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Sam Schulman, 93; Original Owner of Seattle SuperSonics Who Changed NBA's Draft Policy

June 14, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Sam Schulman, the original owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, the basketball team that in 1979 gave the city its only world championship, has died. He was 93.

Schulman, who won a landmark legal battle that ended the National Basketball Assn.'s policy on drafting players only after their four-year college eligibility expired, died Thursday at his home in Century City of complications from a blood disease.

The Los Angeles businessman, who became one of the majority owners of pro football's San Diego Chargers in 1965 and sold his interest a few years later, co-purchased the franchise that became the Seattle SuperSonics in 1966 and soon became its principal owner.

The SuperSonics, Seattle's first modern-day pro sports franchise, began playing in the NBA in 1967.

"He really changed the face of sports in Seattle," said Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist. "He made the city 'major league' and because of the success he had, he encouraged baseball and football to come here."

Before the Sonics, Kelley said, "the two [sports] franchises in this town were University of Washington football and hydroplane racing. We were a backwater sports city."

"The thing I think he'll be remembered for in Seattle is he was the owner of the only team in [the city's] modern history that's won a world championship," Kelley said. "I think there's a kind of fondness for him because of that."

In 1999, the Seattle Times named Schulman No. 23 on its list of the 25 people "who mattered most" in Seattle sports over the last 100 years, a list that included baseball player Ken Griffey Jr., basketball player Elgin Baylor and golfer Fred Couples.

The maverick Schulman, the paper said, was "an outspoken innovator who wasn't afraid to take a gamble."

Kelley likened Schulman to George Steinbrenner, the colorful and controversial owner of the New York Yankees.

"For one, he was really the guy who sped up the merger between the NBA and the ABA, because he was one of the first people to actually bring players from the ABA to the NBA," Kelley said.

One of the first big names Schulman brought to the SuperSonics from the American Basketball Assn. was Spencer Haywood, who had signed with the Denver Rockets as a college sophomore but quit the Rockets over a salary dispute.

Haywood's signing with the Sonics in December 1970 was in defiance of the NBA rule that said a player could not be signed until four years after he graduated from high school. Under the NBA rule, Haywood was not eligible to play until the 1971-72 season.

Schulman argued that Haywood already was a pro and the college rule did not apply. The NBA disagreed and filed suit in January 1971.

Schulman and his lawyer wound up taking "Haywood vs. NBA" to the U.S. Supreme Court. That March the court cleared the way for Haywood to finish the season with the SuperSonics.

The ruling led to a revision of the NBA policy and opened the draft potential for many future young players, including the Lakers' Kobe Bryant.

"It was a matter of principle," Schulman told the Seattle Times in 1997. "I couldn't see any logical reason for keeping a man from making a living. I thought it was unconstitutional."

Zollie Volchok, former SuperSonics president and general manager, said Schulman "was a very stubborn person, but a very personable person."

He was also creative, Volchok said.

"He always had some idea -- whether they were good or bad -- to get the town excited about the team, and he was very successful about that. No matter what he did -- whether advertising, giveaways, special nights -- he just wanted everything going so people knew we had a team in this town."

The colorful Schulman was frequently seen at courtside and, Kelley said, "When he didn't like the way the team was playing, his PR people would call reporters and we'd have our interviews with Sam, who'd basically say, 'I'm paying these guys all this money and I'm not winning and I'm not going to tolerate it.' "

And Schulman, Kelley said, "was pretty good at getting rid of people. He always put the team on notice."

Schulman, who maintained his home in Los Angeles, sold the SuperSonics in 1983.

"He wanted to move to Seattle and I didn't," said Schulman's wife of 62 years, Sylvia. "He was getting older and running back and forth, and maybe things were changing in basketball too."

For Schulman, it wasn't an easy parting.

"It's been part of my existence and life," he told United Press International at the time. "Even the scotch I drank last night couldn't penetrate the separation trauma I felt."

Schulman became president of SLM, which financed feature films, including "The Jewel of the Nile" and "Cocoon." He retired in 1995 at age 85.

Born April 10, 1910, in New York City, Schulman graduated from New York University with a bachelor of science degree in 1932.

He earned a master's degree from Harvard Business School in 1934. A year later, he took over George McKibben & Son, a bankrupt Brooklyn bookbinding manufacturer, which he turned into a profitable business.

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