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‘They are NBA history’: The push to secure pensions for the basketball pioneers the NBA left behind

BASKETBALL GREAT GEORGE Carter died of throat cancer last November as the lights and life of Las Vegas carried on, unceasing, outside. He was 76, mostly alone, the cheering crowds of his youth a distant memory.

He had only one friend nearby, a woman who helped him sort his things, including the fan letters he was still getting 44 years after his last professional game, as he faced eviction from his home.

Carter’s death notice was the first time many basketball fans had heard his name in several decades. His former teammates memorialized him as an unforgettable athlete — a 6-foot-5 forward who led St. Bonaventure University in scoring for two of his three college seasons, a star who played seven seasons in the American Basketball Association until it dissolved and was partially taken over by the NBA in 1976.

Toward the end of his life, Carter was assisted by Dropping Dimes, a nonprofit foundation that helps former ABA players with financial needs. The circumstances in which he found himself at the end of his life — facing mounting medical bills and eviction from his home of 15 years — might seem shocking, but he’s far from the first former ABA player to end up in tough times.

“It breaks your heart to see your heroes end up like this,” said Dropping Dimes co-founder Dr. John Abrams, who is also the Indiana Pacers‘ ophthalmologist and a former ABA ball boy. “It’d be like seeing Michael Jordan get older and fall on hard times.”

Part of the problem is that, because of the way the ABA dissolved, its players were left without pensions to fall back on in old age. Dropping Dimes has been lobbying the NBA for years to extend pensions to former ABA players in recognition of their contributions to basketball history and the NBA’s success today.

Carter’s death brought national media attention to the issue and emphasized the need to act before more of these men who helped build the game pass away.

“The conversation [with the NBA] had been ongoing for some time, but George’s circumstance brings all the elements of the case together,” said sportscaster Bob Costas, who got his start announcing ABA games and now serves on the Dropping Dimes advisory board. “He logged more than enough time in the ABA to qualify for a pension, and his circumstance ended up being so extreme that it exemplifies the situation.”

At least for the moment, the NBA is not committing to extending pensions to the fewer than 150 former ABA players who are still alive, but Tim Frank, senior vice president of league operations communications for the NBA, says the league is in discussions with Dropping Dimes.

“We are actively engaged with the Dropping Dimes Foundation to find a solution to help these former ABA players, particularly those in immediate need,” he said.

THE AMERICAN BASKETBALL Association debuted in 1967 and from its inception positioned itself in direct contrast to the more straitlaced NBA, which was then in its 22nd season. It quickly became known for a looser, more up-tempo style of play and shrugged off the established “pass and cut” model.

The league’s most notable contribution to the NBA was the 3-point shot, which the ABA implemented in its debut season. Until 1979-80, Magic Johnson’s rookie season, all field goals in the NBA were worth two points, even from the half-court line. In 1976, the ABA brought us the first slam dunk contest, with Julius Erving beating out Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, David Thompson and Larry Kenon to take home $1,000 and a home stereo system.

After the NBA integrated in the early 1950s, teams had unofficial quotas limiting the number of Black players on rosters. By the late ’60s, those rules had waned and the league’s racial makeup was changing quickly. But the ABA still attracted many Black players who felt they didn’t have an opportunity to play in the NBA.

“It was definitely an unspoken rule,” said Maurice McHartley, an ABA player from 1967 to 1970 who is Black. “It wasn’t because brothers couldn’t play. … The NBA at that particular time was more of a white league, so to speak. … The ABA wasn’t so straitlaced. I was one of the guys that started wearing bell-bottoms, and it wasn’t a problem.”

Although the ABA was popular among fans, it struggled to gain the television contracts needed to rival the NBA financially. This became a problem when competition for players drove salaries and contracts up for both leagues. ABA teams changed cities just to stay afloat, and three collapsed by the end of 1975. By the next year, the leagues were locked in a war of financial attrition that threatened the future of both.

“The economic situation in pro basketball in the mid-’70s was horrible. They almost drove each other out of business. This is what happens when leagues are in distress: No one is thinking long term,” said Terry Pluto, author of “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association.” “They were not worried about the players, just their own pocketbooks.”

The result was what is often called a merger but is perhaps more accurately described as an NBA expansion. Four of the six remaining ABA teams — the Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs — were absorbed into the NBA, along with 12 additional players in a dispersal draft.

The National Basketball Players Association and the ABA Players Association had filed antitrust lawsuits in 1970 to block any potential mergers on the grounds that competition between the leagues was good for players’ salaries. The lawsuits were eventually settled in 1976 as part of the NBA expansion. According to the terms of the ABA settlement, ABA players who joined the NBA would receive NBA pensions but the ABA would “maintain and fund the present ABA pension fund or an equivalent pension fund” for players who had already retired or did not make the jump.

But when the ABA legally dissolved in March 1978, so did the pension fund. Many players went on believing they would receive pensions when they reached retirement age. When they later found there was no money, three plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 204 former ABA players in U.S. District Court in 2014. They accused the four ABA teams that joined the NBA of violating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, a federal law that sets minimum standards for private-industry pensions.

The lawsuit was settled for a one-time, $800,000 payout, or about $4,000 per player. (The current minimum pension for an NBA player with three years in the league is $56,988 per year.)

THE NBA, WHICH has had a pension plan for players since 1965, has retroactively granted players pensions before. In 1988, the NBPA guaranteed them for all five-year NBA league veterans who finished their careers between the league’s founding in 1946 and the 1965 policy. The ABA players were not included.

The pension situation between the pro basketball leagues is unique. When the NFL and the AFL merged in 1970, they kept all existing franchises in the agreement and retained the pension plans. Although baseball’s Negro Leagues ceased to exist by the early-1960s, MLB guaranteed pensions in 1997 for about 90 Black players who didn’t qualify for the MLB pension program.

Since 2014, Dropping Dimes has proposed a pension that matches that of the pre-1965 players for all ABA veterans with three or more seasons of play: $400 per month for each season. Depending on eligibility requirements, between 100 and 143 surviving players could qualify. The estimated total cost is between $20 million and $28 million to cover the rest of the players’ lives. Put another way, it is the equivalent of a one-time contribution from each NBA team of $900,000, less than the league’s current minimum annual salary.

“Given the clear contributions of the ABA and its players to today’s NBA game, even though there may be no legal obligation, there seems to be at least a moral and historical obligation to provide basic pensions to those pioneers, just like the pre-’65 pioneers,” Dropping Dimes co-founder and Indiana attorney Scott Tarter said.

The surviving players are between 67 and 85 years old. Some are in poor health. Many text Tarter almost every day to check in on the latest conversations with the NBA. Most of them do so as their bills pile up. Dropping Dimes, which is largely funded by private donations, helps. But the organization says its help isn’t enough long term.

McHartley, 79, suffered a heart attack last fall and is in cardiac rehab. He’s doing all right, he says, but a pension would help. The time it has taken for the NBA to take action is frustrating, he says.

“When we first started talking about this, it was … 200 guys from the league that would qualify,” he said. “Now it might be 108 guys that are still around.”

The NBA has recognized and paid tribute to its ties to the ABA. In 2012, nine NBA teams wore ABA jerseys throughout February to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the ABA’s founding. The jerseys, branded under NBA Hardwood Classics Month, were sold online for $89.99 at the NBA Store. In late 2020, Converse released a shoe featuring all the ABA logos.

“Even though they played under the ABA, they’re not just a part of NBA history, they are NBA history,” Costas said. “These guys made as much of a contribution to pro basketball’s growth as the guys who were technically NBA players.”

NBA spokesperson Frank acknowledged the pivotal role the ABA played in NBA history: “Former ABA players are an important part of our league’s history and were instrumental in the development of the NBA as it now exists.”

WITHOUT SAVINGS OR next of kin, Carter was set to be cremated or buried in an unmarked or shared grave. Tarter contacted St. Bonaventure, which agreed to inter Carter’s ashes at the university cemetery and give him a memorial service.

Over 100 mourners gathered in the shade of a young oak tree on a warm Saturday in June. Carter’s college teammate, the Rev. Bill Butler, led the prayers. Although only a few had spoken with Carter in the last 20 years of his life, his surviving family and teammates remembered him as an easy-going prankster who was, quite possibly, the coolest man alive.

“He was the star of the family,” said Carter’s cousin, Olivia Brown. “The quiet giant, we called him.”

St. Bonaventure gave Carter a headstone, with a picture of him in his No. 25 jersey and the inscription, “Forever in the hearts of the Bonnies…”

To his teammates and family, Carter’s legacy is more than the circumstances of his passing would suggest. After basketball, he lived a quiet life and died a quiet death, but his story reverberated out into the world and into the highest offices of one of the world’s most profitable professional sports leagues.

“[For George,] that’s an example of another guy that’s gone that won’t ever get a pension,” McHartley said. “There’s going to be a few more of these guys that’s not going to be around to get a pension if you keep dragging your feet about it.”

ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this story.

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