30 for 30 film, Free Spirits, recalls the ABA’s maverick St. Louis franchise
St. Louis franchise
• Former ABA Commissioner Mike Storen is the father of ESPN anchor Hannah Storm.
• The Spirits and Indiana Pacers each made history by using the first women as TV color commentators. The Spirits had Arlene Weltman (wife of the team’s GM) and the Pacers had Phyllis Ackerman.
• In their lucrative settlement with the NBA, Spirits owners Dan and Ozzie Silna asked for 1/7th of all TV revenues from the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs because when the ABA ceased operations there were seven teams in the league.
• Spirits all-star Marvin Barnes wrote poetry as a hobby, and the Spirits used some of his poems to promote their games.
• Following a road game in Louisville, Barnes refused to board the team plane when he realized that it was going to land in St. Louis before it took off in Louisville due to a time zone change. “I ain’t getting on any time machine,” he told Bob Costas.
• Three Spirits players went on to win NBA Championships after the ABA folded: Maurice Lucas (Portland 1977), Moses Malone (Philadelphia 1983) and M.L. Carr (Boston, 1981 and 1984).
Tonight’s 30 for 30 documentary, Free Spirits (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, with re-air at 10 p.m. on ESPN2), tells the story of the Spirits of St. Louis – an entertaining and at times controversial basketball team in the American Basketball Association that featured stars like Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and James “Fly” Williams.
Front Row talked to the director, Daniel H. Forer, about the team that – although it wasn’t chosen to join the NBA with four other ABA teams – found a different way to secure its future.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I chose to tell the Spirits’ story because it plays out like a classic film. There are good guys and bad guys, shocking twists and surprising turns and, in the end, a high-priced business deal goes bad. What I loved most about the story is that it isn’t over. The former owners are currently suing the NBA for millions of dollars so the final chapter is yet to be written.
The former co-owners of the Spirits managed to negotiate a great contract when the ABA disbanded.
When the Spirits of St. Louis were denied entrance into the NBA, the owners Danny and Ozzie Silna convinced the four teams that joined the league – Denver, Indianapolis, New York and San Antonio – to sign a settlement that gave them a small percentage of their TV revenue in perpetuity. Over the decades that settlement has rewarded the Spirits’ owners with a reporter quarter billion dollars. Many consider it to be the best deal in the history of sports.
Did you learn anything new about the league or the team while making the film?
What I learned is that sports were a lot more fun in the 1970s than they are now. Free Spirits documents a by-gone era. It was an era when pro sports was on the cusp of becoming a big business, but wasn’t quite there. It was an era before social media when athletes and coaches could have a good time on and off the court without worrying about their public image. In short, it was an era of innocence where, as [current NBC broadcaster] Bob Costas said, “It was OK to make it up as you go and have fun doing it.”
Costas is interviewed in the film. What was his connection to the team?
Bob Costas was the Spirits’ play-by-play announcer. It was his first professional broadcasting job. He got the position through some wheeling and dealing by his former college roommate Roger Holstein, who worked for the team and whose uncle was General Manager Harry Weltman.