Posted Aug 26 2011 2:57PM
Listen closely to NBA players active in the negotiations to get the league up and running again and, invariably, there's a moment in which a proud past slips into the difficult present.
Whether it's union president Derek Fisher fresh from the latest bargaining session in midtown Manhattan or Kevin Garnett at a solidarity rally back in June -- or any of a dozen NBA rank-and-filers in casual conversation about the lockout -- there are frequent cap-tips to those who came before them in building the National Basketball Players Association.
As Atlanta forward Etan Thomas wrote in an essay for HoopsHype.com two months ago: "We know our history. We are fully aware of the fact that the players before us laid a foundation that we have a responsibility to cherish and preserve ... [All] the former players who were prepared to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game in an effort to be recognized as a union and negotiate their rights. ...
"They paved the way and fought for this league to reach the level it is now, and we respect that. We cannot take all of their hard work and throw it down the drain." Thomas listed the names of nearly two dozen NBA legends to drive home his point.
So how do the pioneers and union bricklayers feel about their names and the NBPA's traditions being invoked in a 2011 labor dispute?
"I guess the guys on the executive committee are concerned about this," said Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, the union's president from 1965 to 1974. "I don't know if a lot of the other players are concerned. A lot of work was done to make basketball the [top-paying] sport and they don't want to retreat from that. But they have to make the best deal for the players today. And also for the owners, to make sure basketball goes forward."
Said Boston Celtics' HOF forward Tom Heinsohn, the NBPA president from 1958 to 1965: "If KG has said, 'We owe it to the old-time players to continue the league the way they've done it,' well, that's what they ought to be doing. That's what our group did. During that period of time, the players never got all they wanted. This is a situation where you have to deal with the real. The whole world, the stock market, everything is gone."
Junior Bridgeman took over union chores from Bob Lanier in 1985, serving three years. "It's appreciated that they would say that," the former Milwaukee Bucks' swingman said. "A lot of times guys who laid the groundwork -- Heinsohn, Oscar, [Wes] Unseld, all those guys -- they feel that their time has come and gone. You become -- I don't know if 'faded memories' are the right words -- but it's nice if the guys do remember what went on in the past that allows them to enjoy the growth of the game.
"But it's not just what the players have done, it's what the league has done, it's what [NBA commissioner] David Stern has done in promoting the game. So it's bargaining, but it's been a collective effort from both sides."
(After Bridgeman finished his tenure in 1988, Alex English, another player with Bucks ties, took over as NBPA president for less than a year. He was followed by Isiah Thomas, Buck Williams, and then, Patrick Ewing.)
Those three past NBPA presidents, in addition to helming the union for 19 of its first 34 years, have stayed current enough to have strong opinions on the latest wrangling toward a new collective bargaining agreement.
They shared some of those, along with tales from owner-player skirmishes past, with NBA.com.
"You can't kill the league."
With its breweries and its factories, Milwaukee built a reputation as a working-class and union town. The tradition carried over to the NBPA, too, with Osacr Robertson, Bob Lanier and Junior Bridgeman all serving as president during their time with the Bucks.
"I think the owners viewed it, if you were involved in the negotiations, it wasn't personal. It was business," said Bridgeman, the University of Louisville graduate who was traded from the Lakers in a deal for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before he played his first game. "[Bucks owner] Jim Fitzgerald had no problem with you representing the players. In some ways, he looked at it as a good education for the guys."
If it was, Bridgeman was an honors student. He played 12 NBA seasons, first as a sixth man on Milwaukee's strong Don Nelson-coached teams of the late 1970s and '80s and later with the Clippers. But his greatest success has come in the business world, parlaying an early investment in some fast-food franchises during his playing days into a spot on Forbes' list of the wealthiest black Americans. In 2009, the magazine estimated Bridgeman's net worth at $200 million, citing his control of 161 Wendy's and 118 Chili's restaurants. He had 11,000 workers on his payroll, the magazine wrote.
For someone who headed a union of fewer than 350 employees back then, Bridgeman chuckles when he talks about the shift in his perspective now. "When you have to make payroll and you have all these people who are counting on you, you look at it differently than you did back then," said Bridgeman, the NBPA president from 1985-88. "Back then, you were one of the employees.
"Just from a business standpoint, it's hard to see how both sides can't figure out, 'OK, this is the pool of money we have. How can we not sit down, especially when so many people are losing jobs and struggling, and devise a way to divide this money up where everybody can be happy?' That's what the public really doesn't understand."
By Bridgeman's term atop the NBPA, the league had only recently gained solid financial footing after the shaky 1970s of drug scandals and tape-delayed NBA Finals games. Its boom years had just begun; Michael Jordan entered as a rookie the season before Bridgeman took over, the same year David Stern became commissioner. A new six-year CBA in 1987 continued the league's ground-breaking salary cap system with the players receiving 53 percent of basketball-related income, slashing the Draft down to two rounds and eliminating the right of first refusal for veteran free agents.
But the union considered decertification prior to that deal, as it had during Robertson's term, and some of the negotiations were testier than the public might have realized.
"We got close [to losing games]," Bridgeman said. "We left a negotiating meeting at 10 o'clock one night and we had called for a strike the next morning. Basically -- and I probably shouldn't say who -- but it was somebody from the other side who really stayed up and convinced the owners that this was in the best interest of the league to do the deal, and it got enough votes by the morning."
Bridgeman, 57, said his peers gave only slight thought to the NBPA pioneers for a simple reason: "We weren't that far removed from Oscar and those guys." Instead, he said, they focused on two things beyond the money and working conditions of the time.
"We thought a lot about the guys coming behind us," the Louisville businessman said. "And them saying, 'These guys did a bad job and we've got to work under these conditions because of it.'
"We kept that in mind and we also kept in mind that the league still has to be there. Even though you might want this or that, you can't kill the league. Without that, there's really nothing for anybody to haggle over."
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