OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Franklin Mieuli, whose deerstalker cap, substantial beard and casual style made him one of the NBA's most colorful figures in his 24 years as owner of the Golden State Warriors, died Sunday. He was 89.
Mieuli died of natural causes in a San Francisco Bay Area hospital, the Warriors said in a statement.
Mieuli was the principal owner of the Warriors from the time they moved to the Bay Area in 1962 until he sold them in 1986. He won an NBA title with the team in 1975, still the club's only championship in nearly a half-century in California.
"Franklin was truly one of the innovators in our league, who was so proud of the Bay Area and his ability to maintain a team there," NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement Sunday night. "I have always fondly remembered ... his warmth and his belief in the importance of sports to a community."
Leveraging his way into sports ownership through a business producing Bay Area sports broadcasts, Mieuli also once owned a small percentage of the San Francisco Giants. He still had a 5 percent interest in the 49ers, purchased in 1954.
Mieuli was a fixture at Warriors games well into his 80s, wearing his distinctive hat and watching from his courtside seats at Oracle Arena. He became a beloved figure to fans who fondly remembered his ownership tenure with the long-struggling team, which has made the playoffs just once since 1994.
"He was one of the most unique and eccentric individuals that I have ever met, and I'm not sure there will ever be anyone like him again," said Al Attles, the former Warriors guard who coached Golden State to its sole title.
Mieuli grew up in San Jose and attended the University of Oregon. He became an advertising executive for a San Francisco brewery which, at his instigation, began sponsoring 49ers radio broadcasts.
That association with 49ers founders Tony and Vic Morabito led to his purchase of an interest in the team. He also founded a radio production company, Franklin Mieuli Associates, which produced the broadcasts of the Giants after they moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958.
In 1962, Mieuli headed a group of Bay Area investors, who along with Diners Club bought the Philadelphia Warriors and moved them to San Francisco. After one year of disappointing attendance, Diners Club and several investors wanted out, even threatening to fold the team.
Mieuli bought the shares of all who wished to sell and kept the team in the Bay Area. With no suitable playing venue in San Francisco, Mieuli eventually moved the club to the Oakland Coliseum Arena and changed its name to the Golden State Warriors in 1971, initially playing a handful of home games in San Diego as well.
While Mieuli never had the financial resources of many NBA owners, he kept the Warriors competitive for much of his tenure. They reached the playoffs 10 times between 1962 and 1977, advancing to three NBA finals.
The highlight of Mieuli's ownership was the 1974-75 season. Led by Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes, the underdog Warriors won the NBA title, sweeping the heavily favored Washington Bullets in four games.
"He always called me his prodigal son after I had left the Warriors to go to the ABA," said Barry, who played four seasons in the ABA before returning to the Warriors in 1972. "He vowed to do everything in his power to get me back. Thank goodness he did, because without his perseverance, I would never have had the opportunity to return to the Warriors and experience an NBA championship."
In addition to his NBA title ring, Mieuli had a fistful of Super Bowl rings from the 49ers, often wearing one ring from each team in public. Mieuli played an instrumental role in Eddie DeBartolo's purchase of the 49ers, leading to their halcyon days in the 1980s.
Besides the differences in bank balances, what really set Mieuli apart from other NBA owners was his lifestyle. The free-spirited Bay Area native was more likely to travel by motorcycle than by limousine, and by the 1960s he had shed his suits and ties for dungarees and colorful shirts, making him distinctive among the buttoned-up businessmen at league meetings.
After the Warriors won the title, he put the trophy in the back seat of his sports car for a year, taking it out whenever he visited a public place so the fans could see it up close.
"Franklin Mieuli was one of the most colorful and passionate individuals I have ever met and basketball fans in Northern California certainly owe a debt of gratitude to him for helping establish NBA basketball in the Bay Area," Warriors owner Chris Cohan said. "I don't think anyone will ever forget the 1975 championship team and the excitement that Franklin and that group of underdogs brought to fans of all ages."
Mieuli eventually sold the Warriors to Jim Fitzgerald, reportedly for less than $20 million. Cohan is exploring another sale of the club, which was judged to be worth $315 million by Forbes magazine late last year.
Beyond professional sports, Mieuli's company, still a thriving concern, produced the English language radio broadcasts from the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif.
Mieuli is survived by his longtime female partner Blake Green, son Peter Mieuli, daughter Holly Buchanan and seven grandchildren.