Dennis Murphy, co-founder of the American Basketball Assn. who signed Dr. J, dies at 94

Dennis Murphy, a Fullerton businessman whose visionary sports ventures included co-founding the American Basketball Assn., World Hockey Assn., World Team Tennis and Roller Hockey International, died Thursday in Placentia.

His death was confirmed by Richard Neil Graham, who edited Murphy’s autobiography. Murphy was 94.

A USC alumnus who served in World War II and the Korean War, Murphy found his passion in creating sports leagues. He teamed with Gary Davidson in founding the ABA, which was launched in 1967 and was conceived as a dynamic and fan-friendly challenger to the National Basketball Assn. The ABA’s innovations included the three-point line for field goals, the all-star slam dunk contest and the league’s distinctive red, white, and blue basketball.

In need of a superstar, they lucked out when they signed an underclassman from the University of Massachusetts. Julius Erving, nicknamed “Dr. J” for his scoring exploits, fit the bill.

“Dr. J was the ABA,” Murphy told The Times in 1998. “We were in a dogfight at the time with the NBA and we sent this agent to contact 11 [college] players. We knew in order to survive that we needed some stars. Julius Erving was a star and we got a leg up on the NBA because it wasn’t taking any [underclass] players.”

The ABA ceased operations in 1976, but four of its teams were absorbed into the NBA, the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.

Murphy and Davidson collaborated again to create the World Hockey Assn. in 1972. They continued to be bold, challenging the reserve clause that had limited players’ movement and throwing big money at established NHL players such as Bobby Hull, Derek Sanderson and Gerry Cheevers to jump to the new league.

The WHA also lured the great Gordie Howe out of retirement with the enticement that Howe could play alongside his sons, Mark and Marty. Howe played six seasons in the WHA and one more NHL season after the New England Whalers were absorbed into the NHL and renamed the Hartford Whalers. Howe retired at 51 after the 1979-80 season. He died in 2016.

The WHA also fought for the right to draft and sign players who were younger than the NHL’s minimum age of 20. That allowed 17-year-old youth hockey phenomenon Wayne Gretzky to sign with Indianapolis, the first step in a remarkable career for the player who became the NHL’s career scoring leader and is acknowledged as the greatest to have played the game.

Murphy’s strategy was to meet with prospective team owners in each city and use his charm to persuade them to see the possibilities of the league. He usually left the final details to Davidson.

“He had a great ability to get people interested in his concepts,” Davidson said in 1998. “He was a great people person.”

As with the ABA, the WHA encountered difficulty drawing fans and establishing stability in major markets as players’ salaries rose. In 1979 the league ceased operations but the Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets were absorbed into the NHL.

Murphy was born in Shanghai and moved to California as a teenager in 1941. He played second base at University High in Los Angeles and majored in economics at USC. He served as mayor of Buena Park in the late 1950s and became a marketing executive before he became involved with the ABA and WHA.

In 1973 he was a producer of the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and in 1974 he co-founded World Team Tennis. He also founded the short-lived Roller Hockey International league in 1993.

Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss remembered Murphy as a close friend of her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss.

“Dennis always had new ideas he would brainstorm with my dad,” she said in a statement distributed by the Lakers. “He was a creative visionary and many of the innovations in the NBA — like the 3-point shot and slam dunk contest — came from the ABA, the rival league he founded in 1967.”

Murphy is survived by his children Dennis Jr., Dawn and Doreen; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. His wife Elaine preceded him in death.

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