2017 marks the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). What started with only a handful of members has now grown into an 850-person-strong collection of former professional players from the best basketball leagues in American history (NBA, ABA, WNBA, and the Harlem Globetrotters).
They say that the joy of life is in the journey it entails. I agree, but it is especially exhilarating when at the end of the journey you find that all of your goals have been reached. Over the last 25 years the NBRPA, like most organizations, has endured a few setbacks along the way. However, due to its noble mission to collectively assist its members in the areas of education, pension, health, employment, and fraternity, we knew that it was bound to succeed. This article is an abbreviated account of the actions of a few that positively impacted the lives of many.
Four decades ago the seed for the NBPRA was planted when NBA star and army veteran Archie Clark approached Larry Fleisher, Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, to inquire about the possibility of retired pro basketball players remaining part of the players union. Archie got this idea after witnessing the impact the United Auto Worker retirees had at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, ultimately earning a worthy pension. Mr. Fleisher, who was later honored for his work on behalf of the players by being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991 as a contributor, told Archie that the bylaws would not allow that. So, an alternative plan was hatched because Archie was committed to making his dream become a reality. Archie was a player representative during all his years in the NBA, except for his rookie season. He was always front and center as a spokesman for player rights.
Wisely, Archie reached out to future Hall of Famer Dave Bing, who also lived in the Detroit area, to enlist his support in this effort. Archie could not have found a better ally because Dave was and is a renowned civic and business leader in Michigan. I could list his many accomplishments here but suffice it to say that Dave knows how to make things happen not just for himself and his family but for the good of all concerned. He and Archie spoke with many of their former teammates and fellow retired players to understand their needs and engage them in the formation of a retired players association. What they found out very quickly was that none of the players who retired prior to 1965 had any pension benefits. With the added assistance of legendary players like Earl Lloyd, Dolph Schayes, and others, they located and contacted 170 retired players who were receiving NO benefits. Since the Players Association, a union, was formed that year, former players could not be part of it. Realizing this, they agreed to start by looking backwards to see how they could assist them going forward.
Just to put this in perspective, if you compare player compensation received in 1960 compared to what NBA players earn today, a $50,000/year contract back then equates to $400,000 in current dollars. That means that all the legends of our great game were playing for less than today’s minimum salary during their entire careers. To be fair, no one complained at the time because we all felt privileged to accept the challenge of competing at the highest level every time we stepped onto the court. That is what we share as professionals, and it is what our playing legacies are all about. Nonetheless, you can imagine what these players were thinking when seeing how much money the players in the 1980's/1990's were making, as well as learning of the substantial benefits being negotiated by the retired player associations of MLB and the NFL. Consequently, up stepped one of the greatest players in our sport’s history-Oscar Robertson- the face of NBA free agency. Back in 1970, he began what would be a 6-year struggle that was finally resolved in favor of all players, giving each of them the right to negotiate with other NBA teams, only bound by a right of first refusal retained by their current club. Oscar, the”Big O”, led what was seen as our civil rights movement within the sports arena.
At the same time the NBA was beginning to highlight the All-Star Game, turning it into a weekend-long celebration. So Archie, Dave Bing, and Oscar arranged to meet with David Stern and Larry Fleisher to feature a Legends Game (which lasted from 1984-1993) and to have the proceeds from All-Star Saturday, of which it was a part, fund the effort to organize the NBRPA. However, before any money was received, Stern decided it was best to establish a Legends Fund that would accomplish many of the goals and fulfill the demands of the retired players group, such as providing scholarships and payments of some medical expenses for retired players who qualified for such assistance. Even though his decision was disappointing at the time, it allowed us to form a close partnership with the NBA, obviously due to the fact that many retired players would serve on that Legends Foundation Board along with NBA and NBPA executives. This partnership allowed us to establish working relationships with them and to get them to understand that we were not an adversary but rather a valuable partner in growing the game.
Dave DeBusschere, another famous Detroit athlete who is considered by many to be the heart and soul of the NBRPA, was also invited to be a Founder. Having served as ABA Commissioner when that league merged with the NBA in 1976, he instantly gave us more clout. In addition, as a beloved New York Knick and a 2-time World Champion, he carried a lot of weight in the league’s Manhattan offices. Tragically, in 2002 a few short blocks from those offices he died at the young age of 62 due to a heart attack. In tribute, our renowned scholarship program now bears his name. You could not have handpicked a better group of men to represent the retired players than these four.
I was asked to join this prestigious group by Oscar following the 1991 Hall of Fame ceremonies. I immediately agreed to serve, and it was one of the best decisions of my life. Soon thereafter the five of us assembled to discuss and implement a strategy on how to bring our dream to fruition. We organized our group by assigning board positions, writing a mission statement, and contributing $1000 each to fund our future endeavors.
Now we had some momentum so we hired Dennis Coleman, former Brown University quarterback and lawyer at the Ropes & Gray law firm in Boston, to help us create our 501(c)(3) organization and eventually hired Mel Davis as our first Executive Director. Mel, a former NBA player, was working for the league along with Tom “Satch” Sanders in the creation and implementation of player development programs. Mel did an outstanding job in establishing our New York offices, and successfully negotiated our first group licensing agreement (GLA) with the NBA. In addition, he established partnerships with many health care providers, recruited board members, executed a membership drive, and ably handled the many administrative duties that were delegated to him by the Founders. He held that position for seven years and served with distinction through the many twists and turns that occurred during the formative years of our organization. He led the efforts to hold a retired players luncheon during All-Star Weekend, which has morphed into the highly rated Legends Brunch, and created/produced Replay Magazine, which remains in existence today.
During the players strike in 1995, many retired players flew to New York and conducted interviews voicing their opinions on the pros and cons of this labor stoppage and offered some suggestions on how to get the two sides to come to an agreement before the game was damaged any further in the minds of the fans. I think it was at this moment in time that the league recognized our inherent value to the game of basketball and the NBA brand. Bob Cousy was on the board of the Legends Foundation and had a lot of input, along with guys like Bob Pettit, Gene Conley, all of the Founders and others who were the voices of the retired players during this time.
Soon afterward we began to further examine the actual pension agreement that was negotiated in 1965 within the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA.). As important as all the other goals were to our organization, the pension agreement was the vehicle that would bring the most economic stability not only to our members and their families but to all professional basketball players. Dave Bing called the pension and insurance issues the "elephant in the room" when negotiations got serious.
Enter Jack Marin, another accomplished NBA All-Star, a practicing lawyer in North Carolina, a certified agent, and friend to us all. He accepted Dave Bing's request to thoroughly read the current CBA with particular focus on the pension details. What he quickly discovered and then had verified with Ron Klempner, a lawyer at the Players Association was that the pension plan had not seen increases in funding each time the NBA salary cap grew, as required under the agreement. Both the Players Association and the NBA immediately recognized that this was an oversight that needed correcting. As a result, Jack and his team of experts hammered out a new pension agreement that increased the benefit by 42% the following year, up to the maximum allowed by federal law at that time. Through his ongoing efforts with the support of our association, the plan has retained this status, and benefits in 2016 are now three times greater than when we began! Needless to say Jack gets our MVP award every year for his tireless efforts on our behalf. The recurring message here is that former players were stepping up to help all players have more financial security in retirement and a safety net during their lives after basketball.
The above story brings to mind the adage that you only get what you negotiate, and we were not through negotiating by any stretch of the imagination. Believe it or not, we still had some detractors within both the Players Association and our own membership. You would not think that our journey would pit us against the current players’ group, but you have to remember that not even the NBA was financially secure at this time and the players were dealing with their own internal strife. Battling from time to time with the players’ agents and some shortsighted players on the NBPA board, we nonetheless continued to make progress in small increments. Also, as the NBRPA began to see some success the league wanted to assert more control over us. This made the Players Association a little leery. However, Dave Bing urged us to understand that time would heal all wounds: “Over time the league became more of a partner with us.” We tried very hard to establish a working relationship with anyone who could help us achieve our mission, and we remained steadfast to our vision.
Today, thanks in large part to Charlie Rosenzweig, the NBA’s Senior VP of Marketing, we have a tremendous group licensing agreement with the NBA that passes millions of dollars straight through us to our members from companies that have partnered with the league. The NBA owners and NBPA members have established a comprehensive health insurance plan that is FREE to many players and at reduced costs to ALL others. We are a prominent and positive presence in the communities where our many Chapters exist. We provide much-needed financial assistance for many of our members. We have provided a platform for the brotherhood and sisterhood of professional basketball players to interact with each other in meaningful ways. And as mentioned, we have a great pension for our retired players to utilize during their senior years.
As Founders we only ask that the next generation of players continue to lead the NBRPA on this quest to have total solidarity among all former, current, and future players. Oscar says it best: “I hope that more and more players continue to respond to the Retired Players Association and become involved.” It has been a great joy for all of us to play a role in the creation of an enduring organization that has impacted so many lives in so many meaningful ways.
Prepared by Dave Cowens and Jon Teitel with the assistance of Archie Clark, Dave Bing and Oscar Robertson.
Dedicated to the memory of Dave DeBusschere