NBA, NBPA agree to pension substitute for aging pension-less ABA players

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​There is good news for former American Basketball Association players who didn’t play long enough to qualify for an NBA pension. Thanks to the work of the Dropping Dimes Foundation, 115 former players will receive a portion of $24.5 million, as agreed to by the NBA’s board of governors. The payments will come from both the NBA and from the National Basketball Players Association, and while it isn’t a pension, it still will serve somewhat like one.

They are being called “recognition payments,” and will be sent out annually to (1) players who played for three or more years in the ABA or (2) players with three or more combined years between the ABA and NBA. Indy Star has the full details, as well as a lengthy story worth reading on the subject, as this is a beat they’ve been on for some time now:

The agreement pays players an average $3,828 annually for each year they were in the league. For example, a player with the minimum three seasons will receive $11,484 a year. A player with the most years of service, such as Freddie Lewis who has nine, will get $35,452 a year.

“It’s an incredible day for former ABA players,” said Scott Tarter, CEO and founder of Dropping Dimes, “one that we and the players have been hoping for and working so hard toward for many years.”

After the vote, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the players and team governors “felt a need to act on behalf of these former ABA players who are aging and, in many cases, facing difficult economic circumstances.”

“These pioneers made meaningful contributions to help grow the game of professional basketball and we all believe it’s appropriate to provide financial recognition to this group for their impact.”

The ABA was once a rival to the NBA, but, according to one of the owners of the Indiana Pacers (per The Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia) the idea in its formation was essentially to become successful enough that the NBA would want to merge with it — and for the owners, acquiring a team in the ABA would be cheaper than the purchase of an NBA team, and in the end they’d still end up in the NBA, anyway, if all went well. The long-term play there was not a second, national, competing league, but to pull off the same result as past competition in other sports, like the American Football League merging with the National Football League, or the American League and National League joining forces after a brief time as rivals to create what would become Major League Baseball.

The ABA formed in 1967, and the first attempt at a merger came in 1970. While this was slowed down by an antitrust suit filed by Oscar Robertson, who was at the time the president of the NBPA, the ABA and NBA would eventually merge once that suit was settled:

It might sound like settling was a loss since the merger happened, but the players got something in return: free agency, and the end of the reserve clause. The style of the NBA’s play changed with the merger, players had more choice in their movement, and the league became much more like the one we know today. The players did not like their situation, and were able to leverage their union’s power to better it, and keep the NBA from doing whatever it felt like — and keep them from getting the antitrust exemption they craved, as well.

That’s all to the good for the NBPA, their power as a union, and the players on the merged squads. The problem, as far as these pension-less players goes, was that the ABA peaked at 11 teams, but then saw five of those clubs fold in the last two years of the league. Just four of the remaining six teams merged with the NBA when an agreement was finally reached, though: that’s a whole bunch of ABA players who stuck with that league until there weren’t enough teams left to roster them all.

The NBA and NBPA didn’t have to help these players out, legally speaking. They didn’t qualify for a pension, given that they spent most of their time in the ABA or not enough in either league. Paying them is the right thing to do, however, for two groups with the kind of resources that the NBA and the combined body of the current players have at their disposal. Consider:

IndyStar published a story last year revealing that 80% of former ABA players struggling financially are Black. Those are the players coming to Dropping Dimes for help.

Those players blazed the trail for what the NBA game is today, fast-paced with 3-pointers and slam dunk contests, and they deserved something for that, [Scott] Tarter [Dropping Dimes CEO and founder] said.

He and his organization have been on a mission to get the NBA “to do the right thing,” Tarter said.

The former ABA players are now in their late 60s, 70s and 80s. Some are homeless, living under bridges. Some die alone with no money for a gravestone. Others can’t afford dentures or a new suit to go to church.

More than 10 players on Dropping Dimes’ pension list, now 140, have died in the past three years. Time was a factor in pushing the NBA to act, Tarter said.

Why not help people who can be helped, and need it? It took too long for the NBA and NBPA to come up with the right answer, but they got there eventually, and that’s not nothing. MLB and the MLBPA addressed a similar-ish situation over a decade ago, to help former players who were not retroactively included in a 1980 change to pension and benefits coverage in the league that created a significant lowering of the eligibility threshold. The Michael Weiner-led MLBPA negotiated a $625 quarterly payment that scaled for every 43 days of service one of these pre-1980 players had, up to $10,000, and like with these “recognition payments” from the NBA and NBPA, they were not a pension. Which is why, unlike a pension, they’re non-transferrable to family members, with payments stopping when one of these players dies, and why you see op-eds pop up at local newspapers again and again asking for more for these players from Douglas Gladstone.

More could be done for both these former ABA players and these pre-1980 MLB players — even in that Indy Star article, you can see that Dropping Dimes is happy about what was won, because it’s more than what was there previously, but it wasn’t quite at the level they were aiming for, either. Still, it’s good to see that these players, who desperately need something and have for years now, are actually going to get help. It’s a real shame, and one that was avoidable, that multiple players didn’t live long enough to get any of that help themselves.

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