Larry Cannon: Former ABA players seeking legitimacy, respect from NBA

Larry Cannon starred for the ABA’s Denver Rockets in the 1970-71 season, averaging 26.6 points per game. PUBLIC DOMAIN

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 11, 2017)
Part six in a series

Nobody needs to remind Larry Cannon that his 1973 induction into the Big 5 Hall of Fame and his 1977 induction into the La Salle Hall of Athletes are bold reminders of his splendid college basketball career.

He lived through it. He remembers it.

For Cannon, this includes helping the Explorers go 23-1 in his third and final season on the varsity squad, 1968-69. In that brilliant season, Cannon, a 6-foot-5 star guard, was the squad’s top assist man and No. 2 in rebounds. Over three seasons with the Philly college, he poured in 19.9 points per game.

La Salle was ranked No. 2 in the nation, trailing only mighty UCLA at the outset of the ’68-69 campaign. That La Salle outfit had been penalized for the team’s past recruiting violations. As a result, the Explorers didn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament that spring.

That, of course, didn’t diminish Cannon’s college feats. His superb all-around skills were well known to the top talent evaluators.

He was a highly prized talent, with the Chicago Bulls making him the No. 5 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.

The Philly native chose another path. He signed with the ABA’s Miami Floridians, beginning his pro career with the South Florida team for one season, and went on to play for the fledgling circuit’s Denver Rockets (1970-71), Memphis Pros (1971) and Indiana Pacers (1971-73) before a brief stint with the Philadelphia 76ers (1973-74). A leg injury cut short Cannon’s pro career. For the 1975-76 Eastern Basketball Association campaign, Cannon earned Coach of the Year accolades, guiding the Lancaster (Pa.) Red Roses to a 19-5 regular-season mark and a championship runner-up finish to the Allentown Jets.

Cannon’s No. 20 was retired by La Salle in December 2016. Weeks before, he issued a statement.

“”The retirement of my La Salle uniform number is particularly meaningful,” Cannon said at the time. “I’m a born and raised Philadelphian and Big 5 basketball has always been a major influence on the way I played the game. I can’t find the words to express how proud I feel to be joining the elite company of Tom Gola, Ken Durrett, Lionel Simmons and Michael Brooks.”

Contrast that joy with Cannon’s absolute disgust for the way the NBA has handled the issue of former ABA players seeking a modest increase in their pension. (see related stories below).

The NBA league office received the 24-page letter from the Retired ABA Players in early April. It’s response in a May 12 was a mere five paragraphs. (The letter is posted in Part 1.)

Not surprising, though, considering the general policies enacted by the NBA in its handling of ABA-related issues over the years.

As in, thank you, go away. I don’t want to speak to you.

“I saw that,” Cannon said, referring to the NBA’s response, “and it was very brief.”

Among the general public, Cannon, now 70, believes the former ABA players haven’t been forgotten.

“It would be my contention, though, that the ABA is still scarred in people’s minds,” Cannon said by phone from Florida in a recent interview. “They may need their memories jarred just a bit but certainly I think most basketball people do have some recollection of the ABA, either having experienced it themselves or having heard about it, and I think that in general that the feeling is very good about the ABA. … I think that they’ve heard good things.”

He went on: “I think that the NBA has promoted the idea that the NBA has basically embraced the ABA as if the relationship was very cordial. The fact is that there are difficulties in the relationship, and I think that those difficulties should be examined and people should have a chance to understand exactly what’s going on.”

Cannon can’t see any good coming out of the NBA’s terse, direct rejection of the Retired ABA Player’s request to come to the negotiating table to discuss retired players’ pensions.

“I find it very hard to understand the NBA’s reluctance to sit down and talk,” he said. “I just don’t understand for those reasons that I just went over, that the relationship appears to be a good one and certainly I don’t like the idea that a lot of players seem to be taking more of a hostile attitude toward the NBA. I don’t think that that should be the case.

“I think what all the players want really is two things. I think first they want to be legitimized, and the pension is really the only way in my opinion to legitimize the league and its players. …. They are looking for legitimacy and the respect from the NBA.”

Cannon is disgusted and perplexed by the NBA’s refusal to grant the ABA players a forum to discuss their requests.

“Their reluctance to sit down and even discuss the matter is very disturbing,” Cannon said, “and it’s just hard to understand. It’s also very hard to understand because (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver has positioned himself from what I’ve seen as a player’s commissioner, I would say. He’s a guy who expresses his concern for the integrity of the game, he expresses his concern for the welfare of the players, and he expresses great concern for the people who helped grow the game, as he refers to the pioneers, and how he feels it’s very important for the pioneers to be recognized.”

Based on how the played, revolutionizing the game in the 1960s and ’70s, and their impact on the way the NBA changed afterward, Cannon and his former ABA teammates and foes maintain great pride in their historical significance.

“And we feel that we are without a doubt pioneers of the modern game,” Cannon said. “We not only are pioneers of the modern game, we are more pioneers of the game than the NBA players were, in our opinion, because we were playing today’s NBA game — space the floor, emphasis on the 3 (-point shot), and a lot of excitement in the game.”

He added: “(For the players), these issues touch a chord with them because it’s hard. Like myself, I was the fifth player taken in the NBA Draft, and I for whatever reason decided I’m going to play in the American Basketball Association, and now I look back and say players that were, let’s say my peers, equal-type players if they played in the NBA their pension is paying them 30 times, at least, 30 times more than the pension I’m being paid, and that’s an insult.”

And a very valid point.

“It delegitimizes and it makes my game a second-rate game,” Cannon continued, “and it makes me a second-rate citizen in professional basketball … and it’s very disturbing. I had great pride in my game and feel like I had great success, and unfortunately went through an injury and I don’t need any more insults.

“This is more or less an insulting situation with regard to the pension and the inequality of the pension.”

The NBA has failed to grasp the value of fully celebrating its rich history, including its ABA roots, even players who came from now-defunct ABA clubs.

Or as Cannon put it: “It should be a celebration. The NBA should be embracing this idea. Of course we want to celebrate the ABA, of course we want to extend respect to those players, of course we want to recognize what those players did.”

Cannon continued his critique of the matter, raising the question of why this common-sense approach — helping former ABA players’ lives by raising their pensions — has gone nowhere.

“From the very first I’ve heard of it, I’ve said, ‘If this is presented to Adam Silver clearly and (responsibly) … there’s no way he says no.’ How can he say no? How can he possibly say no?” Cannon said. “Because it can’t be a question of money.

“This is change for them (the owners),” he added. “I mean, my god, the way they said thanks that the $37 million, which I’m told is an exaggeration of what it would actually cost them in their letter. … They fine an owner $15 million for luxury tax. It doesn’t make sense, man.”

But money is not the issue. Instead, it boils down to this: confronting the human side of the equation. Real people with real-life issues.

“The NBA would be embarrassed to extend to us what we have asked,” Cannon said. “It is so paltry. … They would have to legitimize their offering and make it more respectable, and even there it’s still what would it be — instead of $300 a month, would it be $500? Big (expletive) deal. It’s chump change, man. Chump change.”


“We’re all getting old and this is a disgrace,” Cannon said. “It’s a disgrace.”

He continued: “They certainly should be willing to sit down and talk. That’s all that was really requested was an opportunity to discuss the possibility of showing a little consideration to these surviving players, these handful of surviving players.”

Looking back at the end of his playing career, Cannon said he was stunned that his pension didn’t measure up to what was doled out to his NBA counterparts.

“I walked away from the game as a young man, thinking that when I was of age that I would be receiving the same, equal pension as the NBA player,” he said. “And I was shocked, I mean shocked, in disbelief when I saw that wasn’t the case, because certainly that’s the way everybody left when the merger took place and the league dispersed…”

Mistakes were made, and rewriting history can’t be done.

“I think the players just accepted it back those years ago,” Cannon said, “and it is obvious, I guess, that we weren’t as well represented legally as we should’ve been, and that was something that we had to accept and nobody said anything.”

Fast forward to 2017, when the 50th anniversary of the ABA’s inaugural season took place.

“That has players talking,” noted Cannon, “and then you have the NBA signing this new TV contract for $24 billion (which began with the 2016-17 season) and you hear of mediocre players receiving $10 million a year, and then you look at our little situation and understand that we have not been legitimized.”

What’s more, he said, the NBA has gone out of its way to adopt the ABA’s style of play.

“The NBA has embraced all of the positive things of the ABA,” Cannon observed. “They’ve just sort of left the players out.”

To galvanize public interest and passion for the plight of ex-ABA players, Cannon speaks with conviction that he and his peers need a public face for their cause.

“I told (former Pacers teammate) Bob Netolicky that you need a spokesman and you need a campaign,” he said.

Is there an obvious candidate?

Cannon thinks Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving could make a major impact.

“If Doc would call ESPN and say, ‘Look, I want you to be aware of this issue, I think it’s something that should get some attention,’ there’s no doubt in my mind that they would give him the opportunity to talk about it,” Cannon said.

2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee George McGinnis (30) of the Indiana Pacers during a 1972-73 ABA game against the Kentucky Colonels. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Cannon recalled a May 2016 interview Erving did with Fox Sports, which highlighted the Doc’s affection for the ABA and the special place it has had in his life.

“Doc talked about how the ABA is still relevant in the NBA 40 years later,” Cannon said. “He was talking 40 years after the merger. He talked about the ABA still has this magneticness about it, how much he appreciates what the league did and how much he enjoys talking about it and seeing the old players, so if the Doc were to step up and make a call, and he could put together a little committee, which would really (help). If you were to get The Iceman (George Gervin) and get George McGinnis and Spencer Haywood and get the boys together, there’s no question in my mind that they could do it.

“But of course it’s the issue of the NBA, they’re a powerful organization … and it’s not about being hostile to the NBA. We love the NBA. … We just want to be a part of it. We just want to be a legitimate part of the NBA.”

San Antonio Spurs star George “The Iceman” Gervin. PUBLIC DOMAIN

In his own career, Cannon always accepted legitimate challenges, including the decision to begin his pro career in the ABA.

“I could’ve been,” he said of being an NBA player from the get-go. “I was the fifth player taken in the draft … but I knew, I grew up in Philly and I’d seen the game evolve from the modern game from its infancy. When I was 10 years old, I was watching in the mid-50s the game transition from walking the ball up the court shooting set shots, two-handed set shots, to in the summer where they would pick up the pace and it just so happened that I was a kid and I would run across the street to the recreation center and see the best, polished players in Philadelphia making five great dollars … and they are getting down, man. They were running up and down and bring an up-tempo (offense) to the game, a flow to the game.

“So I saw the game from the time it got modern, man. And I really feel this game. It’s been in my blood my entire life, so for somebody to tell me that I’m somehow not a legitimate professional player in any fashion is enough to disturb me. I was all-pro my second year. I averaged 26 points a game (26.4 with the Denver Rockets in 1970-71).”

Switching back to the ABA pension issue, first and foremost, Cannon insists that the Retired ABA Players need a public relations consultant.

In his view, here’s the key question for the PR person: “How do we go about making this issue public?”

Which brings us back to the issue that former ABA players seek to educate the public about.

“The ABA was a legitimate professional basketball league, and the fact is that the league was mistreated during the merger, there were misperceptions about the ABA, and again in this situation, again we feel like we are being mistreated, disrespected,” Cannon concluded. “And that’s what needs to be addressed and the pension would be a way, in my opinion, (to address it). What else are you going to do? You can lip service all you want, but the pension is a way to legitimize the league and the player. It’s as simple as that in my mind.”

Related stories
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Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:



Willie Wise: a defender of the ABA’s legacy, a staunch supporter of the players’ pension fight

New York Nets star Julius Erving and Willie Wise of the Utah Stars compete in an ABA game in the early 1970s. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Aug. 1, 2017)
Fifth in a series

A few weeks before the NBA’s hectic signing period made headlines to kick off summer, former ABA star Willie Wise reflected on the economic changes within pro basketball across the decades, but also provided a detailed analysis of how influential the ABA was in shaping the way the game is played today.

But first a few numbers from contracts finalized in recent weeks: J.J. Redick (one year, $23 million, Philadelphia 76ers), Gordon Hayward (four years, $128M, Boston Celtics), Kevin Durant (two years, $53M, Golden State Warriors), Paul Millsap (three years, $90M, Denver Nuggets), Kyle Lowry (three years, $100M, Toronto Raptors).

Those, of course, are just a few of the blockbuster contracts being signed by dozens of players, many of whom never enter the discussion as being superstars. In a July 2016 article, The New York Times’ Marc Tracy noted, “An infusion of billions of dollars into the league’s coffers from a television contracted agreed upon two years ago has led to this: That random guy on the bench is getting upward of $15 million a year.”

In other words, as Tracy cited, guys like Timofey Mozgov. The veteran big man, who scored 6.3 points per game in the 2015-16 campaign, got a four-year deal, which began in 2016, for a cool $64 million from the Los Angeles Lakers.

There’s also Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley’s $153 million deal for five years, starting in 2016.

Indeed, there’s big money being thrown around — more money than ever, in fact. reported in October 2016 that the NBA’s expected revenue for this past season was $8 billion.

Wise, who starred for the Los Angeles/Utah Stars and Virginia Squires in the ABA before wrapping up his playing career with the Denver Nuggets (1976-77) and Seattle SuperSonics (1977), is passionate about the issue of former ABA players’ pensions, especially at a time when the NBA is thriving financially.

And Wise was one of the elite players in ABA history (see below for a detailed analysis by ABA and NBA expert Peter Vecsey). In 1971, he was described by Sports Illustrated as “the best two-way performer in pro basketball.” This lavish praise came after the Utah Stars, with Bill Sharman at the helm, captured the 1971 ABA championship, winning that crown in seven games over the Kentucky Colonels.

As Julius “Dr. J” Erving declared in an article penned by the late Dan Pattison that is featured on the essential website, “Willie Wise was one of the toughest competitors I ever played against. He came to play every night. I really respected him. Willie was one of those players that the NBA fans never had a chance to see the best he had. That’s because Willie was injured a lot when he played in the NBA. That was a shame. Willie Wise had game. A great game.”

In the same feature, Wise , a 6-foot-5 forward out of Drake University (his No. 42 jersey was retired by the Missouri Valley Conference school in 2009; he helped lead the Bulldogs to the 1969 NCAA Final Four), summed up his approach to the pro game this way: “My first and only goal coming into the ABA was to be a great defensive player. I loved playing defense. It was always a challenge to see if I could stop guys like Rick Barry, John Brisker, and Roger Brown. But I didn’t like to think of myself as the best defensive player in the league. That’s because when I started to think about that I might have let down.”

The Nets’ Julius Erving drives on the Stars’ Willie Wise during the 1974 ABA playoffs. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guided by lawyer Steven Hart, the Retired ABA Players submitted a signed petition to the NBA and to the National Basketball Players Association in April.

Wise said that Hart was “launching this petition to see if the NBA would want to move forward and do something to avert any kind of negative publicity, because the (league’s) popularity is pretty good.”

The signs are not encouraging. The NBA has not committed to earnest dialogue or any changes to the status quo.

At the heart of the petition is this: “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.”

However, it’s an important initiative at a crucial time in the lives of former ABA players.

“I don’t know how effective it’s going to be,” Wise, now 70, said in a phone interview, “because the NBA can stall forever.”

And the number of former ABA players keeps decreasing; time is not on their side in this battle.

Throughout our conversation, Wise rattled off names of ex-ABA players who had passed away, including Zelmo Beatty, Moses Malone, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, George Stone, Warren Jabali, Caldwell Jones and Mervin Jackson and, in recent months, two more: Skeeter Swift and George Irvine.

What’s more, three-time ABA All-Star guard Steve “Snapper” Jones, a longtime NBA TV analyst, is “dealing with a fairly serious medical condition,” Wise said.

“So those of us who are alive and remain upright are dwindling quite rapidly .. and if the NBA says out of the goodness of their heart we will in fact go ahead and take care of those players who did in fact play in the NBA, but didn’t play the number of required years to qualify for the NBA pension, we will make their years retroactive to take care of them, I think if they wait another 10 years, then they won’t have that many players to deal with. (But) they could take care of them.”

Reflecting on Swift, who passed away in April, and noting his financial challenges over the years, Wise also had this to say: “I know others that were hurting and still are hurting..

“There are a lot of players that are in that category like Skeeter was — Goo Kennedy (age 67), Cincinnatus Powell (age 75), and they are still alive in the Texas area somewhere … John Beasley (age 73), ones like that.”

Wise, a fifth-round pick (64th overall) of the San Francisco Warriors in the 1969 NBA Draft, is hopeful that the petition’s message can trigger changes.

He said, “I hope that we can apply through this media pressure, media influence, some pressure on the NBA to look at this whole situation, revisit it and say, ‘We’re not obligated, but at the very least we can take care of the players who went from the ABA to the NBA during the absorption. It wasn’t a merger; it was an absorption. At the very least, those players and, hopefully, all the former ABA players who were current at the time of the absorption. That’s my hope.”

The petition elaborates on this objective in clear terms.

“The former ABA players do not ask for much —they merely want to be heard in a meaningful way, to fashion a remedy that justly compensates them consistent with the way the NBA has gratuitously compensated similar ‘pioneers’ in the past. What they seek is a modest monetary acknowledgement compared to the money running through the modern game,” the petition stated.

This modest request includes a request for ABA players with more than three years of service in the league to receive an increase in monthly compensation to $300/month for each  year of service from $60/month. (Players from the pre-1965 era receive $300/month for each year of service, while the current collective bargaining agreement provides $2,000 per month for year of service to retired players.)

An important point addressed in the aforementioned petition is the fact that NBA teams and the NBA online store via the omnipresent power of the internet sell throwback jerseys and other ABA-themed memorabilia of the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets.

“What have the former ABA players realized monetarily from the advertisement of their legacy and playing days? Nothing, not a dime!” the petition stated.

It’s really disgusting,” Wise said. “If there’s profiteering going on, of the ABA, the old throwback (jerseys) and memorabilia of anything like that, for sure they should take care of, again, those players who went into the NBA…”

Wise issued a direct challenge to the NBA commissioner.

“So Adam Silver at the very least could (decide), ‘OK, instead of just shutting us out, let’s at least come to the table. They’re making money off of us as it is,” he said.

“I think it’s just morally right, morally correct, for them to add us to the full pension, especially since it’s not going to hurt them that much.”

If the former ABA players are able to change the NBA’s mind on this issue, it will take a dedicated campaign to elevate the public’s awareness of the issue. Having a high-profile spokesman to raise the bar is a key.

So who could help elevate the issue?

The Doctor.

Wise explained it this way: “A very important component of the history of the NBA, especially the way the game is played currently is the NBA, and I think a face of the ABA that is really pro-ABA and would celebrate their ABA roots is Dr. J.”

Wise also recommended that longtime announcer Bob Costas, who got his big break as a young announcer as the play-by-play voice of the Spirits of St. Louis, have an active role in being a key figure in this fight.

“Whether he would agree to be the face of this issue, I have no idea,” Wise said of Costas. “But I know he would say something very positive about the ABA, and there should be something in the form of financial consideration for those players who shaped the current NBA … the current playing style of the NBA today.”


“There are retired NBA players who are very sympathetic to our cause, there are a number of them,” Wise said, suggesting Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins and Spencer Haywood, the last three of whom also starred in the ABA early in their careers.

Wise is pleased that the ABA petition is making the rounds on the internet, giving it greater visibility and helping educate the public on the matter.

“The power of the terms cannot be overlooked or discounted,” Wise said, “so I think that it’s a good thing and I’d like to see more of it … and hopefully it could gain momentum that would force the NBA (to say), ‘OK, we better do something about this.'”


Wise’s highlights from the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game in two packages:

Wise was a prime-time player. During his pro career he saw action in 552 regular-season games and averaged 17.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.16 steals. He increased those numbers to 19.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.39 in 74 postseason contests. He was a two-time All-ABA Second Team selection and a two-time All-ABA Defensive First Team choice.

The SuperSonics waived Wise in November 1977, signaling the end of his playing career.

He began driving a concrete mixer in the Seattle are and retired in June 2015 after three decades on the job.

“I had to work,” he said. “I had a family. I was trying to make ends meet.”

Before starting his job as a driver, Wise had tried to pursue a career as an airline pilot, but said that it was too expensive to gain the necessary training and experience.

Raising a family and switching careers more than once created financial burdens for Wise. He cashed in on his pension in one lump sum at age 45. He received $83,000.

“I was in dire financial straits,” he said. “Basically homeless. I needed a down payment for a house.” (This included originally deferred money that “was redistributed back into the contract.”)

“I didn’t have anything afterwards, no. I didn’t have anything monthly coming in because I took it all because I needed it,” he said.

He said the IRS “disallowed” some investments and limited partnerships he was involved in four or five years later, demanding “all our money now.”

As a result, he was forced to sell his previous house.

“We weren’t living extravagantly,” he said.

To get the pension, he hired an attorney (legal fees amounted to 33 percent of what he received).

The Spurs administered the dispersal of pension funds, but in order to get paid players had to fight for their cause in a local court in Texas.

As Wise remembered it, one former ABA player who had the same number of years of service in the league was awarded a $150,000 lump-sum payment.

Another player, Wise said, “got substantially less than me and he played more years in the ABA than I did. I don’t understand it.”


Wise maintains pride in the way ABA teams played the game and influenced the way the NBA has evolved into a more free-flowing style that resembles the ABA.

“We practically pioneered the Golden State Warriors,” Wise said. “The way they play is the way we played in the ’60s and ’70s, and the NBA’s adoption of the 3-point line after much wrangling back and forth — because there were a lot that did not want it because they thought it was just an ABA gimmick to get people into the stands; let’s give them three points for a shot from a certain distance rather than just two, and the old guard in the NBA didn’t want it and fought against it, Red Auerbach being one, Dick Motta from the Bulls being another, and I want to say, but I’m not certain about this one, Jerry Colangelo. There were a number of coaches that fought it and finally the NBA adopted it (for the 1979-80 season), and it just grew and grew…”

He went on: “As the years passed, more and more teams saw the value of opening it up, having a wide-open game, because now you have to defend further away from the basket, which means that you are a lot more vulnerable to someone who can penetrate like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

“And now, guys like Isaiah Thomas 20 years ago wouldn’t have made it in the NBA without the 3-point line. So those guys should be forever grateful to us.”

Wise, of course, is right. He is, well, wise about this matter without sounding pompous.

“And now because of the fan appeal, everybody’s looking for the 3-point shot,” Wise said. “Look at Golden State today. They just go bananas over that 3-point shot, and we were the ones that brought that in and introduced that.

“And so there should be some readjustments, some reconsideration from this standpoint as well for the players who have X amount of years in the ABA.”

There’s a generational gap among those who know the historical impact of the ABA and those who don’t, particularly those in their teens, 20s and 30s.

Case in point: The belief that the 3-point shot and Slam Dunk Contest were NBA innovations.

Actually, the ABA popularized both, doing so first.

Or as Wise put it: “We of the old guard are constantly telling them, ‘No, they got that from us.’ ”

Willie Wise and his wife pose for a portrait with their grandchildren in Ohio in June 2017. 


In Peter Vecsey’s words, here’s a one-of-a-kind analysis of Wise’s career, persona and hoop legacy:

“Willie’s game wasn’t attention-grabbing, and his personality wasn’t attention-seeking. Despite being acknowledged by his peers, coaches and the media as among the ABA’s three toughest defensive forwards in ABA history (Joe Caldwell and Bobby Jones), and the best two-way player in pro ball one season by Sports Illustrated,  I can’t remember him ever talking about himself, immodestly or otherwise. He always gave credit where credit was due, and not so much, to others,” Vecsey wrote in an email. “Opponents weren’t quite as reserved. Rick Barry, to this day, says Willie made it harder for him to score than anyone else the two years he dominated the red, white and blue scoreboard for the Nets. Think about who Willie  had cover on a nightly basis — Barry, Roger Brown, Julius Erving, John Brisker, and sometimes Spencer Haywood during his brief tour with Denver. Occasionally David Thompson and George Gervin, as well.

“I put Willie on the same plateau as Dave DeBusschere. His offense (19.2 in seven ABA seasons, almost 9 rebounds, as I recall) was more diversified, a lot trickier than DD, faking, leaning, finishing off  the backboard, or he’d pull up on the fast break and drill a midrange jumper. DeBusschere’s offense was nothing fancy, long jumpers and putbacks in congestion.

“Regrettably, like James Jones and Jimmy Silas (crippled by injuries and was still a standout), and Mack Calvin and Ron Boone, Willie’s best days were seen by far too few fans and HOF voters. Hence, his historic lack of recognition.”

Vecsey, the legendary former New York Post columnist who has returned to the basketball beat with a new subscriber-based website,, revealed that Wise was stiffed by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“When Jerry Colangelo condescendingly formed an ABA HOF Committee — Barry, Costas, DT, Ice, Hubie (Brown), Mike Monroe and myself —Willie was near the top of our list when it was disbanded, because JC (once an ABA snob, always an NBA snob) told me he felt Louie Dampier didn’t deserve our (unanimous) selection, and that no one else deserved it.” 

Added Vecsey: “Willie and Jones and Calvin definitely would’ve been voted in by our 7-person committee within 3-4 years.”

But there’s more to the story, a while lot more, that reveals who Wise is, and was, as a person.

“Regarding Willie’s humility: Several years ago, I found a picture of him alongside Wilt in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game at Nassau Coliseum,” Vecsey recalled. “I sent it to him without telling him what to expect. He thanked me profusely. And proceeded to show to his friends. ‘People had no idea I played pro ball. But there am I fighting for a rebound with Dipper.’ Willie scored 12 points in that game.”

Related stories
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Part 3:

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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, “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:

Related stories
Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:


Broken promises: NBA never fulfilled settlement agreement with ABA

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 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. 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” — — 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:

“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:
Part 2:



Former ABA players fighting for fairness, dignity

ABA legend Connie Hawkins  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 16, 2017)
Second in a series

The April petition sent by the Retired ABA Players to the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association contains powerful statements, bold truths and facts that have been conveniently ignored by the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media.

Now is an appropriate time to continue reporting and analyzing this issue.

Here is an important expanded snippet from the introduction: “The sad truth is that the ABA players were largely forgotten. Their pension plan was never integrated. The NBA has done anything but take care of these ABA legacy players. The NBA simply pillaged the best rules, playing style, and players and left the others without jobs and ultimately their dignity. To make matters worse, the NBA gratuitously took care of the pre-1965 players, but left the other pioneers of the game uncompensated and disenfranchised. This cherry picking of reparations is not in the spirit of the league and what it claims to stand for. In the era of big bucks and showtime, the forefathers who were promised much but given little should not be left forgotten and largely in poverty. We respectfully ask for a remedy. We ask for a showing of humanity, of community and of equity that the NBA so boasts as core principles of its billion dollar league enterprise.”

Why was this petition submitted in 2017, decades after the final ABA game?

Well, issues remain unresolved for the ABA’s legends and its countless pioneers of the modern game.

“The whole thing is unreal,” legendary basketball journalist Peter Vecsey said. “For years, the ABA players hadn’t realized they were due money per merger agreement. The Spurs were in charge of distribution, but kept it hidden until (former ABA big man Robert) Netolicky hired a Chicago firm to look into it. So many players died without getting a penny.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Joe Caldwell’s career bridged the NBA and the ABA. The former Arizona State Sun Devils standout was a two-time NBA All-Star and a two-time ABA All-Star during his pro career (1964-75). He suited up for the Detroit Pistons and St. Louis/Atlanta Haws, then moved on to the ABA with the Carolina Cougars and Spirits of St. Louis.

“I have been fighting for my pension for 48 years,” Caldwell, now 75, a member of the U.S. gold medal-winning squad at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, told me.

As the petition correctly noted, the ABA, established in 1967, was a catalyst for the game’s growth and evolution and future global fame and popularity.

Consider: There were 10 NBA teams in 1967; that season, the ABA began with 11, clearing the path for more players — more than double — to showcase their skills in U.S. pro ball.

What’s more, the petition pointed out this: “The ABA’s existence resulted in increased salaries for players in both leagues as the ABA and NBA competed with each other to sign players.”

According to the Association for Professional Basketball Research, the minimum rookie salary for the 1968-69 season was $10,000 and the minimum pensioned veteran’s salary was $12,500.

Let’s fast forward to the recently completed 2016-17 season, when the average NBA salary was $4.58 million. summed up the NBA’s thriving economy this way: “Of the 360 active-roster players during the 2016-17 season, half will make at least $3.75 million, more than $1.0 ahead of any other sports league.”

Additionally, the vast wealth that the NBA and its 30 teams share is effectively understood when it’s viewed from a broad perspective in comparison to other major pro sports. See this:

But let’s take a step back. What did the ABA prove in the 1960s and ’70s?

“The ABA’s caliber of play was more than competitive with the NBA, as the ABA proved itself superior to the NBA in exhibition matches between the leagues’ teams,” the petition correctly noted.

In exhibition matches in 1973, ABA teams went 15-10 against NBA foes. A year later, the ABA clubs went 16-7. In 1975, ABA squads triumphed in 31 of 48 games.

The simple math produced these results: 62 wins and 34 losses in those 96 games for ABA teams.

Harold Fox of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves (left) and Roland “Fatty” Taylor of the ABA’s Virginia Squires square off in a 1972 exhibition game. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

It demonstrated the extensive talent, skills and pride of ABA players and coaches, and it proved that their style of play was, well, winning basketball against the old-guard NBA.

“The ABA was all about style,” the petition stated. “With its red, white, and blue ball, the ABA popularized a much more free-flowing and exciting style of play than the NBA was featuring in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The ABA featured the three-point shot when the NBA did not, and the ABA teams played at a faster pace with an increased emphasis on playing above the rim. The pre-merger ABA resembled the modern NBA much more than the pre-merger NBA did. The ABA also popularized All-Star Weekend, including the slam dunk contest and three-point shootout.”

Editor’s note: Below is Part I in this ongoing series, with several exclusive interviews to be showcased in future installments.