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.
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.”
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.”