Skeeter Swift’s dying words: gratitude for a former ABA teammate’s unconditional support

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 4, 2017)
Fourth in a series

The voice is haunting.

It’s an emotional call for gratitude.

It accentuates the brotherly bond between Harley “Skeeter” Swift and Bob Netolicky, former teammates with the Dallas Chaparrals and San Antonio Spurs during the 1972-73 and 1973-74 ABA seasons.

But it’s more than that, really.

It’s about the enduring legacy of the kinship shared by the tight fraternity of many former ABA players who competed during the avante-garde circuit’s memorable run (1967-1976).

The voice pulls at your heart’s strings.

Listen to Swift’s words in a voice mail to Netolicky only days before his death at age 70 on April 20.

Hey roomie, this is Skeeter. I got back from the hospital yesterday. I had to have knee replacement. I’m telling you it sure wore me out. And it’s not a macho thing but you’ve got to stay on top of the exercise and exercises.

“But anyway, I was just calling you and if you’ve a chance, give me a call. If not, I’ll just try to call you later. I hope you’re doing OK. You know, (my wife) Demetria and I, we were just talking last night and we could never (his voice cracks up with emotion) repay you for all that you’ve done for us. And I’ll just wait to hear from you. Bye-bye.

A bit of perspective and general background helps at this point.

Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star effectively summed up Swift’s post-ABA plight in a poignant column in May. Here’s a key passage: “Years ago Swift had turned to Netolicky to help track down his ABA pension. His pension was small but for whatever reason, perhaps an oversight, he’d never received a penny. Netolicky connected Swift with the San Antonio-based pension administrator, who sent Swift a check for back payments. These were hard years for Swift. He had lymphoma. And a stroke. Alzheimer’s. Three hip-replacement surgeries. One knee replaced, with another needing replacement when Skeeter Swift died…”

Like many of his ABA peers, Swift, a shooting guard out of George Washington High School in Alexandria, Virginia and East Tennessee State University, didn’t receive a steady, reasonable pension from the NBA in his latter years despite an agreement promised by the NBA in 1976, when the Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets were absorbed by the NBA and the ABA folded. The agreement said in part that ABA players who had three years or more of service in the league were eligible for the pension.

Swift was the 31st overall pick in the 1969 NBA Draft, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, his pro career began with the ABA’s New Orleans Buccaneers, and he went on to also play for the Memphis Pros, Pittsburgh Condors, Chaparrals and Spurs. He averaged 11.6 points per game during his ABA years and retired in 1974. He was a 2010 inductee into the  Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Years earlier, Swift had coached at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and, according to published reports, compiled a 61-1 record at the prep hoop powerhouse. (Carmelo Anthony, Rod Strickland and Jerry Stackhouse are among the school’s basketball alumni.)

Listen to Swift once more.

I hope you’re doing OK. You know, Demetria and I, we were just talking last night and we could never (his voice cracks up with emotion) repay you for all that you’ve done for us.

It’s a call to action.

The National Basketball Players Association, led by newly re-elected president Chris Paul, ought to be the first to recognize this. Its (mostly) millionaire members have the ability to exert persistent pressure on owners and commissioner Adam Silver to change the Collective Bargaining Agreement to set aside some additional funds for former ABA players.

There are billions of dollars going to contemporary players for contracts, including Stephen Curry’s new five-year, $201 million deal with the Golden State Warriors. Billions more are guaranteed to the league’s owners for TV rights.

The league isn’t hurting; it’s thriving beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

But the quality of life of former ABA players — men who helped pave the way for the NBA’s adoption of the fast-paced, run-and-gun, 3-point shooting style that thrived in the influential ABA — has not kept pace with ex-NBA players’, including pre-1965 NBA players who received a large pension increase in 2007. As reported on ESPN.com, “according to an NBA news release, the pre-1965 players will now receive $3,600 a per year of service, compared to the $2,400 per year of service they received under the previous pension program.”

A former ABA player with a minimum three years of service is still only eligible to receive $180 month in pension from the NBA.

Netolicky confirmed the financial figures this week.

“The current NBA pension for players playing after 1965 is, if you retire at age 62 you receive approximately $1,800 per month per year of service,” Netolicky wrote in an email. “A six-year player receives approximately $10,800 per month or $129,000 per year. The same six-year ABA player pension is only $360 per month or $4,320 per year. As part of the merger agreement we were promised the same pension as the NBA.
In the new collective bargaining agreement they are going to raise the NBA pension even higher.

“All we are asking is to receive at least what the old pre-65 players are getting.”

Common decency and fairness are the two pillars of the former ABA players’ proposal to the NBA.

As summarized in an April petition from the Retired ABA Players to the NBA and NPBA, the historic facts were stated as follows: “In the 1976 Stipulation and Settlement Agreement, the Spurs, Nets, Nuggets and Pacers promised to provide former ABA players the same pension rights and privileges equivalent to that provided to NBA players.

“As understood from the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the former ABA players would receive the benefits of a Pension Fund that would be equivalent to the NBA Pension Fund in all regards.”

That’s never been the case across the board — and explained in greater details in parts 1-3 of this article series below.

Which brings us back to Swift’s haunting voice.

Hey roomie, this is Skeeter. I got back from the hospital yesterday. I had to have knee replacement. I’m telling you it sure wore me out. And it’s not a macho thing but you’ve got to stay on top of the exercise and exercises.

“But anyway, I was just calling you and if you’ve a chance, give me a call. If not, I’ll just try to call you later. I hope you’re doing OK. You know, (my wife) Demetria and I, we were just talking last night and we could never (his voice cracks up with emotion) repay you for all that you’ve done for us. And I’ll just wait to hear from you. Bye-bye.

The NBA has an opportunity to improve the quality of life for the surviving members of a special fraternity: 149 ABA players at last count.

A modest increase of a few hundred bucks a month per person could go a long way to making this happen.

Recommended reading: http://www.expressnews.com/sports/columnists/roy-bragg/article/NBA-needs-to-do-the-right-thing-for-ABA-players-11257178.php

***
Related stories
Part 1: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/05/27/allen-berrebbis-moral-crusade-against-the-nba-2/

Part 2: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/06/16/former-aba-players-fighting-for-fairness-dignity/

Part 3: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/broken-promises-nba-never-fulfilled-settlement-agreement-with-aba/

 

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