Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Why You Hatin’, NBA?

Salon’s King Kaufman, (the best sports columnist in the world) has a piece today exploring an issue that honestly had never occurred to me before. The NBA, currently rolling in hella-Benjamins, is miserly with its old-timer pension plan.

Shaquille O'Neal once gave a photo to George Mikan, the NBA's first great big man and first great star, inscribed, "Without you, there would be no me." The Miami Heat star repeated the sentiment earlier this month when he publicly offered to pay for Mikan's funeral.

It doesn't appear to be a sentiment widely held by NBA players, or by the league itself. In a little over a half century the NBA has grown from a struggling entity vainly hoping to fill hockey arenas on dark nights to a $3 billion international business that turns young ballplayers into millionaires by the dozen.

But as the finishing touches are being put on the league's new collective-bargaining agreement with the players union, some of the game's pioneers, men who played in front of small crowds for teams like the Chicago Stags and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks -- but also for the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks -- are hoping for an increase in what they consider an ungenerous NBA pension.

Others are hoping, after two decades of fighting, to be included at all.

The former players in both groups are in their late 70s and 80s mostly, some of them doing fine and others in desperate financial straits. They see the billions being generated by the league they helped build and wonder why today's millionaires won't shake loose what amounts to chump change to help them out.

"We were responsible for starting the league and keeping it going," says John Ezersky, 83, who played in the old Basketball Association of America and then the NBA in a three-year career that ended in 1950. "I think we're entitled to a little bit."

Ezersky gets no pension, and he and his wife, Elaine, live on about $15,000 a year in Social Security. He retired five years ago after spending a half century driving cabs in New York and San Francisco.

Bill Tosheff, who leads a group of three- and four-year veterans who are not included in the pension plan, says $400,000 a year would take care of them all, diminishing annually as the bell tolled.

That's a little more than a third of what the San Antonio Spurs paid forward Tony Massenburg this year to sit on the bench. It's less than 1 percent of the average payroll of a single team. It's significantly less than what just two teams, the Celtics and the Toronto Raptors, donated to tsunami relief.

"It's like we're pressing our noses against the window of a restaurant where everyone inside is just gorging themselves," says Bob Cousy, the Celtics point guard of the 1950s who is among the greatest players ever and one of the most prominent of the so-called pre-'65ers, men who played before the league's pension plan was introduced in 1965 and were thus excluded.
It’s really sad, isn’t it? The league is rich on the backs of these pioneers, and the NBA can’t even be bothered to make sure that they aren’t living their final years driving a cab until they’re 80 or just plain suffering in poverty. I know we can’t get upset about every little issue, every little injustice. But it can’t hurt to shine a little light onto this travesty. Maybe we can shame David Stern into doing the right thing.

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