NBA Season Restart 2019-20

Retired NBA players working together to weather COVID-19

'Legends of Basketball' coordinating with National Basketball Retired Players Association

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Being in the NBA’s “bubble” near Orlando is better than not being in the bubble, we’ve been told, as far as avoiding the coronavirus that has shut down the league and much of the nation.

Commissioner Adam Silver said it weeks ago: “Safer on this campus than off this campus”; Clippers coach Doc Rivers said it before he even left Los Angeles: “I don’t know where else you would be as safe”; and Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, a 71-year-old considered by age to be at greater risk of being hit hard by COVID-19, said it upon arrival: “If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas.”

All of which is good for the league’s current players and coaches. They truly might be more protected amidst so much testing and the heightened protocols.

But what of the NBA’s retired players and coaches, who are scattered throughout the country, fending for themselves, sheltering individually, and coping with a higher susceptibility to the virus?

“Right now we have just a handful of members who have been diagnosed [positive],” said Scott Rochelle, president and CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. “All have survived and beaten this thing. We have one member who lost his wife to the virus.”

Johnny Davis, the former NBA guard who took over in February as the NBRPA chairman, broke down some of the statistics as they relate to their membership and COVID-19.

“We have over 1,000 members, and the average age of our members is 55-plus,” Davis said. “Approximately 200 of those members are over the age of 70. And there’s a high percentage of African-Americans in that group, the demographic that has been identified as being most vulnerable. Sometimes that’s due to underlying conditions, sometimes to proximity to [exposure].”

The extended NBA family has been hit by the virus. Former point guard Sebastian Telfair reportedly lost a brother, Dan Turner, in late March and saw his mother Erica die from COVID-19 in New York a month later. Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns’ mother Jacqueline died in April from complications from coronavirus.

Those family members were in the age range of so many former NBA players. The “Legends” association, as it’s known, tried to be pro-active from the start of the league’s shutdown, reminding members to take all possible precautions. Each received an “NBA Legends” mask.

“Most of the players have been in touch with us,” Rochelle said. “We’ve tried to keep in contact with people. And those who have been financially impacted, we’ve been supporting them through our financial grant program.

“So there’s been a lot of work on the community side to make sure everyone is informed and knows where to come when they need help.”

The health insurance that the NBRPA got for its members out of the current collective bargaining agreement between the National Basketball Players Association and the owners has been a game-changer for many league retirees, Rochelle said.

There is a mental health component to that coverage, too, providing psychologists to help those coping with the stress of the pandemic.

“People are self-quarantining,” Davis said. “You’re not able to go out to restaurants and do things you normally do. For some people, that’s stressful. You become isolated.”

I feel most sorry for some young kids … If I have a cruise cancelled, I can go on a cruise another time. But how do you make up for a graduation?

Hall of Famer Rick Barry

Hall of Famer Rick Barry, formerly a member of the group’s Board of Directors, had his routine changed when the Big 3 – the summer basketball league in which he coaches – announced it was suspending play until 2021.

“I’m just going about my life, which has changed drastically,” Barry said. “Usually I’m flying around to coach and see some of my old adversaries and some people I’ve watched over the years. That’s all been taken away. Every charity event I was doing, those have been cancelled. The basketball Hall of Fame [induction in August], that’s been postponed.

“I feel most sorry for some young kids who have missed out on high school and college graduations. If I have a cruise cancelled, I can go on a cruise another time. But how do you make up for a graduation?”

Danny Schayes, the son of Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and an NBA center from 1981-99, believes he was ahead of the virus curve based on falling ill last winter.

“I actually think I had it back in January and February when I was in Denver,” Schayes said Friday. “I went to Las Vegas to a home builders’ show in January, and after that I had a month-long cough. I had fever spikes. I had pneumonia. Ended up being hospitalized for a couple of days.

“I asked the doctor treating me about this ‘corona’ thing, and he said, ‘Well, there’s no cases yet in Colorado.’ But they weren’t really testing anyone yet so how would they know? He said, ‘What’s weird is everyone I’m seeing now has these exact symptoms.’

“So I have not yet been tested for the antibodies. I’m following the protocols like everybody, wearing a mask when I go out and the rest.”

Currently in Phoenix, Schayes said the sports talk show he co-hosts on his alma mater, Syracuse University, has been on hiatus since the NCAA basketball tournament shut down in March. His son Logan, a 6-foot-7 forward heading into his senior year in high school, also is facing uncertainty for the coming school year.

Spencer Haywood, formerly the NBRPA chairman, acknowledged that it’s hard to know how many former players have been affected. “I don’t know if we’re getting accurate reporting,” said Haywood, another Hall of Famer. “Because people who have it might not know, and others who know might not want to talk about it.

“Right now, it’s in Florida. It’s Houston very strongly and that’s one of our largest communities of past players. I’ve been calling people, telling ‘em certain things to do and take some precautions. We have a list – I don’t go through the whole list, but I just talk to some of the guys who I know.”

Living in Las Vegas, Haywood – the subject of a book, “The Spencer Haywood Rule” to be released in October – works the phone randomly to keep NBRPA members feeling connected. For example, he spoke Tuesday with Hall of Famer Earl Monroe, who has had some health challenges, and reported that Monroe was “hanging in there.”

Keeping tabs on what the NBA is doing in Orlando – current players are, after all, future retirees – Haywood sounded impressed.

“They’ve got testing, they’ve got everything in there,” he said. “If I was a player now, I would be in there. I don’t call it the ‘bubble.’ I call it the ‘safe zone.’”

The NBRPA hopes its bubble holds, too, one member at a time.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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