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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Old-timers desperate for financial assists

Sam Smith Chicago Tribune

A little help!

It’s the cry everyone knows at the playground, the basketball rolling away to another court, a plaintive plea for an assist from a stranger.

It’s one being made by the veterans of the NBA, the players who pulled the red carpet into place with their sweat and sacrifice so today’s players can work for an average salary exceeding $4 million per year. They’re asking for perhaps what one player earns in one season for more than 120 pioneers of the NBA, many barely surviving in nursing homes and health care facilities.

They’ve been told, in effect, to take care of their own problems. The NBA players are busy with their own game.

“We’ve heard in collective bargaining $35 million was going to be applied toward augmentation of the pension for both pre- and post-65 players,” said Bob Cousy, the former Celtics great and the player who truly began the modern style of basketball 50 years ago with his trickery and ballhandling. “It’s been left to a discussion with (players association chief Billy) Hunter and the active players. Traditionally, they have not responded at all to our issues. Even Larry Fleisher before Hunter. But the scuttlebutt is we’re going to get none of the monies. It traumatizes a lot of my guys. From the beginning, we’ve been beggars at the gate. We’re still beggars. We’re dropping daily. We’re passe. We’re a bunch of old men waiting to have our tickets punched. They’re sitting back and waiting for us to die off so the problem goes away.”

Last month when NBA great and former Minnesota Laker George Mikan died, there was a spike of publicity about the plight of the so-called pre-65ers, the group of NBA players whose careers ended before 1965. They initially weren’t included in the NBA pension plan. In 1988, the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players brought them in, but at well below the rate for players who played after 1965. The pre-65ers received $200 per month per year of service up to a maximum of 10 years. The pension for players after 1965 is almost twice that amount.

The need obviously is greater for the older generation of players, who were paid little more than average workers then and had to get supplementary jobs. For example, Bulls general manager John Paxson’s father played in the NBA, but quit after a few years to work in insurance because it paid better to support the family.

“I hear about guys being thrown out of nursing homes,” Cousy said. “For the most part, guys in our generation had a couple of jobs. I’ve done eight different things, camps, whatever I had to do. (They) are not homeless, but guys are dying off. There are a few now even working to earn a few dollars. Whatever increase that would be passed on to us would have a positive effect on the lives of the guys left.

“Thank God I’m comfortable. I’m not wealthy, but I don’t need a bump. I’ve got enough to sustain my lifestyle. I’m willing to pass my share on to the guys who need it.”

Hearing Cousy, you just wish there were a few more players like that today.

This issue is significant now because the rhetoric has heated up about a lockout July 1.

Both the union and the league finally figured out that the public wouldn’t have a lot of sympathy for people battling over billions. Substantial progress was reported out of the weekend meetings. A new six-year deal is believed to be virtually certain to be signed before the contract expires June 30. But the guys who started all this, the players to whom everyone supposedly pays homage, are outside the fence looking in. When questioned, the league says the players always seek a giveback when the league proposes a shared plan to increase the pre-65 pension. The players say they seek increases, but the owners balk.

What’s pathetic is how little it would take – much less than the NBA and players donated for tsunami victims. How about Old-Timer aid?

It would be laughable to guys like Cousy if it weren’t so sad.

“They reached out once and put a pension in for us, but obviously a lot of guys feel it isn’t adequate,” Cousy said. “Thank goodness everything went beautifully and everyone is making a lot of money. We feel the players have a definite responsibility to those who went before them.”

It’s been interesting to Cousy and other pre-65ers in recent weeks to hear the likes of Charles Barkley say that the old-timers deserve more and for Shaquille O’Neal to pay for Mikan’s funeral. The veterans also note it was these players who helped keep a pension increase out of the 1999 agreement. And O’Neal now is an officer in the players’ association. If he’s so concerned about the old-timers, they wonder, how about more than a publicity-generating grandstand gesture?

“I had a good relationship with (Celtics owner) Walter Brown when we started the players’ association,” said Cousy, the founding leader. “I said we weren’t complaining, but it’s something we had to do for all the players and I got his blessing. I remember one year Walter came to us and said he couldn’t pay us our playoff share. He said he had to take a mortgage and would pay us when we got back to camp in October. He owed us $20,000 (total). (Ed) Macauley and I had a team meeting and we said we’d all be out selling insurance if not for him paying us to play a child’s game, so what was the big deal to wait until October. We did and he paid us. It was that kind of relationship. Now there’s so much hostility among the players, management and ownership.

“They should thank God every morning that they get paid what they do to play a child’s game,” Cousy said. “Maybe they could give back a little to make the old-timers’ lives easier. We’re all blessed to have been in this business. So maybe those at the table could lend a hand for those who set the table. We were told at the outset they’d do something, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.”

By the end of next week, there should be a new labor agreement in place ready to be signed. It will last at least six years. By then there may just be a handful of pre-65ers living.

C’mon, guys, a little help!

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