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 New York. 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.”

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