A Curious Troika: Chernov, Providence and the Boston Celtics

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 12.00.07 PMJulius Erving was an incomparable 6-foot-6 forward from Philadelphia. Robert “Skip” Chernov was a velvet sport coat-wearing huckster from South Providence. The former was unaware of the latter, but they had at least two things in common. Thirty-five years ago last week, both tormented the Boston Celtics and both were court terrors of sorts, Dr. J with his high-flying, above-the-rim prowess; Chernov with his starry-eyed judicial wrangling.

And while Erving slowed the Celtics’ NBA championship quest for a season, Chernov aimed for a more permanent injunction, one that would have altered the course of basketball history.

It’s a story that begins in Providence. It ends there, too, sandwiched around 33 years of hoop dreams, rock concerts and shenanigans.

Fill the Building

It was 1946, the war was over and opportunity stared Louis Pieri straight in the eye. There were open dates at his Rhode Island Auditorium, when the Providence Reds weren’t playing hockey, and Pieri could capitalize on those dates if only he had a hook. Ultimately, he used a basket instead, launching the Providence Steamrollers of the fledgling Basketball Association of America.

Pieri’s first-year Steamrollers were a moderate success, finishing the 1946-47 season at 28-32. Unfortunately, their fortunes soon unraveled, despite the arrival of jump-shooting Wyoming legend Kenny Sailors, and the Steamrollers sunk to 6-42 in 1947-48. Another dismal season followed in 1948-49, but at the same time, the league strengthened, leading to its absorption of the National Basketball League in August 1949. The new affiliation was named the National Basketball Association. Unfortunately for fans in Providence, when the NBA began its inaugural season, it didn’t include the Steamrollers, who had been deactivated.

Big Dreams in South Providence

As the Steamrollers were shelved 12 miles to the north, an 11-year-old Chernov was watching his father, Sammy, nurture a budding interior-decorating business. Young “Skip” would eventually enroll at Providence College, run for class president, lose the election, and later, after college, migrate to California. He soon clawed his way into the music industry, making both influential friends and money before moving back to Providence, where he opened a nightclub in the late 1960s. According to Mike Stanton’s book, The Prince of Providence, Chernov “brought in up-and-coming acts like Neil Young and Deep Purple. The crowds, hungry for rock and roll, poured in…”

Chernov continued building his concert-promotion and business empire, opening bars and restaurants and soon finding himself in court for various matters, some he initiated, and some, he did not. By the late-1970s, he was well known among Providence’s judges, lawyers, business moguls and partiers. A budding high-flyer himself, he soon began casting his eyes on the NBA’s high-flyers for his next venture. Big ideas were never too big for Chernov, and he decided that bringing professional basketball back to Providence, in concert with his bars and musical acts, would be a worthy endeavor. In April 1977, he broke news that he was in talks with New York Nets owner Roy Boe about a sale that would bring the Nets to Providence. Allegedly, it was also news to Boe, who told United Press International, “I’ve never spoken to him, I’ve never met him. He’s nuts.”

Thus thwarted by Boe, Chernov turned his attention elsewhere, but not away from the NBA.

Steamrolling

Fueled by passion, dreams and the partially purchased estate of Louis Pieri, Chernov hatched a new plan, unleashing it on the NBA in 1980, two days after the Boston Celtics evened their NBA semifinal series with Erving and the 76ers at one game apiece.

During the 96-90 triumph, Larry Bird scored 31 points, Pete Maravich chipped in with eight (shooting 4 of 5 from the field) and Chernov’s lawyers put the finishing touches on a lawsuit they would file April 22, 1980, in United States District Court. The suit alleged that an obscure NBA bylaw allowed for the Providence Steamrollers “to be reactivated at any time without the blessing of league authorities,” according to the Associated Press.

Having purchased Pieri’s franchise – allegedly for the princely sum of $1 – Chernov looked to exploit the bylaw and the somewhat murky details of the Steamrollers’ deactivation some 30 years prior. According to Chernov, the Steamrollers actually were admitted into the fledgling NBA and the league’s first official act was deactivation.

Kenneth O’Donnell, one of Chernov’s lawyers, told the Associated Press, “We have copies of the Aug. 11, 1949, meeting of the board of directors, which puts this franchise on an inactive status and provides for it to be reactivated. There is no evidence that the franchise was in any way, shape or form forfeited.”

Chernov wasn’t asking for much – only that the NBA would allow the immediate reactivation of his Providence Steamrollers franchise and the right to participate in the upcoming NBA Draft. Oh, and he wanted the first overall pick in that draft – which, at the time, belonged to Boston, based on Red Auerbach’s epic fleecing of Detroit – because the Steamrollers, technically, finished their most recent season (1948-49) with the league’s worst record. Also at stake was the matter of territorial infringement on Boston’s 75-mile halo, which pulled Celtics representatives, grudgingly, into compensation discussions.

David Stern, then the NBA’s general counsel, scoffed at the scheme, telling the Associated Press, “We don’t have a franchise in Providence and we don’t plan to, quote, ‘reactivate’ one soon.” He added that the bylaw cited by Chernov “allows team owners only a one-year grace period before the franchise lapses. I think Mr. Pieri had the right to reactivate the team without coming back to the board if he wanted to, but that ran out in 1950.”

The feud played out in court, with Chernov eventually trying to halt the NBA Draft until the matter was decided. Not surprisingly, a federal judge in Providence dismissed the lawsuit on June 10, 1980, ending Chernov’s bid and clearing the way for Auerbach to double-down on his wheeling and dealing. The Celtics legend traded the No. 1 pick overall (along with Boston’s second pick) to Golden State for Robert Parish and the third pick overall, which Auerbach used to pluck Kevin McHale from the University of Minnesota, thus securing a dynastic frontcourt that helped Boston win three of the next six NBA titles.

Hours before the draft, Auerbach told the Chicago Tribune, “It might turn out to be one of the greatest deals of all time.”

Meanwhile, Chernov’s NBA dreams were dashed, but for the flamboyant promoter, there was always another dream on the horizon. Years later, upon his passing due to heart failure in 2001, his wife told the Providence Journal that she struggled to list Chernov’s profession on his death certificate.

“He had a lot of different ideas, and he had the courage to act on them,” she said. “A lot of us have ideas but don’t have the courage to act.”

Statistical Leaders: 1979 National Sports Festival

Screen shot 2015-02-15 at 9.40.15 PMThirty-five years ago today, the Miracle on Ice was still a vision in Herb Brooks’ imagination. His youthful American squad had a tie and a win to its credit, with a game against Norway looming. The Soviets were still a week away. Everyone knows what happened next, and thanks to films like Miracle, even the events leading up to the greatest upset in sports history became mythologized. One such event was the 1979 National Sports Festival held in Colorado Springs. The hockey portion was conducted at the original Broadmoor World Arena. Convened in late July as an initial tryout for the 1980 Winter Olympics, it became a seminal moment in the American march to improbable Lake Placid gold.

Esteemed sportswriter John Gilbert was in Colorado Springs to cover the event. His 2010 book, Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind, includes the definitive retrospective chapter and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning the real story of how Team USA began taking form.

In Gilbert’s book, you’ll discover the context for a post-festival stats summary I’ve included below. And there’s some fascinating stuff, like why Dave Delich’s six points weren’t enough and why Jim Craig’s 12.41 goals-against average wasn’t too much.

So in this season of Olympic recollection, please enjoy a statistical trip down memory lane and the inevitable “what ever happened to him?” questions it may inspire.

Festival Scoring Leaders GP G A PTS PIM NCAA Team Age Position
Phil Verchota (Midwest) 4 5 3 8 15 Minnesota 19 Forward
Neal Broten (Midwest) 4 5 2 7 6 Minnesota 19 Forward
Dave Christian (Central) 4 4 3 7 0 North Dakota 20 Forward
Mike Eruzione (Great Lakes) 4 5 1 6 0 Boston University 24 Forward
Ken Morrow (Great Lakes) 4 3 3 6 2 Bowling Green 22 Defense
Dave Delich (Great Lakes) 4 2 4 6 6 Colorado College 22 Forward
John Harrington (Midwest) 4 1 5 6 0 Minnesota Duluth 22 Forward
Bobby Crawford (New England) 4 3 2 5 6 N/A 19 Forward
Henry Taylor (Central) 4 3 2 5 4 N/A 23 Forward
Mark Wells (Great Lakes) 4 3 2 5 2 Bowling Green 21 Forward
Mark Pavelich (Midwest) 4 2 3 5 6 Minnesota Duluth 21 Forward
Greg Woods (Central) 4 1 4 5 2 Denver 24 Defense
Jack O’Callahan (New England) 4 0 5 5 6 Boston University 22 Defense
Frank Roy (New England) 4 4 0 4 0 New Hampshire 22 Forward
Scott Lecy (Central) 4 3 1 4 2 Wisconsin 20 Forward
Jim Armstrong (Central) 4 2 2 4 6 Clarkson 21 Forward
Bill Army (Great Lakes) 4 2 2 4 2 Boston College 21 Forward
Mark Fidler (New England) 4 2 2 4 2 Boston University 19 Forward
Tom Mullen (Central) 4 2 2 4 2 American International 24 Forward
Les Auge (Midwest) 4 1 3 4 8 Minnesota 26 Defense
George Hughes (New England) 4 1 3 4 4 Harvard 23 Forward
Bill Whelton (New England) 4 1 3 4 2 Boston University 20 Defense
David Silk (New England) 4 3 0 3 8 Boston University 21 Forward
Rob McClanahan (Midwest) 4 2 1 3 4 Minnesota 21 Forward
Mike Ramsey (Midwest) 4 2 1 3 10 Minnesota 18 Defense
John Slonim (Central) 4 2 1 3 2 Brown 19 Forward
Paul Castraberti (New England) 4 1 2 3 2 Yale 19 Forward
Dan Lerg (Great Lakes) 4 1 2 3 0 Michigan 21 Forward
Brian Walsh (New England) 4 1 2 3 6 Notre Dame 24 Forward
Dave Feamster (Great Lakes) 4 0 3 3 12 Colorado College 20 Defense
Bob Grant (Central) 4 0 3 3 4 Dartmouth 22 Defense
Paul Miller (Great Lakes) 4 0 3 3 0 Boston University 19 Forward
Festival Goaltending Leaders Minutes GA SVS SV% GAA NCAA Team Age Position
Bruce Horsch (Great Lakes) 120 4 45 0.910 2.00 Michigan Tech 23 Goalie
Steve Janaszak (Midwest) 121 8 65 0.890 3.96 Minnesota 22 Goalie
John Rockwell (Great Lakes) 121 8 75 0.900 3.98 Michigan Tech 24 Goalie
Mike Dibble (Central) 220 20 105 0.840 5.45 Wisconsin 25 Goalie
Blane Comstock (Midwest) 119 11 57 0.840 5.54 Bemidji State 29 Goalie
Mark Holden (New England) 121 12 53 0.790 5.97 Brown 22 Goalie
Jay Palladino (New England) 91 10 55 0.840 6.62 Salem State 21 Goalie
Peter Waselovich (Central) 20 3 5 0.630 9.00 North Dakota 23 Goalie
Jim Craig (New England) 29 6 16 0.730 12.41 Boston University 22 Goalie

Programming Note: Historically Inclined look at the U.S. Open for Cox Sports

Beginning Thursday, 156 players from 27 countries will compete for the national championship of American golf, the 114th U.S. Open, to be contested on Pinehurst’s No. 2 Course in North Carolina. It will be a far cry from the very first U.S. Open, when 11 hearty competitors smacked their gutta-percha balls off small hills of Rhode Island sand at the Newport Country Club. Continue reading

On This Date: A snowball from Denver becomes an avalanche

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 9.16.55 PMIt was on this date in 1982 that the NHL board of governors tipped a domino in Denver, when the cash-strapped Colorado Rockies, said to be losing more than $2 million annually, were granted transfer to East Rutherford, N.J.

The move had become something of a mundane inevitability at the time, but the ensuing chain reaction makes it worth more than a mere footnote in pro hockey history. The repercussions are still apparent today, especially in the NHL’s Pacific and Central Divisions, which were, to some degree, shaped by the events of May 27, 1982. Continue reading

Programming Note: Cinderella and NCAA lacrosse on Cox Sports

Not much history in this one, but I did manage to work Cinderella and a pumpkin into an NCAA lacrosse recap for Cox Sports Online. It started something like this:

“After an opening weekend as belles of the ball, the unseeded upset quartet finally fell in the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Tournament quarterfinals. But, while the clock struck midnight for Albany, Drexel, Johns Hopkins and Bryant, they’ll be left with much more than a pumpkin and four mice when they look back on 2014.”

Throwback Brewers hacking and thriving

Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated chronicled the Milwaukee Brewers’ aggressive hitting approach today, noting that “the three most aggressive teams in baseball, at least as measured by fewest pitches per plate appearance, all have winning records: Milwaukee, Colorado and Baltimore.”

Verducci goes on to explore the now-counterculture wisdom of being aggressive within the strike zone, illustrating it with incisive comments from Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Among them, Melvin hints at the folly of taking grooved pitches in hitter’s counts. He also discusses the diminishing effectiveness of “getting to the bullpen” as an offensive strategy.

Setting aside baseball strategy – which isn’t easy for me to do, but for the sake of brevity, I will in this instance – and focusing solely on the game’s aesthetics, we can only hope that this return to aggressiveness is the beginning of a trend in Major League Baseball. One need only watch an inning or two of big-league baseball from the 1980s to be reminded of an era that wasn’t nap-inducing. Pitchers worked quickly and hitters swung at strikes. It was a game of action, rather than a game of in-action. It was an attack, not a battle of attrition.

Baseball was a better game in the 1980s, or at the very least, a more fun game. Perhaps the 2014 Brewers can help turn back the clock.