By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 16, 2017)
Second in a series
The April petition sent by the Retired ABA Players to the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association contains powerful statements, bold truths and facts that have been conveniently ignored by the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media.
Now is an appropriate time to continue reporting and analyzing this issue.
Here is an important expanded snippet from the introduction: “The sad truth is that the ABA players were largely forgotten. Their pension plan was never integrated. The NBA has done anything but take care of these ABA legacy players. The NBA simply pillaged the best rules, playing style, and players and left the others without jobs and ultimately their dignity. To make matters worse, the NBA gratuitously took care of the pre-1965 players, but left the other pioneers of the game uncompensated and disenfranchised. This cherry picking of reparations is not in the spirit of the league and what it claims to stand for. In the era of big bucks and showtime, the forefathers who were promised much but given little should not be left forgotten and largely in poverty. We respectfully ask for a remedy. We ask for a showing of humanity, of community and of equity that the NBA so boasts as core principles of its billion dollar league enterprise.”
Why was this petition submitted in 2017, decades after the final ABA game?
Well, issues remain unresolved for the ABA’s legends and its countless pioneers of the modern game.
“The whole thing is unreal,” legendary basketball journalist Peter Vecsey said. “For years, the ABA players hadn’t realized they were due money per merger agreement. The Spurs were in charge of distribution, but kept it hidden until (former ABA big man Robert) Netolicky hired a Chicago firm to look into it. So many players died without getting a penny.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Joe Caldwell’s career bridged the NBA and the ABA. The former Arizona State Sun Devils standout was a two-time NBA All-Star and a two-time ABA All-Star during his pro career (1964-75). He suited up for the Detroit Pistons and St. Louis/Atlanta Haws, then moved on to the ABA with the Carolina Cougars and Spirits of St. Louis.
“I have been fighting for my pension for 48 years,” Caldwell, now 75, a member of the U.S. gold medal-winning squad at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, told me.
As the petition correctly noted, the ABA, established in 1967, was a catalyst for the game’s growth and evolution and future global fame and popularity.
Consider: There were 10 NBA teams in 1967; that season, the ABA began with 11, clearing the path for more players — more than double — to showcase their skills in U.S. pro ball.
What’s more, the petition pointed out this: “The ABA’s existence resulted in increased salaries for players in both leagues as the ABA and NBA competed with each other to sign players.”
According to the Association for Professional Basketball Research, the minimum rookie salary for the 1968-69 season was $10,000 and the minimum pensioned veteran’s salary was $12,500.
Let’s fast forward to the recently completed 2016-17 season, when the average NBA salary was $4.58 million.
Businessinsider.com summed up the NBA’s thriving economy this way: “Of the 360 active-roster players during the 2016-17 season, half will make at least $3.75 million, more than $1.0 ahead of any other sports league.”
Additionally, the vast wealth that the NBA and its 30 teams share is effectively understood when it’s viewed from a broad perspective in comparison to other major pro sports. See this: http://www.sportingintelligence.com/2016/11/13/cavaliers-no1-in-world-sports-pay-man-utd-highest-in-football-131101/
But let’s take a step back. What did the ABA prove in the 1960s and ’70s?
“The ABA’s caliber of play was more than competitive with the NBA, as the ABA proved itself superior to the NBA in exhibition matches between the leagues’ teams,” the petition correctly noted.
In exhibition matches in 1973, ABA teams went 15-10 against NBA foes. A year later, the ABA clubs went 16-7. In 1975, ABA squads triumphed in 31 of 48 games.
The simple math produced these results: 62 wins and 34 losses in those 96 games for ABA teams.
It demonstrated the extensive talent, skills and pride of ABA players and coaches, and it proved that their style of play was, well, winning basketball against the old-guard NBA.
“The ABA was all about style,” the petition stated. “With its red, white, and blue ball, the ABA popularized a much more free-flowing and exciting style of play than the NBA was featuring in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The ABA featured the three-point shot when the NBA did not, and the ABA teams played at a faster pace with an increased emphasis on playing above the rim. The pre-merger ABA resembled the modern NBA much more than the pre-merger NBA did. The ABA also popularized All-Star Weekend, including the slam dunk contest and three-point shootout.”
Editor’s note: Below is Part I in this ongoing series, with several exclusive interviews to be showcased in future installments.