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Steve Aschburner

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Tom Heinsohn (right) oversaw key early changes to the NBPA's labor agreement.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Heinsohn makes most of (unplanned) role as union prez


Posted Aug 26 2011 1:12PM

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 eaffort 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.

Tom Heinsohn's thoughts

"Get with the real, guys"

Heinsohn kind of got snookered into his union role by more of teammate Bob Cousy's sleight of hand. The Celtics point guard, the first NBPA president (1954-58), had asked Heinsohn to cover for him while he was on a trip to Europe. Then he came back and resigned.

"Cousy founded the association. I organized it," said Heinsohn, the NBPA president from 1958 to 1965. "I picked Larry Fleisher [eventually the NBPA executive director] and I think that's a key thing. Larry had been our labor lawyer, and what was great about Larry was, he knew when to hold and he knew when to fold. He was as responsible for growing the league as anyone else. In recognition of that, he is in the Hall of Fame.

"But you know the reason Cousy left the presidency? He sent out a letter, and guys wouldn't pay their dues. ... I had to go into the locker rooms and fight with guys like [Lakers forward] Rudy LaRusso and say, 'Rudy, give me the $25 for dues!' "

These roles are always thankless, with players free-riding on their peers' commitment, owners looking cross-eyed at them and fans assuming that dollar signs are everyone's goal. But in the early years, like a lot of unions, work conditions and benefits were the primary issues.

"It was about a pension plan because the other leagues had pension plans," Heinsohn said. "It was about meal money because guys were buying things on their own based on the right-hand column instead of what they were eating. There were no trainers. We were playing on Saturday nights and expected to take a train ride and still be sharp to play on Sunday afternoon on television."

The pension fight got the most attention, driven by a near-boycott of the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston. Heinsohn, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and other All-Stars voted not to take the court unless the owners agreed to fund a basic plan. Lakers owner Bob Short and NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy gave their word, and the game went on.

As heady as that victory might have been for the players, Heinsohn said he never forgot where the league's power lay.

"The guys who write the checks have got the say," said the Celtics lifer and current team broadcaster. "I don't care whether you think you're the greatest player in the entire world, if you don't have a venue and people willing to pay you for it, have a good time in the school yard!"

Some might say Heinsohn, who turned 77 Friday, has shifted his perspective from a union worker to a management crony over the years. But he also was president of the NBA coaches' association, has been successful in private business and might be more famous than ever working Boston's games as a broadcaster.

Heinsohn sees pros and cons on both sides of the current debate. He mostly doesn't want either to kill a golden goose; the NBA, Heinsohn said, always has been a great place to make a living.

"Some guys of my era, they're totally resentful," he said. "Hey, all I know is, when I got out of Holy Cross I signed for $9,000 and I got a $2,000 bonus for making Rookie of the Year [in 1957]. Ten years later, at my reunion, the average salary for my classmates was $5,000. I bought an 11-room house for $18,000.

"It was a good thing that we had to 'participate' in the world -- all of us had jobs in the offseason. Over the years, even when I was playing, I made more money in the insurance business than I made playing basketball. The most I ever made was $28,500. The most Cousy made was $35,000. Russell made $101,000 because Wilt made $100,000 and Red gave him the extra thousand."

The numbers are different now and have been for a while.

"This is my favorite story," Heinsohn said. "M.L. Carr produced, as a coach, the worst record that the Celtics ever had [15-67 in 1996-97]. They gave him a $7 million golden parachute. Which was almost three times as much as the total payroll of the Boston Celtics in an era [1957-69] when they won 11 championships."

Past NBPA presidents on labor: Oscar Robertson | Junior Bridgeman

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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