The Denver Racquets were a One-Year Wonder that played during the debut season of World Team Tennis in the summer of 1974. World Team Tennis was a co-ed sports league promoted by women’s superstar Billie Jean King. In the “team” concept, each club consisted of three male and three female players. Matches consisted of a single set each of men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles, with one point awarded to a team for each game won within a set.
The Racquets roster consisted of Jeff Austin, Pam Austin, Francoise Durr, Stephanie Johnson, Kristine Kemmer Shaw, Andrew Pattison and 29-year old Australian player-coach Tony Roche.
The Racquets got off to a dismal 2-8 start to the 1974 season. But the Racquets soon found their form and went 28-6 the rest of the way to win the Pacific Division with a 30-14 record.
In the playoffs, the Racquets dispatched the San Francisco Golden Gaters and the Minnesota Buckskins to the reach the best-of-three World Team Tennis championship series against Billie Jean King and the Philadelphia Freedoms. The Racquets swept the Freedoms in two matches, clinching the title for Denver on August 26, 1974 before 5,134 fans at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Denver’s Andrew Pattison was named playoff MVP and Roche was honored as the league’s Coach-of-the-Year.
The Racquets were owned by San Diego businessmen Bud Fischer and Frank Goldberg, who also owned the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association at the time. Despite winning the championship in their first season, the pair lost interest in World Team Tennis and decided to focus their attentions on the basketball team, putting the Racquets up for sale in December 1974. The club moved to Phoenix, Arizona under new ownership (including Oakland A’s star Reggie Jackson) in February 1975 and played four seasons as the Phoenix Racquets (1975-1978) before World Team Tennis went out of business in late 1978.
Fun fact: the Racquets mascot was an Airedale named “Topspin” owned by team member Francoise Durr.
The International Volleyball Association (IVA) launched in 1975, seeking to capitalize on the popularity of volleyball at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The 1970’s saw an explosion of team sports concepts – from World Team Tennis to indoor soccer – all seeking to establish themselves as the sport of the future and challenge the NBA and NHL for space on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The hijinks of the original Denver Comets ownership, however, seemed better suited for the pages of High Times.
By the time Denver joined the IVA as an expansion franchise in 1977, the celebrities had mostly lost interest and moved on, although Chamberlain remained as league President and occasional guest star on the court. Following the 1976 season, Volleyball magazine publisher James L. Bartlett III invested in the league and imposed centralized cost controls on the franchises. For the 1977 season, total operating expenses were capped at $150,000 with a $55,000 player salary cap. The IVA decided to showcase its new Denver club by awarding it the league’s All-Star Game on July 17th, 1977, which would feature an appearance from Chamberlain and a national broadcast on CBS Sports.
On the court, the Comets signed 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympian Jon Stanley as player-coach. Stanley led the Comets to the best regular season record in the IVA in 1977 at 22-14, although the club would fall to the El Paso-Juarez Sol in the first round of the playoffs. Over the next several seasons, the California-based clubs dominated on the court while Denver and the Tucson Sky had the most success at the turnstiles. The Comets’ announced attendance hovered near 3,000 fans per game at the Denver Auditorium Arena.
On July 14th, 1979 the Comets defeated the Albuquerque Lasers at the Auditorium Arena. Following the match, arrest warrants were served at the arena on Comets President Robert Casey, general manager, David Casey, ticket director James Killingsworth and concessions manager Barry Beard. Simultaneously, investigators seized 200 pounts of marijuana from the home of a Comets administrative assistant. The grand jury indictments and arrests marked the culmination of a 16-month investigation into a multi-million dollar international cocaine and marijuana trafficking ring run by the Caseys. The Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force dubbed the sting as “Operation Spike”. Members of the investigative team reputedly made up their own custom “Operation Spike” Comets t-shirts.
In all, 23 men and women were indicted by the grand jury. By the time the trials began in November 1979, 13 defendants had pleaded guilty, including the Casey brothers and Killingsworth. The prosecution’s case alleged that the Caseys served as major marijuana and cocaine importers and suppliers to dealers throughout the American West and British Columbia. Supporting evidence included 780-hours of phone wiretaps recorded between March and May 1979 at the Comets’ offices and the homes of the Caseys and Killingsworth. An unnamed IVA player told Molly Ivins of The New York Times that rumors had circulated within the league about the Caseys’ drug ties: “I think it was fairly common knowledge around the league.”
Remarkably, the Comets returned in 1980 under the new ownership of Bill Johnson. But the IVA was in very wobbly shape. IVA owners voted to terminate the Seattle Smashers franchise just days before the season opened due to insufficient funding. As in the similarly precarious Women’s Professional Basketball League, league investors were demoralized by U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics, denying the sport a major platform of exposure that IVA proponents had been counting on for years.
The Comets played matches throughout May and June, but by July the league was on its last legs. In mid-July, the Salt Lake Stingers refused to fly to Denver for a scheduled match. Calling the demise of the league “inevitable”, Stingers GM Tony Lovitt told the Associated Press there was no point in paying for the airfare.
The Comets hosted the final official match in IVA history, hosting the San Jose Diablos on July 15th, 1980. No record of the outcome remains online. The league quietly folded the next day without completing the 1980 season.
“We survived until a few days before the All-Star Game (July 26th), which was due to be televised,” recalled Ed Kobak, who interned as the Comets’ Asst. Director of Operations that summer. We drew anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 a game – (the IVA was) very successful in Denver.
“After the demise of the IVA, we played an unofficial All-Star Game as the Comets vs. the IVA All-Stars. We paid the other IVA players to come in for the game and we packed the house. I then lined up National Teams from around the world to play us in Denver the rest of the season. We paid the teams to come into Colorado Springs, as most played the U.S.A. team down there, and then we shuttled them up to Denver. We tried to come back with a new league in 1981, but there was no support. Very sad.”