New Venture Just Another Case of Murphy’s Leagues


At 71, Dennis Murphy doesn’t need the aggravation any longer.

But there was the Fullerton businessman last weekend at a hotel in Los Angeles, trying to persuade a group of wary executives to grant a second chance to a professional sport he had dreamed up one day after watching a couple kids on in-line skates swat a rubber ball around their driveway with a stick.

The establishment of another professional roller hockey league occupies most of Murphy’s time these days, and he goes about it with as much vigor as he did creating some of the best known, upstart pro sports leagues over the last three decades.

The American Basketball Assn., World Hockey Assn., World Team Tennis and, most recently, Roller Hockey International, all were Murphy’s creations. People who know him say he is one of the world’s greatest sports entrepreneurs.


“Dennis is one of a kind,” said sports attorney Gary Davidson, former World Football League commissioner and WHA founding partner. “Dennis can generate interest in activities wherever he would go.”

Murphy’s second go-around with pro roller hockey has required all the business savvy of the former Buena Park mayor. On Monday he said he expected the in-line league would begin play in June with at least nine teams, including the defending RHI champion Bullfrogs, who would remain at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.

“Dennis is the kind of guy who’s very creative,” said John Kanel, Murphy’s business partner and former Cypress mayor. “He doesn’t take no for an answer. Usually when he gets a group of people together, he gets things done.”

The son of an oil worker, Murphy was born in Shanghai. When World War II began, he and his mother escaped China, leaving his father behind. He eventually wound up in Brentwood and attended University High there.

He fell in love with USC, which he attended.

“Next to my family,” he said, “I love the university more than anything in the world.”

After college, Murphy settled in Buena Park and was a city councilman from 1956-60, serving a term as mayor in 1958.

“Dennis is the creator. He’s like a leprechaun,” said attorney Don Regan, who has worked with Murphy on several sports leagues, including the latest in-line hockey venture. “He’s an Irish politician, very effective. You wouldn’t ever mistake him for General Patton.”


A Democrat in Republican territory, Murphy was considering a run for the Assembly in the early 1960s when he got a phone call that would change his life. Murphy said the fledgling American Football League had heard about plans for a stadium to be built in Anaheim for baseball’s Los Angeles Angels. The caller wanted to know if Murphy would contact a few politicians about establishing an AFL team there. Murphy spent the better part of the 1960s trying to get an AFL team into Anaheim Stadium. But the NFL/AFL merger agreement in 1968 scuttled those plans.

But Murphy’s thirst for sports leagues had been whetted. He and Davidson created the ABA, which had a nine-year run (1967-76) before four teams--the Indianapolis Pacers, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets--merged with the NBA.

Later, he teamed again with Davidson to form the WHA (1972-79), and Murphy also started the Women’s Professional Softball League and the World Basketball League for players 6 feet 4 and shorter.

Murphy said he long ago realized he had a knack for getting major sports projects off the ground.

“I feel good about what I do,” he said. “And I think I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I wonder myself why I got into all these things, but doing what I do motivates me and makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.”

Murphy’s plan of attack was to go into a targeted city, meet with prospective team owners and convince them to get on board. He’d leave the final details and paperwork to Davidson.


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

It was during the formation of World Team Tennis in the late 1970s that Murphy met tennis promoter Larry King. They struck up a friendship that would come into play during the formation of RHI.

“Dennis is one of a kind,” King said. “He’s the [ultimate] starter of sports leagues. He’s got fabulous talent.”

Murphy remembers the time he and Davidson decided the ABA needed a marque name. They had already made headlines with a red, white and blue basketball and the three-point shot. But the basketball league was losing steam and needed something new.

Then they saw a flashy, dynamic underclassman sporting Jimi Hendrix-type hair at Massachusetts.

“Dr. J was the ABA,” Murphy said of Julius Irving. “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.”


Murphy’s leagues, however, disappeared over time--victims of either mergers or public apathy. For a while, he made do with raising three children and eventually eight grandchildren.

But Murphy wasn’t content to go quietly into retirement. As the story goes, he was coming out of a restaurant in 1991 when he saw a couple of kids on in-line skates playing hockey.

A light bulb went on. Murphy made some phone calls to old friends and a year later RHI made its first world promotional tour. In 1993, the league opened with 12 teams and Murphy was its president. A year later, it had doubled in size and the first league championship was played for the Murphy Cup.

RHI had a full head of steam going into 1995, and Murphy brought in King as the league’s CEO. Murphy then sold his interest in the league, carrying paper for a reported $1.5 million, and ran his San Diego franchise.

But there was trouble on the horizon. League president Jerry Diamond, who worked with King promoting professional tennis, died of cancer in December, 1996, at a time when RHI desperately needed someone to steward a new television contract.

At home, Murphy’s wife of 44 years, Elaine, filed for divorce, tying up Murphy’s cash flow and causing his RHI team to fold.


Distraught and frustrated, Murphy watched as RHI became a victim of overexpansion. From a high of 18 teams in 1996, only nine competed last year.

Then, last fall, when it was discovered the league didn’t have enough money to pay player playoff bonuses, Murphy called for King’s resignation. The two had a pointed phone conversation sometime after that, leaving the relationship strained, according to Murphy.

Murphy calls the entire turn of events, especially the differences between longtime friends, a low point in his career.

“We got off to a good start in that league,” he said. “Then it went into a terrible morass last year. In all fairness to Larry, I think he put his faith in Jerry Diamond and when Diamond died, it was a blow to both RHI and Larry.”

Some fault Murphy’s gregarious personality and say a new pro in-line league is likely to fail, just as RHI appears on the verge of doing.

“Dennis Murphy has a very generous element of Irish blarney that makes him very enjoyable to talk to,” said Richard Graham, editor of the defunct Inline Hockey News. “But you have to take what he says with a grain of salt the size of Gibraltar.”


Murphy appears more determined than ever to reinvent the wheel, only this time he intends to stay in command. Regan, the attorney, is the league council and Murphy plans to head a group of investors who will own the Los Angeles franchise at the Sports Arena.

Twisting arms, glad-handing and back-slapping are old hat for Murphy. But he knows, perhaps more so than anyone, that any new league will have to be put together on more than just handshakes.


Troubled Times

Three professional sports teams--the Bullfrogs, Piranhas and Splash--have called the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim home the last few summers. Although each has experienced success, only one has survived.

* Bullfrogs: Last summer, they won their second Murphy Cup championship in Roller Hockey International’s fifth season. But in which league will they compete this summer? CEO Larry King watched RHI drop from 18 teams in 1996 to nine teams in ’97. He borrowed money to pay playoff bonuses, and many bills remain unpaid. Yet King believes his league will survive. It could be challenged by Dennis Murphy’s new in-line league, which he expects to begin play in June.

* Piranhas: The Arena League football team attempted to fill the void left when the Rams moved to St. Louis. The Piranhas began 1996 with seven victories, finished 9-5, qualified for the playoffs and averaged 13,000 fans. But the novelty quickly wore off. The Piranhas won two games in their second season and lost more than half of their 3,000 season-ticket holders. Team owners Dave Wilson and Robert Zinngrabe began laying off employees before the season ended. Two months later, the team folded.

* Splash: The Splash arrived from Los Angeles in 1994. Under ownership by Ogden Facility Management, which operates the Pond, the franchise became the model for the Continental Indoor Soccer League. But Ogden got out after winning two division titles. After only two months, Arizona businessman Bill Williams transferred franchise rights before the 1996 season to Anaheim Splash, Inc. Those rights were seized before last season’s playoffs by the CISL for faulty ownership, including more than $200,000 owed the league, which since has folded.