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Who is Dennis Arthur Murphy, Anyway?

Story by Richard Neil Graham —

Fullerton resident Dennis Arthur Murphy. known to friends as “Murph,” is a sports entrepreneur with deep roots in the world of professional sports. He helped co-found the American Basketball Association in 1967, the World Hockey Association in 1972, the original World Team Tennis in 1973, the International Basketball Association in 1998, and Roller Hockey International in 1992.

Though Murphy co-founded all of these leagues, he is not as well-known as such sports figures as the National Football League’s Dan Reeves, the American Football League’s Al Davis, the National Hockey League’s Clarence Campbell or Major League Baseball’s Bowie Kuhn.

The WHA and the ABA competed directly with the entrenched National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association, respectively. Murphy and company enticed Bobby Hull to flee the NHL to the WHA with an unprecedented $1 million contract, and “Mr. Hockey,” Gordie Howe, was soon to follow. Murphy was the commissioner of the WHA for three years, and the Dennis A. Murphy Trophy was presented annually to the WHA’s best defenseman. Both the WHA and ABA eventually merged teams into the more-entrenched leagues.

“Dennis Arthur Murphy was a second baseman on the varsity team at University High School in West Los Angeles – notable alumni include Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Nancy and Frank Sinatra Jr., – but his love for sports and building new leagues greatly surpassed his own playing skills,” said Richard Neil Graham, in his book “Wheelers, Dealers, Pucks & Bucks: A Rocking History of Roller Hockey International.

According to his 2013 autobiography, “Murph: The Sports Entrepreneur Man,” Murphy was born in Shanghai, China, on September 4, 1926, to a father who worked for Standard Oil and a housewife mother. Murphy and his family moved back to the United States a year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. A staff sergeant in WWII, Murphy joined the reserves after the war and came out of the Korean War as a captain. Murphy attended the University of Southern California on the GI Bill majoring in economics. He was a one-term mayor of Buena Park in Orange County, California, before becoming a marketing executive for one of California’s biggest civil engineering firms, Voorheis, Trindle, and Nelson.

In 1958, Murphy was the mayor of Buena Park, California, but his career path changed drastically when he met Jim Hardy, a close friend of future Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. Hardy had also attended the University of Southern California with Murphy, and he asked for his fellow alum’s help in pursuing a team for Anaheim’s new stadium (set to house Gene Autry’s California Angels of Major League Baseball) for the new American Football League. Anaheim’s proposed team was quashed in 1960 when Al Davis, as one of the conditions of accepting a merger between the National Football League and the AFL, agreed that no additional team would be permitted in the Los Angeles market alongside the L.A. Rams.

Stung by this defeat, Murphy set his sights on pro basketball. In the 1960s, the National Basketball Association consisted of 12 teams, and had successfully fought off a challenge by Abe (Harlem Globetrotters) Saperstein’s America Basketball League. Teaming up with attorney Gary Davidson, Murphy worked on creating the league that eventually merged several teams into the NBA, the American Basketball Association. The ABA became famous for its three-point shot, slam dunk and red, white and blue basketball… not to mention players like Julius Erving, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Connie Hawkins and many others. In 1967, ABA Commissioner George Mikan presided over the league’s 11 teams in the inaugural season: the Pittsburgh Pipers, Minnesota Muskies, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, New Jersey Americans, New Orleans Buccaneers, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver Rockets, Houston Mavericks, Anaheim Amigos and Oakland Oaks.

“Ultimately, four ABA teams were absorbed into the older league: the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. Two other clubs, the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis were disbanded upon the merger. A third, the Virginia Squires, had folded less than a month earlier, missing out on the opportunities that a merger might have provided.”

The ABA folded after its 1976 season, but Murphy had been working on two other professional sports leagues, the World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis. The WHA debuted in 1972 and ran through 1979 and was the National Hockey League’s first major competitor since the Western Hockey League in 1926. The WHA gave the more established league fits by cannibalizing NHL rosters, by placing teams in major cities that didn’t host NHL teams, and by successfully challenging the reserve clause that bound players to their teams. This victory gave NHL players the opportunity to split to the upstart league, and Bobby Hull took full advantage. Hull signed a record 10-year, $2.75 million contract, and 66 NHL players followed Hull’s lead in the NHL’s first year.

As in most of Murphy’s leagues, franchises appeared and disappeared like figures in Whack-a-Mole. The league finally disappeared in 1979, but not before four teams joined the NHL – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets. On May 20, 1979, the Jets won their third AVCO World Trophy by defeating the Oilers in the final WHA game.

Murphy co-founded World Team Tennis in 1973 with Larry King, Fred Barman and Jordan Kaiser, and league play began in 1974 with 16 teams, a four-color tennis court, and teams made up of two men and two women. This made WTT the first professional sports league to give equal weight to each man and woman competing for their teams. Elton John wrote the theme song Philadelphia Freedom for his favorite team. The first league ended play in 1978.

In 1988, Murphy moved on to try to create the International Basketball Association. As in all of his leagues, there were tweaks made to the traditional game. The IBA, which began with 12 teams in May, 1988, was limited to players 6′4″ and under.

Roller Hockey International (1992-1999) was Murphy’s most recent professional sports league. In his autobiography, “MURPH, The Sports Entrepreneur Man and His Leagues: ABA, WHA, WTT, RHI, IFL, GHA, and Bobby Sox Softball,” self-published in 2002, Murphy wrote that one day in 1991, he saw some kids playing roller hockey, and he told his brother John what he had seen:

“He informed me that inline skating was a hot ticket and people everywhere of all ages and sizes were playing roller hockey in parks and playgrounds. This immediately appealed to me. Imagine hockey being played on concrete rather than ice. Imagine being able to play hockey anywhere in the world, rather than being limited to ice arenas. Wow! What a way to finish up my career.”

Murphy, then 66 years old, was inspired to begin working to develop a new sport. He invited entrepreneur Alex Bellehumeur and Larry King to join him in developing roller hockey at a professional level. King, born in Ohio and raised in California, was an attorney by trade as well as a sports entrepreneur. In addition to helping create World Team Tennis and womenSports, which eventually became Women’s Sports Magazine, King helped develop the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Kauai-Loves-You Triathlon in Hawaii. King was once married to tennis star Billie Jean King. Bellehumeur had his hand in many inventions and was on the board of directors for the Port of Long Beach, California.

Murphy was named RHI’s president, Bellehumeur was the chairman of the board, and King became the league’s general counsel. Murphy, Bellehumeur and King converted Bellehumeur and Murphy’s preexisting corporation, World Sports Management, Inc., into RHI, Inc., and the two men retained controlling interest in the new entity, with King as co-founder and part owner. “We were missing one thing – a high-profile hockey man,” Murphy wrote.

Ralph Backstrom, who had won six Stanley Cup Championships with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, was hired as the new league’s commissioner. Murphy had known Backstrom from his days as a player in the WHA following his NHL career. Then living in Denver, Colorado, Backstrom was the National Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year for the Canadiens in 1959. Backstrom oversaw the league’s rules and style of play. 

Murphy, now 87, is currently involved in trying to create both a new 6′4″-and-under pro basketball league, a Women’s Sports Walk of Fame at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, and a new pro roller hockey league.


• Graham, Richard Neil (2011). Wheelers, Dealers, Pucks & Bucks: A Rocking History of Roller Hockey International. Inline Hockey Central.

• Willes, Ed (2004). The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. McClelland & Stewart.

• Murphy, Dennis (2013). “MURPH: The Sports Entrepreneur Man and His Leagues: ABA, WHA, WTT, RHI, IFL, GHA, and Bobby Sox Softball.”

• Inline Hockey Central

• Pluto, Terry (2007). “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association.”

• WHA Hall of Fame

• Internet Hockey Database - standings and statistics

• Dennis Murphy Sports

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