he and attorney Donald Schupak dreamed up months earlier, Ozzie Silna negotiated to receive four-sevenths of a share of the NBA’s annual TV revenue for as long as the NBA was around.
The agreement was drawn up to be as broadly defined and open-ended as possible. It worked.
At the time, it was worth about $300,000 a year. But as the NBA and its popularity grew, the annual checks grew into the tens of millions.
“You’ve got to be lucky in a lot of this stuff,” Ozzie Silna told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “But you’ve got to see the stuff, too. If it’s there, and you don’t see it, you don’t have a chance to get lucky.”
By 2014 the brothers had netted nearly $300 million from the deal. By that time the NBA was challenging the arrangement in court.
That year they settled with the league in a deal that paid them $500 million and kept a much smaller stream of money coming in, according to the New York Times, which reported Silna’s death Wednesday along with TMZ Sports.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement saying he was deeply saddened by Silna’s death.
“Ozzie and his brother Dan owned the St. Louis Spirits at a time when the ABA’s future was uncertain, but he loved the game and was determined to be part of professional basketball,” Silver’s statement said.
Born Uziel Silna in Israel in 1932, he moved to New Jersey when he was 7. He made his money in his family’s textile business before buying the Spirits.
In later years, he lived in Malibu, California, where he was a tenacious fighter for environmental causes.
In the ABA, the brothers accumulated an eclectic and unpredictable talent pool that was typical of the freewheeling league – Marvin Barnes, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas. They also gave a young Bob Costas his first play-by-play job as their announcer.
Silna downplayed the brilliance of the deal he and Schupak drew up. In fact, Silna says, the basis for it came months earlier when only seven teams – the final six and the Virginia Squires – were left standing in the ABA.
League owners the figured six teams would be allowed in the NBA, and one would be left out. Silna wanted to be equitable to the owner who was excluded. He assumed it wouldn’t be him.
“That’s how we came up with the one-seventh” figure, he told the AP in the 2006 interview. “I thought that seventh team deserved the same benefit as the other six.”
But the Squires folded, and Silna and Schupak applied the parameters they’d set up for that team to themselves. One-seventh times four – four teams were admitted to the NBA – equals four-sevenths, which is the cut the Silnas got each year.
“Some people say it’s the best deal ever done,” Silna said. “I just looked at it as a way of being fair.”
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this story.