Broken promises: NBA never fulfilled settlement agreement with ABA

Artis_Gilmore_1977.jpeg

Artis Gilmore was the No. 1 pick in the 1976 ABA Dispersal Draft, leaving the Kentucky Colonels to play for the Chicago Bulls. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 19, 2017)
Third in a series

When the NBA and ABA finalized merger proceedings in the summer of 1976, four teams (the San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers) were swallowed up by the NBA.

The ABA as an entity was finished. History. The other remaining teams, the Kentucky Colonels and Spirits of St. Louis, folded.

On the other hand, its legacy — and the impact of ex-ABA players that enriched the NBA — was just getting started.

Consider: During the 1977 NBA Finals, half of the 10 starters for the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers had previously suited up for ABA teams.

An April document (Signed Petition For Benefits) submitted to the NBA and National Basketball Players Association by the Retired ABA Players presents numerous important facts about the value the absorbed ABA teams brought to the NBA.

“Of the 84 players in the ABA at the time of the merger, 63 played in the NBA during the 1976-77 season,” the petition stated. “Overall, at least 97 players played in both the ABA and NBA. Also, in the first season after the merger, four of the top ten scorers were former ABA players. Further, former ABA player Don Buse of the Indiana Pacers led the league in steals and assists. The Nuggets, a team that never won an ABA championship, finished with the NBA’s second-best record in the first season after the merger. The Spurs, a team that never got past the first round of the ABA playoffs, won division titles in five of their first six seasons in the NBA. In all, the Spurs, Nets, Nuggets and Pacers have won five NBA championships and appeared in the NBA Finals four other times. Countless former ABA players have competed for NBA teams in the NBA Finals.”

Indeed, those teams have helped expand the NBA’s global reach and increase its popularity.

“Essentially, these players were left to perish by a league and a system that did not value them, and which viewed them as fungible commodities — not human beings,” the petition stated. “To this day, former ABA players are still seeking benefits — decades after the ABA ceased to exist.”

Pause and reflect on the above paragraph for a few moments.

Then consider this: “Many of the former ABA players alive today are in poor health, poor financial condition, or both. The NBA has never taken care of them, despite numerous inquiries and proposals,” the petition stated.

“Contrast the ABA players’ situation to that of those who played in the NBA before 1965,” the petition stated. “About 10 years ago, the NBA gratuitously paid pre-1965 NBA players pensions equal to $300 per year of service, per month, along with a lump-sum retroactive payments. According to a Chicago Tribune story about the arrangement, the ‘relatively paltry amounts for the older retired players had become an embarrassing issue for the NBA given that current players average more than $4 million in salary per season and how little the league set aside for the pioneers.’ ”

Now, let’s take a step back and revisit the court proceedings in July 1976, which set the stage, in fact, for this issue to be brought to the public’s attention and the court of public opinion in 2017.

“The Settlement Agreement provided numerous individuals that played professional basketball in the ABA, including a pension fund equivalent to that provided to NBA players,” the petition reads. “In the 1996 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. The United States District Court sitting in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) approved the Settlement Agreement, and in doing so, provided that the Settlement Agreement ensured ‘pension rights’ and privileges for ABA players equivalent to that provided NBA players.’ The Settlement Agreement required the pension payable from the Pension Fund for the ABA Players to include the same benefits and privileges that were provided to NBA players, pursuant to the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“The NBA’s CBA was to govern the ABA Pension Fund. The purpose of using the NBA’s CBA was to provide equality between the ABA players and NBA players. The purpose of the Settlement Agreement was to resolve an antitrust lawsuit brought on behalf of the  ABA Players Association, against the NBA, NBA teams, Spurs, Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, and the ABA. Consequently, the promises made as part of the Settlement Agreement, specifically the promise of equality, compelled the ABAPA to settle its antitrust lawsuit.

“The Settlement Agreement allowed the Spurs, Nets, Nuggets, and Pacers to join the NBA, and the NBA and its member teams  to reap numerous and substantial benefits from the ABA, including the talents of the many ABA players in the NBA after the ‘merger’ between the leagues.”

What else was included in the settlement?

“The Spurs, Nets, Nuggets, and Pacers also directly paid the NBA a $3.2 million entry fee as a condition of the settlement,” the petition reads. “The ABA players were not integrated, they were discarded. Their promised pension integration never occurred, they received no payments, and in fact, promised payments in player contracts were never made. The ‘merger’ was anything but a ‘merger’ for the vast majority of ABA players. It amounted to an unceremonious pink slip without a pat on the backside.”

Keeping The Nostalgia Alive, an online radio program, introduced the issue this way in a written summary before a recent program: “The ABA players from the past have been left behind by the NBA! The ABA (American Basketball Association) turned the NBA into the success it is today. $60 per year of service for pension, so if you played three years, that’s $180 per month for your pension! I don’t know about you but that doesn’t cover very much! The NBA gets $2,000 (per month) per year of service! This is wrong. … As of today, May 15th, the NBA responded that they were not interested in helping these players. there are 149 ABA players left who are in bad health and poor financial situations! The NBA has dropped the ball!

“You have to remember that the guys that played back in those days, when they got out of basketball they didn’t have $300,000 a year jobs waiting for them,” former ABA power forward/center Bob Netolicky said on the program. “And most of the guys were making twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars a year back then when they played, they played three or four years.

“So there’s a lot of guys that are really hurting. We found guys that were literally dead broke, living with their parents, living in nursing homes, and it’s just a darn shame that these guys who were pioneers of the game today; I mean, the NBA turned around and there’s a new book out by a guy named Adam Criblez, and (in “Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA” — https://www.amazon.com/Tall-Tales-Short-Shorts-Popular/dp/144227767X/ref=sr_1_1/144-3823869-6005168?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497864544&sr=1-1) — he basically states in there that it’s a very misnomer that Bird, Magic and Jordan changed the game. That’s not right. The NBA, the modern NBA, began when the merger with the NBA came and they adopted all of those rules, the fast run, the 3-pointer. How exciting would San Francisco (Golden State Warriors) be to watch if there wasn’t a 3-point shot? Think about that.”

Listen to the full interview with Netolicky, an All-American at Drake, and Larry Cannon, an All-American at La Salle, here:
https://www.mixcloud.com/keepingthenostalgiaaliveshow/college-all-americans-and-aba-champions-cannon-and-netolicky-discuss-the-aba-pension-crisis/

“I’m being treated like a second-class basketball player,” said Cannon, the No. 5 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls who began his pro career that year with the ABA’s Miami Floridians, on the podcast.

“NBA players that mirrored my career are getting 30 times more money than I am in terms of pension money,” added Cannon, now 70 years old. “And the fact is, the money that we are talking about is change, it’s so small. I could use the money like anybody else, but I don’t care about the money. I want the respect. I want that league (the ABA) to be legitimized and providing the pension is the only thing that’s truly going to legitimize that league, and what its done and the players that were involved. That’s what will do it. The NBA needs to recognize that.”

He added:  “…What we are asking will never happen again. There’s never going to be any more petitions for pensions because we’re the last of the pioneers and we’re being ignored, and this is the problem. This is what we want. We want a public debate. We want people to understand our position and we want to get their opinion: Do they think the NBA should be giving us some consideration? Or do they think that we should just step aside? And that’s what we’re asking, for the public to take the issue up and talk about it, think about it.”

The petition hammers home the point, too, about this grave injustice.

“Very simply, the promises made to the ABA players to finalize the ‘merger’ have been broken time and again,” it stated. “ABA players were told they would be treated the same as NBA players; they weren’t. ABA players were told that their pension fund would be equal to the NBA pension fund; it wasn’t.

“In the meantime, ABA players have had to scratch and claw for their benefits, as they live their golden years. Some ABA players have only recently been able to obtain long-sought pension benefits. Others have not been so lucky.”

The petition lists the names of 36 former ABA players who have died in recent years:

Marvin Barnes (2014)
Zelmo Beatty (2013)
Caldwell Jones (2014)
Maurice Lucas (2010)
Ed Manning (2011)
Chico Vaughn (2013)
John Barnhill (2013)
Mike Barrett (2011)
Bob Bedell (2015)
Wes Bialosuknia (2013)
Mel Daniels (2015)
Dwaine Dillard (2008)
Roy Ebron (2014)
Larry Finch (2011)
Billy Harris (2010)
Jim Hayes (2009)
Simmie Hill (2013)
Warren Jabali (2012)
Merv Jackson (2012)
Edgar Lacey (2011)
Jonnie Lynn (2014)
Mike Malloy (2009)
Eltron McGriff (2011)
Dewitt Menyard (2009)
Leland Mitchell (2013)
Marlbert Pradd (2014)
Red Robbins (2009)
Reggie Royals (2009)
Erv Staggs (2012)
Red Stroud (2008)
George Sutor (2011)
Lavern Tart (2010)
Bob Warren (2014)
Al Williams (2007)
Lonnie Wright (2012)
Moses Malone (2015)

Of these 36 men, only Beatty, Vaughn, Barnhill, Bedell, Daniels, Lynn and Mitchell lived to be 70.

As of May, there were only 149 former ABA players who had played three or more years in the league who are still alive. (Harley “Skeeter” Swift died in April and George Irvine passed away in May.)

Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel wrote about the plight of former ABA players in May, noting fairness was at the root of their fight. Their reasonable request? To be given the same pension plan that exists for pre-1965 NBA players — that is, to be given $300 monthly for every year of service.

Doyel explained it in simple terms: “In other words, a six-year NBA veteran from the 1950s receives a pension of $1,800 a month,” he wrote. “A six-year player from the ABA still gets $360 a month.”

Indeed, a huge difference. The former ABA player’s pension is still $60 a month for each year of service.

If the pension were adjusted and increased to $300 a month, as the petition asks for, Netolicky’s estimation is that this would cost the NBA $1.7 million a year, Doyel wrote.

In other words, a drop in the bucket.

“It would cost them, the NBA,” Netolicky told the podcast, “if they just funded it out of their pocket …. it would cost them, oh, maybe for 151 guys …. it would cost them less than a max player that some of these players are going to make next year in four games. I mean, think about that. Four games would take care of 151 guys.”

For the 2016-17 season, the average NBA player salary was $4.58 million. 

“I think you’ve got a lot of politics involved in the league and I think somebody’s got to quit all this political crap and do what is right. Everybody’s sitting there, looking over their shoulder thinking, Oh, should I do this? Should I do that?  That’s totally wrong,” Netolicky said on Keeping The Nostalgia Alive.

“I think if the NBA did this, it would be one of the most positive PR moves they’ve ever made in the last 10-20 years.”

Related reading
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/