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Whicker: As a promoter, Dennis Murphy was in several leagues of his own

Dennis Murphy passed away Thursday, at 94. Look around the wide, wide world of sports that he widened and widened. You realize his work was done here.

Major league baseball players hit routine singles with an 8-0 lead and start playing charades with the dugout. Baserunners materialize, out of ether, whenever games reach extra innings.

The 16th hole at the PGA Tour event in Phoenix has become an 80-proof combination of Woodstock and Sturgis. A routine extra point is now a 37-yard kick in the NFL. College football teams sometimes play enough overtimes to equal four quarters. Hockey teams use shootouts to break regular-season ties.

And basketball on all levels is played on the exurban side of the 3-point line, to the point that a simple 17-footer becomes the subject of marvel.

Dennis Murphy is the source for much of that, even though he didn’t play.

He compensated with an enormous smile, a ravenous curiosity and the ability to sell flood insurance to residents of Zzyzx Road.

He dreamed up the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis. None of those leagues seemed necessary to American health and well-being. Murphy, like most entrepreneurs, knew what we wanted before we did.

“He was a stubborn Irishman,” said Don Marshall, a longtime friend. “He does not accept the word ‘no.’ I’ve been to meetings where he’ll come up with an idea and they’ll reject it, and he’ll want to go back two days later and try it again. We’d say, Dennis, they said no. He’d say, ‘No, that’s just for today. It doesn’t count two days later.’

“He was the proverbial little gnat. You swat it and he’d come back. He just couldn’t help it.”

Even as a USC student, Murphy was Barnum in the making. He organized a huge homecoming parade and held a mass blind-dating pageant, in which all participants wore blindfolds. He was known, back then, as Money Mad Murphy.

Eventually, he was just known as “mad.” Just because the NBA wouldn’t allow him to buy a franchise, he decided to organize an entire league. His commissioner was George Mikan, the NBA’s first superstar. At his initial press conference, Mikan uttered three words that could have become the ABA slogan: “Good luck, baby!”

Yet Murphy made sure the fans knew this wasn’t just a warmed-over version of the NBA. The ball was red, white and blue and made a nice rotation when shot. The 3-point line was drawn. There was a slam-dunk contest at the All-Star Game. Players were welcomed from all areas, whether they were point-shaving defendants or misbehaving collegians. They also could leave college early.

There were nightly brawlers like Neil Johnson and John Brisker, wild coaches like Slick Leonard, gunners like Bo Lamar and Johnny Neumann. The ABA poached NBA players like Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham and Joe Caldwell.

Beyond everything, they found Julius Erving, a human asteroid, a commodity the NBA didn’t have.

The NBA welcomed four ABA teams when it came time to merge: San Antonio, Indiana, Denver and the Nets. But Murphy’s brain still raced.

He idly watched an NHL game and was flabbergasted when both teams skated off into the night when the score was still tied. That, to him, was a good a reason as any to found the World Hockey Association.

The WHA lasted only seven years and was down to six teams at the end. Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford joined the NHL. But the WHA introduced sudden-death overtime and won a fight to remove the NHL’s reserve clause, which meant Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe could jump over.

The WHA also signed 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky along with Europeans like Kent Nilsson, who helped Hull make Winnipeg a three-time champ. Again, it built assets that the NHL needed.

In 1974 Murphy founded World Team Tennis, to equalize pay between men and women and, just for fun, paint the service boxes in different colors. There was rock music and short sets and none of this deuce-and-ad stuff.

It’s still lurching along, but it was good enough for Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe and nearly every essential player for a couple of generations.

There will be one more project. Buena Park and Knott’s Berry Farm are planning a Women’s Walk of Fame, going beyond sports to include business, science and education.

Otherwise, Murphy had nearly run out of markets to discover, rules to tweak, traditions to re-examine, and stories to tell. In the end, he’ll be known for his soft revolutions. People paid to see them, and nobody died.


Source: Orange County Register

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