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The failed resurrection of the Providence Steamrollers

On March 17, 1949 the Providence Steamrollers lost to the Fort Wayne Pistons 74-72 in front of a sellout crowd in Chicago, Illinois. The loss would be the Streamrollers 10th in a row as they finished the 48-49 season at just 12-48. The loss would be their last, as the team suspended operations days later.

The Steamrollers, or Rollers for short, had a tumultuous history at best. One of the original teams that founded the Basketball Association of America in 1946, the franchise had been an absolute disaster. In their final two seasons of operations they managed to win just 18 games, going 18-90. Their 6 wins in 1948 is still a low mark for the NBA. There was very little to get excited for in Providence and fan support and sponsors dried up.

The Steamrollers where owned by Lou Pieri, a shrewed businessman who had connections at all levels of basketball in the 1940s and 50s. Pieri knew the gig was up and sold what assets the team had and closed up shop.

Pieri would die in 1969 and his estate was bought up promoter and businessman Robert Chernov. Chernov was a failed mayoral candidate in Providence and bit of an eccentric personality in the region. On four different occassions Chernov attempted to get the NBA to return to Providence, all four attempts failed. In 1978 he tried unsuccessfully to acquire both the Indiana Pacers and New York Nets. With the Nets he even claimed to have 4,000 season ticket holders ready to buy, but the Nets owned said he never talked to him and called him "Nuts". His final attempt, in 1984, was to buy the Utah Jazz where he flew to Salt Lake City and tried to stop a bank loan from being given to Larry H. Miller - Chernov went to the wrong bank. But its Chernov's third attempt which is his most famous. In 1979 and 1980 he attempted to resurrect the Providence Steamrollers; a franchise who had been dead for nearly 30 years.

Chernov believed that when he purchased Lou Pieri's estate, which did include the Providence Steamrollers, that he could just bring the franchise back. Chernov argued that at the time the NBA bylaws allowed for a team to be reinstated after being suspended. The NBA's general councel David Stern disagreed. Stern pointed out that the NBA bylaws of the 1949-50 season did allow that, but that was changed in 1950 to prevent the five teams who left the league from rejoining. Additonally, those where the NBA's bylaws, the Providence Steamrollers where part of the BAA. Stern also pointed out that the first official act of the NBA following the BAA's merger with the NBL was to disolve the Providence franchise.

Undeterred, Chernov filed a lawsuit against the NBA. On April 22, 1980, Chernov sued the NBA in District Court. Chernov's lawyers attempted to use Stern's words against him arguing that the Steamrollers where admitted to the NBA because the leagues first official act was to disolved them, therefor they were subjected to the 1949-50 bylaws and part of the NBA. 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."

The lawsuit did not ask for monetary compensation from the NBA, just that the league reinstate the Steamrollers and that they receive the #1 pick in the 1980 draft. The #1 draft pick desire ruffled a lot of feathers in Boston and Salt Lake City, who's teams were going head-to-head in a coin flip for the #1 pick. The Jazz especially needed the #1 pick as they were one of the leagues most futile franchises, and the Celtics wanted to build to their roster after acquring the rights to that pick from the Detroit Pistons. The league went ahead with the coin-flip without including Providence, which the Celtics won. The Celtics would trade the #1 pick to the Golden State Warriors for the #3 pick. The Warriors would use the #1 pick on Joe Barry Carroll, while the Jazz selected Darrell Griffith and the Celtics took Kevin McHale.

The NBA had a vested interest in not allowing the Steamrollers back. Just 4 seasons earlier the league absorbed five former ABA teams; New York Americans, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Utah Rockies. The Rockies, formerly the Spirits of St. Louis, would take a lucrative deal not to join the league and insteam recieve payouts from TV contracts in perpetually. The league had also just granted an expansion franchise to Dallas, Texas, which was to begin play in the 1980 season. The NBA also did not want another team in an area with the Celtics, Nets, and Knicks, and where the Buffalo Braves had just failed two years prior.

Stern came back firing at Chernov in both the court room and in the media. Stern citied the bylaws which would have given the Steamrollers a one-year window to be reinstated and stating that "1950 had passed". Chernov and his attorney's countered by asking a District Court Judge to hault the upcoming NBA draft.

On June 10, 1980, just hours before the Warriors were to be on the clock the judge ruled in favor of the NBA and dismissed the case. There was nothing left for Chernov to do but accept his fate and move on.

Chernov would pass away in 2001 due to Heart Failure. David Stern would go on to become the NBA's commissioner in 1984. The Celtics would pair McHale with Larry Bird and Robert Parrish (who they also got in that trade) and win multiple NBA championships. The Jazz would be sold to Larry H. Miller and despite their struggles never were in serious considerations to move to Providence. Providence still does not have an NBA franchise and likely never will again.