The story began with a conflict between the employees and employers - figuring out who works for who.
Sports are one of the many occupations in life in which this situation can occur because, ultimately, this is the player's job and a job often comes with demands, agreements and requests for improvement. In this specific case with the NBA, the league has been devoting more resources to connect with different aspects within North American society, making it the most progressive sports entity in the world in the opinions of many.
One of the main reasons for the success in that crossover between the league and current issues in the U.S. comes from the National Basketball Players Association, a union for current professional basketball players in the NBA to ensure that the rights of NBA players are protected and that every conceivable measure is taken to assist players in maximizing their opportunities and achieving their goals, both on and off the court.
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The relationship between the NBPA and NBA is currently well and strong. The renewed leadership that we are witnessing today with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and executive director Michele Roberts has established a constant and fluid conversation with the Players' Association, helping the players of the league reach new heights with the backing of their counterparts in the league office. This has been seen first-hand in the development of the events that occurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that caused the suspension of the season back in March, as well as the ongoing negotiations to try and promote change and make current political and social struggles against racism and police brutality more visible for the entire world to see.
However, the smooth relationship between the NBPA and NBA has not always been as it is today.
The NBA has grown since commissioner Silver took over in 2014, learning from a great negotiator in former commissioner David Stern, who governed the league since 1984, overcoming four lockouts and countless disputes of different varieties. With Stern, the relationship between the league and NBPA began to change and became more of a conversation as opposed to an exchange of differentiating views. The brilliant New York lawyer had already known the 'B-side' of these conversations thanks to his experience as a legal representative of the league in the dispute that eliminated the "reserve clause," which bound a player to one single team under a lifetime contract with no free agency. From the relationships forged over the course of that case that would eventually lead to what's known as the "Oscar Robertson Rule," Stern started to become a favourite among the league's most influential players, as well as important union executives such as Larry Fleisher.
Before Stern and Silver, the NBA was far from what we know it to be today. Not only in commercial terms, but in pure evolution of the game and its impact on society. The league's highest salary in 1958 (according to Sport Magazine) was between $20,000 and $30,000 annually - deals reserved for the league's greats like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell or Bob Pettit. This would progressively change when Wilt Chamberlain entered the league, increasing stars' earnings up to as much as $100,000.
As for the average players in the league, they were making $8,000 annually with very low per diem for food, travel and transportation - conditions unthinkable compared to today without any type of medical or health coverage, according to the NBPA itself.
The stories of team travel back in those days are borderline implausible, such as the one relayed in the book "101 NBA Histories" by Gonzalo Vázquez (p. 28, Ediciones JC, 2013) in regards to a particular team that had to overcome travelling at night to Fort Wayne, the former home of the Detroit Pistons.
"It was necessary to wake up the players, half asleep out of their cabins, carrying their luggage on their backs while they watched trains to the game leave without them. (...) A mile away the vague little lights of a town. Lights that served as a guide to the players that would begin the march to the arena. Once, they had to throw stones at a woman who was awaiting to threaten their lives. They then divided themselves into cabs to travel the 65 kilometres of country road that separated them from their destination."
With stories like that, in 1954, Bob Cousy set out to form a players' association that would serve as a counterforce to the NBA in seeking to improve the working conditions for he and his colleagues, thus creating the first union in a professional sports league. To make this possible, the Celtics star wrote a letter to the premier players in the NBA with an aim of obtaining support and money to hire legal advice: Philadelphia's Paul Arizin, New York's Carl Braun, Rochester's Bob Davies, Baltimore's Paul Hoffman, Fort Wayne's Andy Phillip, Minneapolis's Jim Pollard, Syracuse's Dolph Schayes and Milwaukee's Don Sunderlage.
"I went to Walter Brown's (Celtics owner) office and told him he was one of the best executives in the entire league, but I think we need a voice at the table. The Players need representation and I'm the only one who can lead us to do that. Don't take it personally," Cousy said in an interview with NBC Sports Boston. "Brown gave me his blessing and I got on with it."
All the players willingly accepted Cousy's proposal, except for Phillip of Fort Wayne, whose owner (Fred Zollner) wanted to avoid creating a union at all costs and persuaded his players to take his side.
The first meeting between Cousy and Maurice Podoloff, the president of the NBA at the time, would occur at the 1955 All-Star Game held at Madison Square Garden. Cousy's series of requests were as follows:
- Back-payment of wages to former Baltimore Bullets players
- A maximum of 20 exhibition season games per year and even distribution of the profits among players
- Elimination of the $15 "whispering fine" that officials could give players during each game
- $25 payments for public appearances other than media availability and charity activities
- Establishment of an impartial board of arbitration to settle player-owner disputes
- Payment of transportation and moving expenses for traded players.
- Payment of player salaries in 10 installments rather than 12 to provide more money to players cut during the season
Podoloff agreed to pay part of the salaries to the former Bullets players and gave his word to Cousy that they would meet again in two weeks to answer the rest of his demands. However, said negotiations never came to fruition, and the Board of Governors rejected the recognition of the NBPA as a union at the time, leaving everything previously discussed unfulfilled.
It would not be until 1957 when Cousy allied with AFL-CIO, the largest union of workers in the country, to work toward an agreement with the owners upon daily payment for food and other transportation costs, no more exhibition games within three days of the start and end of the season, only three exhibition games a team per season, moving expenses for traded players and last but not least, a communication channel between the league and its players for a conversation in the case of a dispute.
At the end of the 1957-58 season, Cousy would leave the position of president of the Players' Association, giving way to his understudy Tom Heinsohn, who would end up being one of the most important figures in the union's history due to his relationship with the aforementioned Larry Fleisher. In 1962, Fleisher would become the main legal advisor and, ultimately, the executive director who guided the players to achieve the majority of their demands.
That withstood until the NBPA's next disruptive wrinkle that interfered with the life of the league's players: the 1964 NBA All-Star Game.
On Jan. 14, 1964, the freezing cold city of Boston played host to the NBA's All-Star Game.
The league faced an oncoming blizzard, classified as one of the strongest in the country's history according to the US National Weather Service, generating wind faster than 95 kilometres per hour and almost a meter of accumulated snow. In this context, players scattered throughout the entire United States were still expected to attend the league's All-Star Game despite incoming weather outside of the Boston Garden.
Beyond the demand for bringing together the league's top talents as we still see today, the All-Star Game needed to resume through the inclement weather based on the fact it was being broadcasted nationally on ABC for the first time in league history.
The icy weather in Boston coincided with the current relationship between the NBPA and NBA. Months prior, new league president J. Walter Kennedy had failed to fulfill his promise to hold a meeting with the Board of Governors and Players Association president Heinsohn before the season started, with a meeting focused around a vital request from the players: a pension plan for retirement.
Heinsohn, Pettit (NBPA vice president), Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens and Fleisher met with Kennedy in their hotel room around 5:50 p.m. to demand a meeting with the owners where they agreed in writing to develop a plan of pensions and a series of other improvements regarding working conditions. Kennedy refused, aware that the owners were not going to comply with such a measure, driven by the determination of the owner of the Pistons as previously mentioned. Thus, the four players went to the hotel to speak with the rest of the participants of the All-Star Game before leaving for the Boston Garden.
"There is no better time for a boycott," Heinsohn expressed to his colleagues, as told by Los Angeles Lakers superstar Elgin Baylor in his biography.
"As long as everyone agrees, Jerry (West) and I support him," Baylor stated. "The truth is that most of us aren't getting rich playing in the NBA. Every player I know works a second job over the summer. What we are asking for - what we are demanding - represents a first, small step. A necessary step."
The Lakers' two stars had been chatting about the possibility of sitting out the All-Star Game in case there was no agreement on delaying the event due to the blizzard. It was then that Heinsohn produced a document for his colleagues to sign, to which his request was granted by his peers.
"We're boycotting our first network TV game. This is either brilliant or suicide," Baylor told Heinsohn, as referenced in his biography.
"We'll see," Heinsohn relayed.
"You got enough signatures?"
"It's gonna be close," Heinsohn closed the conversation.
The players still made their way to the Boston Garden, with two teams united in a single locker room and the approval of nine players in favour of the eight that elected not to sign the document. This was sure to catch the owners (who were meeting at a restaurant down the road prior to the game) completely off-guard, creating quite a scene.
Around 8:25 p.m., league president Kennedy appeared at the stadium, completely blindsided by the decision the players have reached, leading to a 20-minute conversation with the players right on the brink of the league's first national broadcast. According to Heinsohn himself, Kennedy even said at one point, "Guys, I cannot communicate with all these people. They are everywhere. But I give you my word that you will have what you are looking for."
"At that point, some of the owners tried to get in," Heinsohn recounted years later. "But we gave instructions to the police not to let anyone in. We gave notice to some owners and some threatened not to let us play again."
A few minutes after everything fell apart, Kennedy went back into the locker room to communicate the latest news from the owners, ensuring that they had agreed to their requests, both regarding the pension plan and improvement of conditions. "He asked us to play that night's game in good faith," Baylor wrote in his biography.
The 20 players gathered in the locker room began a vote on whether to play or not, with an overwhelming result of 18 votes in favour of playing to two against playing. The players had achieved what they aimed for and as it worked out, the Board of Governors recognized the union, taking the players' voices into account in the face of all the subsequent negotiations. This opened an entirely new avenue of player empowerment, which would be taken to the next level under Oscar Robertson.
At 8:55 p.m., NBPA vice president and player Pettit then informed Kennedy that they would play the game, starting 15 minutes late while the more than 13,000 people in the stands of the Boston Garden were left with something to remember, crying out for the stars to play while overlooking an empty parquet floor.
The game itself, once the problems had been solved, developed totally normally with the East defeating the West 111-107 behind 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists from Oscar Robertson, the game's MVP.
"There were some difficulties. I'm glad it worked out in the end and all parties came to an agreement," Robertson told Hoop in 2017.
In 1965, the pension plan would come to fruition, evolving over time based on the number of seasons played.
This attempt to boycott play served as the starting point for the next 50 years of relations between the league and the union, jointly facing the difficulties and changes that occur over time in a constant dialogue between the two parties that on many occasions have different views. Since that moment, they have almost always found a way to reach a consensus.
That brings us to the movement led by the Bucks on the afternoon of Aug. 26 - another chapter in the long history between the players and the league, wherein the league fully backed Milwaukee's decision. This again proved that the NBA is at the frontier of making an effort to connect sport and the country's social issues, extending far beyond the lines on the court.
The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.