By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Aug. 1, 2017)
Fifth in a series
A few weeks before the NBA’s hectic signing period made headlines to kick off summer, former ABA star Willie Wise reflected on the economic changes within pro basketball across the decades, but also provided a detailed analysis of how influential the ABA was in shaping the way the game is played today.
But first a few numbers from contracts finalized in recent weeks: J.J. Redick (one year, $23 million, Philadelphia 76ers), Gordon Hayward (four years, $128M, Boston Celtics), Kevin Durant (two years, $53M, Golden State Warriors), Paul Millsap (three years, $90M, Denver Nuggets), Kyle Lowry (three years, $100M, Toronto Raptors).
Those, of course, are just a few of the blockbuster contracts being signed by dozens of players, many of whom never enter the discussion as being superstars. In a July 2016 article, The New York Times’ Marc Tracy noted, “An infusion of billions of dollars into the league’s coffers from a television contracted agreed upon two years ago has led to this: That random guy on the bench is getting upward of $15 million a year.”
In other words, as Tracy cited, guys like Timofey Mozgov. The veteran big man, who scored 6.3 points per game in the 2015-16 campaign, got a four-year deal, which began in 2016, for a cool $64 million from the Los Angeles Lakers.
There’s also Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley’s $153 million deal for five years, starting in 2016.
Indeed, there’s big money being thrown around — more money than ever, in fact. Sportsbusinessdaily.com reported in October 2016 that the NBA’s expected revenue for this past season was $8 billion.
Wise, who starred for the Los Angeles/Utah Stars and Virginia Squires in the ABA before wrapping up his playing career with the Denver Nuggets (1976-77) and Seattle SuperSonics (1977), is passionate about the issue of former ABA players’ pensions, especially at a time when the NBA is thriving financially.
And Wise was one of the elite players in ABA history (see below for a detailed analysis by ABA and NBA expert Peter Vecsey). In 1971, he was described by Sports Illustrated as “the best two-way performer in pro basketball.” This lavish praise came after the Utah Stars, with Bill Sharman at the helm, captured the 1971 ABA championship, winning that crown in seven games over the Kentucky Colonels.
As Julius “Dr. J” Erving declared in an article penned by the late Dan Pattison that is featured on the essential website www.remembertheaba.com, “Willie Wise was one of the toughest competitors I ever played against. He came to play every night. I really respected him. Willie was one of those players that the NBA fans never had a chance to see the best he had. That’s because Willie was injured a lot when he played in the NBA. That was a shame. Willie Wise had game. A great game.”
In the same feature, Wise , a 6-foot-5 forward out of Drake University (his No. 42 jersey was retired by the Missouri Valley Conference school in 2009; he helped lead the Bulldogs to the 1969 NCAA Final Four), summed up his approach to the pro game this way: “My first and only goal coming into the ABA was to be a great defensive player. I loved playing defense. It was always a challenge to see if I could stop guys like Rick Barry, John Brisker, and Roger Brown. But I didn’t like to think of myself as the best defensive player in the league. That’s because when I started to think about that I might have let down.”
Guided by lawyer Steven Hart, the Retired ABA Players submitted a signed petition to the NBA and to the National Basketball Players Association in April.
Wise said that Hart was “launching this petition to see if the NBA would want to move forward and do something to avert any kind of negative publicity, because the (league’s) popularity is pretty good.”
The signs are not encouraging. The NBA has not committed to earnest dialogue or any changes to the status quo.
At the heart of the petition is this: “Very simply, the promises made to the ABA players to finalize the ‘merger’ have been broken time and again,” it stated. “ABA players were told they would be treated the same as NBA players; they weren’t. ABA players were told that their pension fund would be equal to the NBA pension fund; it wasn’t.”
However, it’s an important initiative at a crucial time in the lives of former ABA players.
“I don’t know how effective it’s going to be,” Wise, now 70, said in a phone interview, “because the NBA can stall forever.”
And the number of former ABA players keeps decreasing; time is not on their side in this battle.
Throughout our conversation, Wise rattled off names of ex-ABA players who had passed away, including Zelmo Beatty, Moses Malone, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, George Stone, Warren Jabali, Caldwell Jones and Mervin Jackson and, in recent months, two more: Skeeter Swift and George Irvine.
What’s more, three-time ABA All-Star guard Steve “Snapper” Jones, a longtime NBA TV analyst, is “dealing with a fairly serious medical condition,” Wise said.
“So those of us who are alive and remain upright are dwindling quite rapidly .. and if the NBA says out of the goodness of their heart we will in fact go ahead and take care of those players who did in fact play in the NBA, but didn’t play the number of required years to qualify for the NBA pension, we will make their years retroactive to take care of them, I think if they wait another 10 years, then they won’t have that many players to deal with. (But) they could take care of them.”
Reflecting on Swift, who passed away in April, and noting his financial challenges over the years, Wise also had this to say: “I know others that were hurting and still are hurting..
“There are a lot of players that are in that category like Skeeter was — Goo Kennedy (age 67), Cincinnatus Powell (age 75), and they are still alive in the Texas area somewhere … John Beasley (age 73), ones like that.”
Wise, a fifth-round pick (64th overall) of the San Francisco Warriors in the 1969 NBA Draft, is hopeful that the petition’s message can trigger changes.
He said, “I hope that we can apply through this media pressure, media influence, some pressure on the NBA to look at this whole situation, revisit it and say, ‘We’re not obligated, but at the very least we can take care of the players who went from the ABA to the NBA during the absorption. It wasn’t a merger; it was an absorption. At the very least, those players and, hopefully, all the former ABA players who were current at the time of the absorption. That’s my hope.”
The petition elaborates on this objective in clear terms.
“The former ABA players do not ask for much —they merely want to be heard in a meaningful way, to fashion a remedy that justly compensates them consistent with the way the NBA has gratuitously compensated similar ‘pioneers’ in the past. What they seek is a modest monetary acknowledgement compared to the money running through the modern game,” the petition stated.
This modest request includes a request for ABA players with more than three years of service in the league to receive an increase in monthly compensation to $300/month for each year of service from $60/month. (Players from the pre-1965 era receive $300/month for each year of service, while the current collective bargaining agreement provides $2,000 per month for year of service to retired players.)
An important point addressed in the aforementioned petition is the fact that NBA teams and the NBA online store via the omnipresent power of the internet sell throwback jerseys and other ABA-themed memorabilia of the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets.
“What have the former ABA players realized monetarily from the advertisement of their legacy and playing days? Nothing, not a dime!” the petition stated.
It’s really disgusting,” Wise said. “If there’s profiteering going on, of the ABA, the old throwback (jerseys) and memorabilia of anything like that, for sure they should take care of, again, those players who went into the NBA…”
Wise issued a direct challenge to the NBA commissioner.
“So Adam Silver at the very least could (decide), ‘OK, instead of just shutting us out, let’s at least come to the table. They’re making money off of us as it is,” he said.
“I think it’s just morally right, morally correct, for them to add us to the full pension, especially since it’s not going to hurt them that much.”
If the former ABA players are able to change the NBA’s mind on this issue, it will take a dedicated campaign to elevate the public’s awareness of the issue. Having a high-profile spokesman to raise the bar is a key.
So who could help elevate the issue?
Wise explained it this way: “A very important component of the history of the NBA, especially the way the game is played currently is the NBA, and I think a face of the ABA that is really pro-ABA and would celebrate their ABA roots is Dr. J.”
Wise also recommended that longtime announcer Bob Costas, who got his big break as a young announcer as the play-by-play voice of the Spirits of St. Louis, have an active role in being a key figure in this fight.
“Whether he would agree to be the face of this issue, I have no idea,” Wise said of Costas. “But I know he would say something very positive about the ABA, and there should be something in the form of financial consideration for those players who shaped the current NBA … the current playing style of the NBA today.”
“There are retired NBA players who are very sympathetic to our cause, there are a number of them,” Wise said, suggesting Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins and Spencer Haywood, the last three of whom also starred in the ABA early in their careers.
Wise is pleased that the ABA petition is making the rounds on the internet, giving it greater visibility and helping educate the public on the matter.
“The power of the terms cannot be overlooked or discounted,” Wise said, “so I think that it’s a good thing and I’d like to see more of it … and hopefully it could gain momentum that would force the NBA (to say), ‘OK, we better do something about this.'”
Wise’s highlights from the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game in two packages:
Wise was a prime-time player. During his pro career he saw action in 552 regular-season games and averaged 17.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.16 steals. He increased those numbers to 19.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.39 in 74 postseason contests. He was a two-time All-ABA Second Team selection and a two-time All-ABA Defensive First Team choice.
The SuperSonics waived Wise in November 1977, signaling the end of his playing career.
He began driving a concrete mixer in the Seattle are and retired in June 2015 after three decades on the job.
“I had to work,” he said. “I had a family. I was trying to make ends meet.”
Before starting his job as a driver, Wise had tried to pursue a career as an airline pilot, but said that it was too expensive to gain the necessary training and experience.
Raising a family and switching careers more than once created financial burdens for Wise. He cashed in on his pension in one lump sum at age 45. He received $83,000.
“I was in dire financial straits,” he said. “Basically homeless. I needed a down payment for a house.” (This included originally deferred money that “was redistributed back into the contract.”)
“I didn’t have anything afterwards, no. I didn’t have anything monthly coming in because I took it all because I needed it,” he said.
He said the IRS “disallowed” some investments and limited partnerships he was involved in four or five years later, demanding “all our money now.”
As a result, he was forced to sell his previous house.
“We weren’t living extravagantly,” he said.
To get the pension, he hired an attorney (legal fees amounted to 33 percent of what he received).
The Spurs administered the dispersal of pension funds, but in order to get paid players had to fight for their cause in a local court in Texas.
As Wise remembered it, one former ABA player who had the same number of years of service in the league was awarded a $150,000 lump-sum payment.
Another player, Wise said, “got substantially less than me and he played more years in the ABA than I did. I don’t understand it.”
Wise maintains pride in the way ABA teams played the game and influenced the way the NBA has evolved into a more free-flowing style that resembles the ABA.
“We practically pioneered the Golden State Warriors,” Wise said. “The way they play is the way we played in the ’60s and ’70s, and the NBA’s adoption of the 3-point line after much wrangling back and forth — because there were a lot that did not want it because they thought it was just an ABA gimmick to get people into the stands; let’s give them three points for a shot from a certain distance rather than just two, and the old guard in the NBA didn’t want it and fought against it, Red Auerbach being one, Dick Motta from the Bulls being another, and I want to say, but I’m not certain about this one, Jerry Colangelo. There were a number of coaches that fought it and finally the NBA adopted it (for the 1979-80 season), and it just grew and grew…”
He went on: “As the years passed, more and more teams saw the value of opening it up, having a wide-open game, because now you have to defend further away from the basket, which means that you are a lot more vulnerable to someone who can penetrate like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
“And now, guys like Isaiah Thomas 20 years ago wouldn’t have made it in the NBA without the 3-point line. So those guys should be forever grateful to us.”
Wise, of course, is right. He is, well, wise about this matter without sounding pompous.
“And now because of the fan appeal, everybody’s looking for the 3-point shot,” Wise said. “Look at Golden State today. They just go bananas over that 3-point shot, and we were the ones that brought that in and introduced that.
“And so there should be some readjustments, some reconsideration from this standpoint as well for the players who have X amount of years in the ABA.”
There’s a generational gap among those who know the historical impact of the ABA and those who don’t, particularly those in their teens, 20s and 30s.
Case in point: The belief that the 3-point shot and Slam Dunk Contest were NBA innovations.
Actually, the ABA popularized both, doing so first.
Or as Wise put it: “We of the old guard are constantly telling them, ‘No, they got that from us.’ ”
In Peter Vecsey’s words, here’s a one-of-a-kind analysis of Wise’s career, persona and hoop legacy:
“Willie’s game wasn’t attention-grabbing, and his personality wasn’t attention-seeking. Despite being acknowledged by his peers, coaches and the media as among the ABA’s three toughest defensive forwards in ABA history (Joe Caldwell and Bobby Jones), and the best two-way player in pro ball one season by Sports Illustrated, I can’t remember him ever talking about himself, immodestly or otherwise. He always gave credit where credit was due, and not so much, to others,” Vecsey wrote in an email. “Opponents weren’t quite as reserved. Rick Barry, to this day, says Willie made it harder for him to score than anyone else the two years he dominated the red, white and blue scoreboard for the Nets. Think about who Willie had cover on a nightly basis — Barry, Roger Brown, Julius Erving, John Brisker, and sometimes Spencer Haywood during his brief tour with Denver. Occasionally David Thompson and George Gervin, as well.
“I put Willie on the same plateau as Dave DeBusschere. His offense (19.2 in seven ABA seasons, almost 9 rebounds, as I recall) was more diversified, a lot trickier than DD, faking, leaning, finishing off the backboard, or he’d pull up on the fast break and drill a midrange jumper. DeBusschere’s offense was nothing fancy, long jumpers and putbacks in congestion.
“Regrettably, like James Jones and Jimmy Silas (crippled by injuries and was still a standout), and Mack Calvin and Ron Boone, Willie’s best days were seen by far too few fans and HOF voters. Hence, his historic lack of recognition.”
Vecsey, the legendary former New York Post columnist who has returned to the basketball beat with a new subscriber-based website, petervecseyreport.com, revealed that Wise was stiffed by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“When Jerry Colangelo condescendingly formed an ABA HOF Committee — Barry, Costas, DT, Ice, Hubie (Brown), Mike Monroe and myself —Willie was near the top of our list when it was disbanded, because JC (once an ABA snob, always an NBA snob) told me he felt Louie Dampier didn’t deserve our (unanimous) selection, and that no one else deserved it.”
Added Vecsey: “Willie and Jones and Calvin definitely would’ve been voted in by our 7-person committee within 3-4 years.”
But there’s more to the story, a while lot more, that reveals who Wise is, and was, as a person.
“Regarding Willie’s humility: Several years ago, I found a picture of him alongside Wilt in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game at Nassau Coliseum,” Vecsey recalled. “I sent it to him without telling him what to expect. He thanked me profusely. And proceeded to show to his friends. ‘People had no idea I played pro ball. But there am I fighting for a rebound with Dipper.’ Willie scored 12 points in that game.”
Part 1: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2017/05/27/allen-berrebbis-moral-crusade-against-the-nba-2/