Earl Foreman has owned NBA and ABA teams in the area. He deserves as much credit as anybody for bringing professional soccer not only to Washington, but to this country, and he’s also considered a pioneer of the indoor version of the game. He gave Julius Erving his first pro contract, and he had a hand in delivering Sonny Jurgensen to this market.
Yet in a town where it seems all the sports owners are more popular than their teamsDan Snyder, Ted Leonsis, and even Foreman’s ex-partner, Abe Pollinnobody’s ever heard of Foreman. How come?
“I guess it’s because I’ve never gone after press in this town,” says Foreman, a Chevy Chase resident. “And press has never gone after me.”
Foreman’s days as a sports entrepreneur began back in the early ’60s, when D.C. builder Jerry Wolman came up with a plan to buy the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL. Foreman was hardly a Philly guyhe was born in Baltimore, and was working in real estate law in Chevy Chase at the time the NFL opportunity came up. But Wolman was a good client of Foreman’s practice. So when Wolman bid $5.5 million to acquire the franchise, Foreman went in as a minority partner.
The Eagles project went unswimmingly for Wolman et al. right from the start. An early gaffe had them sending Sonny Jurgensen to the hapless Washington Redskins for Norman Snead. Even after all these years, Foreman doesn’t like having his name linked to the Snead-for-Jurgensen deal.
“Oh, please don’t talk about that trade!” he tells me with a laugh.
In 1969, Wolman’s group was nearly broke and sold the Eagles to Leonard Tose for more than $16 million, then a record price for an NFL franchise. But Foreman had diversified his portfolio by then. In 1963, D.C. native Arnold Heft, a noted basketball referee andyou guessed itgood client of Foreman’s real estate practice, had asked him to help acquire an NBA franchise. The third partner in the group was a D.C. real estate mogul by the name of Abe Pollin. The trio bought the Chicago Zephyrs and rechristened the team the Baltimore Bullets. Even with stars like Gus Johnson and young phenom center Wes Unseld on the roster, the Bullets lost big bucks. Foreman sold out to Pollin in 1968.
Foreman’s time was already being eaten up by a “new” game. At Jack Kent Cooke’s urging, in 1967, he had become the original owner of the Washington Whips of the United Soccer Association, which morphed into the North American Soccer League and is recognized as the first legitimate professional soccer league on these shores.
“I was at a party in Los Angeles thrown by Jack Kent Cooke,” Foreman recalls. “He had the Redskins and the Lakers, and he knew me from the Eagles and the Bullets. So at this party, he grabs me and says, ‘I want to bring soccer to this country!’ I said, ‘Count me in!’ And he tells me, ‘You take Washington!’ Next thing I know, I’m reading in the Washington Post that I own the Washington Whips of this new soccer league.”
The Whips transfigured into several franchises, ending with the Washington Diplomats, who folded for the last time in the early ’80s. In 1977, Foreman and partner Ed Tepper founded the Major Indoor Soccer League, the first indoor-only confederation of note. When the league disbanded, in 1992, in the midst of a nasty labor dispute with its players, Foreman was commissioner. He hasn’t owned any sports team since.
Foreman is proud of his role in bringing pro soccer to the U.S. But last weekendthe same weekend that D.C. hosted the championship game of Major League Soccer, a descendant of Foreman’s seminal league, on national televisionhe expressed extreme pessimism about the sport’s domestic future.
“Soccer is not going to make it,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, all these kids playing soccer are going to grow up and support it!’ But c’mon! I realize now that millions of Americans bowl, too, but you’re never going to get several thousand of them to go to an arena and watch bowling.”
In August 1969, while still a soccer-team proprietor, Foreman became an owner in the American Basketball Association, the league of the red, white, and blue ball, the three-point shot, and the dunking contest. He used money from selling off his shares of the Bullets to acquire the struggling Oakland Oaks for $2.6 million, then moved the team to D.C. and renamed it the Washington Caps.
Talk of a merger between the ABA and NBA was getting quite loud at that time, and it was feared that the presence of an ABA franchise in Washington, so close to Pollin’s Bullets, could hold up such a marriage. So after just one year of playing at Uline Arena, Foreman took his team to Virginia, made it a regional squad that played home games in both Richmond and the Tidewater area, and dubbed it the Squires.
Then he “discovered” the great Julius Erving.
Foreman, after hearing the New York Nets’ Lou Carnesecca and others exalt Erving at an ABA league conference, bought a Street & Smith’s magazine to bone up on the player, who had just finished his junior season at the University of Massachusetts. The guide gushed even more effusively about Erving. So although signing underclassmen was all but taboo then, Foreman decided thatconvention be damnedhe was going to land Erving.
“I arranged to meet Julius at a hotel in Philadelphia,” Foreman recalls. “I was in Norfolk, so I got in my car at midnight and drove all night to get to Philly. I get there and see Julius with one of his college coaches, his heavyweight agent from Boston, his high school coach, some family representative, and other people, just this huge entourage. We start talking at about 10 in the morning, and during all these hours of talks, Julius keeps getting up and getting on the phone in the other room. I finally just say, ‘Julius, you sign by 5 p.m. or I’m going home.’ I found out later he was talking all day with the NBA on the other line.”
But Foreman indeed reeled in Erving, with a four-year, $500,000 deal. Money, as they say, will come and go. Foreman’s memories of watching Dr. J in his formative years, however, are here to stay.
“I drove down to Richmond from Washington to see our first practice after we’d signed him,” Foreman says. “And I walk into the gym and see my coach, Al Bianchi, is running two-on-one drills, but Julius wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I go over to an assistant to ask where Julius was, and he tells me not to worry. ‘I put him on the bench already, Earl. The kid can play. We don’t want him getting hurt in this.’ After just one drill, they just pulled him. You could tell right away he was special.”
Being special didn’t pay the bills, however. Erving, then called “Dr. Erving” by his teammates and the Squires beat writers, made the team a national curiosity. But the regional-team concept that Foreman came up with failed to attract home fans. And in August 1973, the star attraction was pawned off to the New York Nets for George Carter, the draft rights to American University’s Kermit Washington, and $1 million in cash. By the next season, players were suing Foreman for bouncing checks, and the league eventually took over operation of the Squires. Two years after Foreman left, the ABA-NBA merger actually went down.
“We didn’t make money, but we were trying something new: challenging the establishment, the NBA,” Foreman says. “We never got the television contract we were after, but if you consider we wound up with guys like George Gervin, Dan Issel, George McGinnis, Artis Gilmore, and, of course, Julius Erving, then you’d have to say the ABA was pretty successful. I was younger, and it all seemed so innovative. Of all my days in sports, including the NBA and NFL and all the soccer, I remember the ABA as being the most fun time.”
Not fun enough to make him want to relive it, however: Two weeks ago, it was announced that some original ABA owners were relaunching the league. Foreman got a few calls from old colleagues, asking if he was interested.
He wasn’t. Dave McKenna