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Steve Aschburner

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Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson served as NBPA president from 1965-74.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Still-fiery Robertson has seen these labor impasses before


Posted Aug 26 2011 2:56PM

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.

Past NBPA presidents on labor: Tom Heinsohn | Junior Bridgeman

Oscar Robertson's thoughts

"If you can't make money, you don't have anything."

Robertson is arguably the greatest all-around NBA player ever and, if he's crowded out of anyone's top three, he immediately vaults to No. 1 on the list of most underrated. Yet the only man to average a triple-double for an entire season [1961-62] scratches his head like a guy sitting in the upper bowl, paying $10 to watch a Kings-Timberwolves game in March, when he wonders about the current labor fight.

"It seems like the owners can't control themselves," said Robertson, the union's president from 1965-74. "If you're going to give a guy $20 million or $30 million and it's more than your gate receipts and TV revenue or whatever, that's up to you."

And: "You have give the players X amount of dollars and now you want to take it away. Why roast the players in this public forum? It comes out that the players are 'so greedy' and 'they're the problem.' It's never said that, 'Hey, owners, if you're in Charlotte and you can't afford a LeBron James, a Michael Jordan, a Kobe Bryant, then don't try to sign them.' "

And: "The problem we have with basketball now, eventually, it's not what you pay the players. It's whether he can play or not. If you've got a guy sitting on the bench making $5 million a year and he only plays a few minutes, then you've made a big mistake."

Robertson, 72, is active in a couple of businesses in Ohio these days and said he could soon explore the food industry as a way of making it in a sputtering economy. So he wonders, too, about NBA contraction, shakes his head over the track record some teams have with their Draft picks and dislikes any NBA rules that hinder trades.

He has been an outspoken critic of the league's three-decades-old marketing emphasis of individual stars over teams -- even though Robertson was part of an early "Miami experiment" when he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee and promptly won an NBA championship in their first season together, 1971. The Lakers in the 1960s amassed a Mt. Rushmore roster with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, and Bill Russell's Celtics were nothing if not a one-franchise All-Star team. But the first NBA supserstar to exit Ohio in search of a Hall of Fame sidekick wasn't LeBron James.

"The Royals wanted to get rid of me," Robertson said. "They said I hadn't done anything, except make 10 All-NBA teams in 10 seasons."

Robertson remains feisty, same as when he took over from Heinsohn as NBPA president. He announced at the 1967 All-Star Game that players would seek to be paid for exhibition games, to have the number of preseason games cut from 15 to 10 and to explore ways to unify with the players associations in football and baseball. It was the 1960s, the NBA was being challenged by a renegade league, the American Basketball Association, and emotions ran high.

"We wanted an orthopedic doctor at the games," Robertson said. "We wanted to stay at first-class hotels. And you wanted, if you didn't have a contract with anybody, to be able to [be a free agent]. Should LeBron James be loyal to the team? Sure he should be loyal, but he also has to look out for LeBron James."

The NBPA achieved numerous gains during his term, but Robertson's most pivotal move as union president was putting his name to the "Oscar Robertson Suit" as an NBA/ABA merger neared in 1970.

It sought to block the merger -- dueling leagues help to bid up salaries, after all -- and achieve free-agency rights for the players. In time, the Robertson Suit was dismissed after the NBA agreed to a six-year CBA that boosted the average salary to $30,000 (from $13,000 in 1970-71), beefed up benefits and killed the option clause in the standard player's contract.

Robertson long has felt that his activism hurt him in terms of post-playing opportunities with the league. But to Robertson, the key to his union work then remains the same today: communication. By talking and more talking, the owners and players were able to get through the nastiest disagreements.

"You don't read much about negotiations on an ongoing basis," he said of the 2011 dispute. "Some players already have gone overseas to play. Everybody wants to be one up on somebody -- when that happens, that's a problem.

"You need smart people to get together for the betterment of whatever you're trying to preserve. If you're going out and you can't make money, you don't have anything. I hope they get it right."

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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