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The NBA Ghost Team: Utah Rockies

One of the great anomalies and interesting facts of the NBA revolves around a team that is not even in the NBA, but yet receives a portion of the NBA revenue. It is the rumored ghost franchise of the NBA, also known as the Utah Rockies or Spirits of Saint Louis.

Even some of the most die hard fans have never heard of this franchise and that is because they have never played a game in the NBA. Ever. The Spirits are a semblance of the NBA's old rival, the American Basketball Association. But unlike teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and New York Nets; the Rockies/Spirits never joined the NBA, nor did they disband like the Virginia Squires, Kentucky Colonels or San Diego Conquistadors. Instead they got one the good side of one of the best business deals of the 20th century, and deal that is still making its benefactors a fortune today.

The Rockies began as one of the founding ABA teams in 1967, but they were in Houston and called the Mavericks; but they have no connection to the current Mavericks which play in Dallas. The Mavericks played in Houston until 1969 when they relocated to Carolina and began the Cougars. They remained the Cougars for five seasons until 1974 when they relocated to St Louis and became the Spirits of St Louis.

Like most ABA teams at this time they were facing financial uncertainty. The ABA began as a very success competitor to the NBA, but because the NBA controlled most of the major markets in the United States the ABA was forced to play in smaller markets which meant less revenue and by the mid 1970s low revenue and a financial crisis that was starting in the United States seen a lot of teams leave the ABA.

The 1975-76 season was a disastrous one for everyone involved in the ABA. Two teams folded before the season even began, and within weeks of the start of the season Utah and San Diego had left the league. What started as a 10 team league in October of 1975 was left with just six team by Christmas of '75 and there was talk of major relocation for several of the ABA teams still in the few big markets the ABA controlled.

The move to Salt Lake City did not catch many off guard, the Spirits and Utah Stars had discussed a merger before the Stars disbanded and many of the old stars players, including Moses Malone and Ron Boone, had gone on to the Spirits. The deal to move to Salt Lake City was completed in May of 1976 when a lease to play at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City was reached.

One month after Utah acquired the Rockies came the most earth-shattering news that there could be for the Rockies. The ABA and NBA had decided to merge, and the NBA would not be taking all the franchises. The NBA chose four of the six franchises to make the move to the NBA, leaving behind the Kentucky Colones and the Utah Rockies. Colonels owner John Brown accepted the payout allowing his team to disband, the Utah group eager to make their money back refused.

The owners of the Rockies had intended to sell their share of the team to a Utah group and than turn around and buy the Colonels from Brown and relocate them to Buffalo, New York and have the NBA's Buffalo Braves move to south Florida. The owners still tried to play this card, which resulted in their refusal to accept the merger fee of 3 million dollars. Many at the time believed that the NBA would accept five or six teams if the conditions were right. The NBA, however, would not budge on only letting in four teams. The NBA did offer the ownership of the Rockies another deal though.

The NBA ultimately gave the Rockies ownership the deal of a lifetime. In exchange for the Rockies accepting that they would not be let into the NBA the ownership group got one-seventh of the television revenue of the four ABA teams that joined the NBA. To this day the Pacers, Nets, Nuggets and Spurs each have to give millions of dollars to the Utah Rockies. The deal has been reportedly worth upwards of 170 million dollars; which is 57 times more money than had they accepted the initial buyout.

There have been several attempts by the NBA to negate the deal, but thus far every attempt has failed. There has been renewed interest in exploring a way for the NBA to get out of this deal when the collective bargaining agreements get underway again, as TV money has soared and the NBA is likely to lose upwards of 70 million dollars or more to the Utah Rockies.

The aftermath of the merger and the Rockies deal has had a wide spread and long lasting impact on the NBA. The four ABA teams have had at time had money issues due to the revenue sharing of their deal, and only one, San Antonio, has been able to win a title; though the Nets and Pacers have made the NBA finals. John Brown, the former owner of the Colonels, got involved in one of the most complex and controversial deals in NBA history. Brown used his ABA buyout money to purchase the Buffalo Braves. Two years later he traded his ownership stake in the Braves for ownership in the Boston Celtics. Brown owned the Celtics for less than two seasons before selling and removing himself from basketball all together. The ownership trade allowed the Braves to move to San Diego and become the Clippers.

Salt Lake City would eventually get NBA basketball, three years after the failed Rockies acquisition the New Orleans Jazz would relocate to the beehive state and become the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are still a fixture in Salt Lake City to this day.