By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
The Oklahoma City Thunder, formerly the Seattle SuperSonics, is engaged in a Western Conference Finals series with the Dallas Mavericks, the winner advancing to the NBA Finals. Given the Thunders rapid rise to prominence since leaving Seattle after the 2008 season, Wayback Machine takes a look at the franchises roots, when two individuals had a dream and dared to act upon it.
Many men some great, some not so good, and a few who bordered on the pathetic have held sway over Northwest sporting enterprises. Among the most influential: Dan Dugdale, a turn-of-the-20th century gold seeker who ignored the glint in his eye when he saw coin to be made in Seattle real estate and baseball; Joe Gottstein, a visionary who leveraged the 1929 stock market crash into Longacres Race Course, introducing 60 years of equine entertainment; Emil Sick, the beer mogul who created the quarter-of-a-century Seattle Rainiers phenomenon; the Nordstrom family, whose connections brought Seattle a National Football League franchise, and Paul Allen, who engineered a state-wide election that paved the way for Qwest Field and saved professional football in Seattle.
To the above could be added the names Eugene V. Klein and Sam Schulman, the late California businessmen most commonly associated with acquiring Seattles first major league sports franchise, the NBA SuperSonics, in 1967-68. But while their money — $1.7 million covered the expansion costs of the franchise, and while they (particularly Schulman) served as the teams initial owners (along with several smaller investors), the credit for Seattle receiving the team, from idea stage to its official awarding, belongs to two other Californians whose time with the club was relatively short, but hugely significant.
Dick Vertlieb, a University of Southern California grad, itched to operate a professional basketball franchise. He had played freshman ball for the Trojans in the late 1950s and subsequently coached USCs freshman team before embarking into the world to work for Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. In the spring of 1964, not entirely satisfied with his life as a securities analyst, Vertlieb approached fellow USC alum Don Richman, then beginning to make a name for himself as a TV script writer, shared his dream, and asked Richman if he wanted to join the pursuit.
Richman did not play varsity sports at USC. Instead, he channeled his considerable flair for the written word into a job as one of the schools assistant sports information directors. Among his major tasks: promoting the Trojan football and basketball programs to Southern California newspapers, especially The Los Angeles Times.
During his assistant SID stint in the mid-to-late 1950s, Richman made a pair of one-week trips to Seattle, the first in 1957, the second in 1959, in the capacity of advance man for Trojan football teams that were scheduled to play the Washington Huskies. Richmans job: provide Seattle-area media with news and information about the Trojans, and help coordinate interviews with USC coaches and players. Richmans trips would greatly influence his thinking about a project nearly a decade away.
After Richman graduated, he formed a public relations business with Al Davis (yes, that Al Davis), whom Richman met while Davis coached USCs offensive line (1957-59). Although Davis departed after a few months to become receivers coach of the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers (1960-62), Richman had no trouble attracting clients. USC tapped him to consult on a variety of public relations projects, and so did the Los Angeles Lakers, who relocated to L.A. from Minneapolis in time for the 1960-61 season.
When the new American Football League awarded Los Angeles a franchise in 1960, team owner Barron Hilton, son of Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton, also hired Richman as a public relations consultant. Hilton eventually bought Richmans company, and then made Richman the teams first public relations director.
Among Richmans first tasks: create a campaign to find the team a nickname. At the time, Barron Hilton ran an extremely popular credit card company, Carte Blanche. Richman figured that he would use the popularity of the credit card to promote the football team, and vice versa. He came up with Chargers, a name that, in Richmans view, suggested a team charging down the field and one that also suggested Carte Blanche cardholders charging down to Sachs or Macys.” Barron Hilton liked it, and the nickname was officially adopted through a name-the-team contest.
Los Angeles football fans, who embraced the Rams, never took to Hiltons Chargers. Quickly recognizing the need to escape the Rams sphere of influence, Hilton relocated the franchise to San Diego in 1961.
Richman did not want to make the move south, further deciding he no longer wanted to remain in sports. So he quit the Chargers and opened a public relations/advertising firm that focused on producing television scripts. Richman became quite adept at it, writing episodes for an array of sitcoms, including The Donna Reed Show (Donna Reed), Gidget (Sandra Dee), The Farmer’s Daughter (Inger Stevens), Hank (Dick Kallman), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (Pat Crowley), Gilligans Island (Bob Denver) and Green Acres (Eddie Albert), and a few action shows such as Rat Patrol (Christopher George) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Robert Vaughn, David McCallum).
In the spring of 1964, Richman received a call from Vertlieb, his former USC classmate. Vertlieb suggested that the two should make career switches and operate an NBA franchise, even though neither had ties to the NBA, nor more clout with the NBA than the average fan.
Vertliebs plan: locate the best markets that did not have NBA teams, sell the winning market and a plan for the franchise to NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy, then unearth investors to fund the operation. A huge extrovert, a quick thinker, and an engaging personality, Vertlieb quickly convinced Richman that he, Richman, wanted to run a pro basketball team more than he wanted to write TV sitcoms.
Dick just got me so excited about the possibility, said Richman.
Vertlieb arranged a meeting with Kennedy in New York and also consulted with members of the leagues expansion committee to learn more about the task that faced him and Richman. Kennedy told them that an expansion franchise would likely cost $3 million, a discouraging sum, but encouraged Vertlieb and Richman with news that the NBA intended to expand by up to eight cities over the next few years. That meant a lot of markets would be up for grabs.
Vertlieb and Richman tested out several markets over the next year, finally settling on Cleveland as their No. 1 landing spot. They recruited entertainer Danny Thomas and singer Andy Williams as investors, but the deal ultimately fell apart.
Then Richman, recalling his experiences in Seattle from his earlier visits, suggested the Queen City, the first nickname before becoming the Emerald City in the 1980s.
The feel of the city for sports stayed with me, Richman said years later. I just thought it would be an exceptional place for a professional basketball franchise.
Alone or together, Richman and Vertlieb made more than 10 trips to Seattle over the next couple of years in order to learn it thoroughly. They studied the citys demographics, its population-growth trends, its entertainment industry. Everything they found convinced them that the NBA would work in Seattle, including the fact that the city sported a relatively new arena, the 14,000-seat Seattle Center Coliseum, built for the 1962 Worlds Fair.
Vertlieb and Richman had a difficult time making the NBA expansion committee buy into their enthusiasm for Seattle. While the NBA had teams in two West Coast cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest had no major professional franchises in any sport. Plus, several cities larger than Seattle Chicago and Houston, to name two did not ahave NBA franchises. Finally, the NBA had never expanded into any market that didn’t have Major League Baseball or the National Football League.
NBA owners were also afraid by an attack from Indians or other unfriendly and hostile forces, Richman quipped. So we turned to the possibility of buying an existing franchise.
Vertlieb and Richman explored the potential of several, including the franchise in San Francisco, but could not find the right fit at the right price.
On Aug. 26,1966, after having combed the Los Angeles area for a financial angel for nearly two years, Vertlieb read a story in The Los Angeles Times detailing entrepreneur Eugene Kleins record $10 million purchase of the San Diego Chargers, Richmans former employer, from Barron Hilton. Vertlieb put in a call to Kleins secretary at National General Corp., requesting a meeting. He got it.
An ingenious businessman and something of a character, Klein made his first fortune selling used cars, but with an intriguing twist: to beat the competition, Klein required a new market. He reasoned that women did not know a whole lot about cars, or how to effectively shop for them. But they did know how to shop for hamburger at the grocery market. Klein priced his cars like hamburger, selling them for 50 cents to $1 per pound. Women flocked to his car lots, and Klein got rich.
A bomber pilot during World War II, Klein eventually took over as the Western states distributor for Volvo and then, in 1961, became the head of a company that eventually evolved into National General Corp., a conglomerate that involved itself in diverse businesses, including insurance, publishing and motion picture distribution.
Vertlieb made this case to Klein: The NBA would expand by as many as eight cities in order to lock up potentially lucrative markets before the rival American Basketball Association, scheduled to begin play in 1967, could claim them. The ABA already had its eye on Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Louisville, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Vertlieb suggested to Klein that the opportunity to strike was now, while Klein still had his pick of potential cities. Vertlieb further massaged Klein by adding that Kleins life would not be complete without owning an NBA franchise, making him an owner in two major sports.
Klein couldnt resist Vertlieb’s pitch. He told Vertlieb he favored a West Coast location (in 1960, he lobbied Major League Baseball unsuccessfully about placing an American League franchise in Los Angeles, opposite the National League Dodgers), and the $3 million price tag didnt faze him since he had numerous potential partners. Further, Klein felt flush about the fact that Congress was on the verge of approving the NFL-AFL merger (Oct. 21), thereby vastly increasing the worth of his Chargers.
Klein got back to Vertlieb within days, informing the 36-year-old former stockbroker that if he and his partner, the 35-year-old Richman, could secure a franchise, Klein would become an investor and that Vertlieb and Richman could operate it. Klein then established a bank account, allowing Vertlieb and Richman to cover their expenses.
Klein and Richman now had two pieces of the puzzle: they had what they believed to be the ideal expansion city (Seattle) and the primary investor (Klein). It only remained for them to convince the NBA that Seattle would be a viable market.
Over the next year, Vertlieb and Richman consulted with league officials in New York (they often rented large hotel suites to impress league owners, and then ate sandwiches out of brown bags to conserve on expenses). Armed with their research, they finally sold Kennedy on Seattles merits, demonstrating with charts and statistics why an expansion team in Seattle could average at least 5,000 fans per game, the break-even point for almost all NBA franchises in that era.
When Seattle officially became an NBA city on Dec. 20, 1966, the Northwest also became the last part of the country to go major league, the final frontier of expansion.
Richman made the announcement at a press conference, introducing himself as the teams general manager and Vertlieb as business manager. Richman also said the team would begin play at the Seattle Center Coliseum in the 1967-68 season, and that Richman and Vertlieb had received their backing from Klein and Sam Schulman, the San Diego Chargers’ owners, who had taken about 70% of the stock in the franchise at a cost of $1,750,000 (the remaining 30 percent was held by smaller stockholders). Richman added that he and Vertlieb had a “participating” stake in profits.
Richman also introduced Schulman to Seattle. “I have a dream for this great city. I intend to pull together some of the most talented men in this country. Together, we will bring the world championship to Seattle,” Schulman declared.
Nobody in Seattle knew much about Schulman, a native New Yorker and Harvard Business School graduate. Schulman partnered with Klein on various projects at National General Corp., whose subsidiary, Evergreen Theaters, distributed movies to Seattle theaters. Schulman had also been a partner of Kleins in the purchase of the Chargers. He would become the active partner with Seattles new NBA team, while Klein would remain the active partner with the Chargers.
Richman and Vertlieb had come to Seattle at a considerable financial and emotional cost. They had to uproot their families, and they both abandoned far more lucrative jobs.
“I was making a lot of money,” Vertlieb told the Seattle media, “but I found I just wasn’t satisfied. We’re both frustrated athletes and sports nuts, and the more Don and I talked about this the more I knew we had to try it. I gave up my stockbroker’s license. This is it. If we didn’t do it, we knew we’d spend the rest of our lives wondering why we didn’t take the chance.”
Vertlieb, Richman and Schulman soon became media favorites, Vertlieb for his garrulous personality and high emotion — he twisted an ankle leaping out of his Seattle Coliseum seat to protest a referees call, and got punched out by Baltimores Gus Johnson for heckling and Richman for his stream of one liners. He once referred to Seattle as a 24-hour car wash. And Schulman instantly offered himself up to the Seattle media as a source of lively and often inflammatory quotes.
Oddly, both Vertlieb and Richman stayed with the Seattle franchise for less time than it took them to acquire it. Richman went first, 16 months after becoming GM, in order to return to Los Angeles to pursue his first love, writing. Specifically, he went home to create scripts for Mod Squad” and FBI, assignments that made him a lot more money than the GM of the Sonics received.
It happened, and I really enjoyed it, Richman said on his way out of Seattle. I loved it here. Even my family learned to love it. But the commitments a man makes to himself are emotional. When I came here, some of my friends thought I had been out in the sun a little too long. I have never created a series for television. I have never written a movie or a book. I may never do any of those things, but I will have the opportunity. In basketball, its mostly judgment, but its not like the creative atmosphere with writers, actors, directors and musicians around you at all times.
In addition to choosing Seattle from a myriad of cities as an NBA franchise site, Richman hired Al Bianchi as the teams first head coach, chose Al Tucker as the teams first college draft pick, and selected Tom Meschery from the San Francisco Warriors, Walt Hazzard from the Los Angeles Lakers, Bob Weiss from the Philadelphia 76ers, and Rod Thorn from the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA expansion draft.
Richman also oversaw the formation of the teams first booster club, The UltraSonics and created its first publicity campaigns (early on, to drum up interest in the franchise, Richman coaxed some media outlets into reporting the scores of the practice horse games that Sonics players engaged in with each other).
After returning to Los Angeles, Richman shed the spit-polished, executive image that he presented with the Sonics and morphed into a Maynard G. Krebs look-a-like with whiskers. He formed a company with a man named Chuck Blore, and together they specialized in writing creative copy and selling it to national advertising agencies. They won the first Clio (industry equivalent of the Oscar) awarded for a radio commercial. One year (1983), they won nine Clios. Don Richman died on Nov. 8, 1986 (age 55) in Los Angeles.
Vertlieb, who had a handlebar mustache, a booming voice and plenty of outré ideas (he wanted to dress the Sonics in blue and gold uniforms because those were the colors of Olympia Beer, a potential radio sponsor he had pursued), succeeded Richman as GM, but clashed constantly with Schulman, who wanted Vertlieb to become more business-like and less emotional (it irked Schulman that Vertlieb changed seats constantly so that he could hurl barbs at the referees from different locations in the Coliseum).
Vertlieb departed the Sonics by mutual consent in 1969 to enter private business. Unlike Richman, Vertlieb had no interest in returning to Los Angeles. He largely remained in Seattle, where he left an amazing legacy.
Before leaving the SuperSonics the name had been selected over Miners, Loggers, Captains and Stevedores, among others Vertlieb orchestrated a trade that brought All-Star guard Lenny Wilkens to Seattle as player-coach.
In 1971, he consulted for the group that founded the Portland Trail Blazers. In 1973-74, Vertlieb helped Herman Sarkowsky and the Nordstrom family secure an NFL franchise that would become the Seahawks. He did the same thing with the North American Soccer League Sounders (1974), becoming a minority owner.
Vertlieb became General Manager of the Golden State Warriors in 1974, and made the key move that enabled the Warriors to win the 1975 NBA title: his trade of future Hall Famer Nate Thurmond to Chicago for Clifford Ray and $500,000.
Following his stint in the Bay Area, Vertlieb returned to Seattle and became the first GM of the Mariners. Among his first moves: he hired Dave Niehaus as the teams play-by-play voice.
Vertlieb had a brief run with the Mariners (1977-78), leaving in a dispute with ownership. Having spent capital with every franchise in town, he taught a post-graduate course in sports administration at the University of Washington, and spent a lot of time researching a book he planned to write on Moe Berg, a former Major League catcher and reputed spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Vertlieb had to abandon the project when the U.S. government, citing loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act, refused to unseal its records about Berg. He planned to title the work, Who Was That Masked Man?
Vertlieb had a short stint as general manager of the Indiana Pacers in the early 1980s. After his wife, Joan, died of cancer in 1988, Vertlieb decided to (in his words) bum around the world. He lived in Amsterdam for a while (he became a consultant with Amsterdams entry in the World Football League) and made one final trip to Seattle in 1997, cleared up some family business, and then hopped a freighter for South America (he hired out as a cook), taking a circuitous route back to Amsterdam.
Vertlieb intended to finish his days in Europe, prowling cafes and art galleries and reading all the books he had yet to read. But stomach cancer got him, forcing his return to the United States. For the final few years of his life, Vertlieb lived with his only son, Adam, in Las Vegas.
The only man with a hand in all of Seattles modern professional sports franchises (except the MLS Sounders) died on Dec. 5, 2008. Fittingly — and somewhat ironically — the Los Angeles native and USC alum arranged to have his ashes spread over the Northwest.
Wayback Machine is published every Tuesday
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