What the National Basketball Association is doing to six of its pioneer officials, men of integrity who worked games when they were played in roller rinks and dance halls, is insensitive, inconsiderate and indecent. The NBA, rich and influential, should hide its face in shame.
The six men are former referees, ranging in age from 69 to 77, who gave of themselves and put up with inconveniences and abominable working conditions that in an early era paid them $50 a game. How the NBA could be so crass defies imagination.
Where would the sport be without officials who made the calls and gave what was then a bush league its only measure of major-league respect? They have been told they don't qualify for a pension, even though former players and coaches are a part of the existing retirement plan.
It was their hope they might be able to receive $100 a month for every season they worked in the NBA. The six referees from the formative NBA years were regarded as first-rate officials but have been forgotten.
They lent their presence when the NBA was struggling. It was more for love of the game than for what they were being paid. Since only six men are involved, it graphically illustrates the NBA's lack of recognition and gratitude.
The former officials were known in every NBA arena in the country, namely Sid Borgia, Jim Duffy, Lou Eisenstein, Arnold Hoeft, Phil Fox and Charlie Eckman. They gave respectability to the NBA at a time when there were whispers of players being involved in point-shaving and bag jobs.
A request put forth by a Cleveland attorney, one Harold S. Stern, that the six, all of whom were a part of the officiating staff in the late 1940s and 1950s, be included in the pension program, brought this cold response from Gary Bettman, vice president of the NBA:
"Our benefits department, with the assistance of pension counsel, has confirmed that the retired referees listed in your letter are not eligible to receive benefits under the applicable NBA pension plan. Unfortunately, at the present time, we see no basis for creating an exception which we could justify to the NBA owners which would permit these individuals to receive benefits from the NBA."
Eckman, who spent eight years as an official and four seasons as head coach of the Fort Wayne/Detroit Pistons, was stunned the NBA rejected what is a modest request, considering all the money it's making at the gate and from radio-TV rights. "I can't believe the NBA would have no more feeling for us than that," he said. "We gave it the best years of our lives. I honestly believe we deserve a pension. I don't begrudge the modern NBA a thing. I'm happy for its success. But it hurts to be treated this way, to have the door slammed in your face."
When Eckman first started, in 1947-48, he made $50 a game and got $5 a day meal money. Officials were allowed to travel on railroad sleeper cars but, in order to save money, would buy day coach tickets and keep the difference. "I was as good as anybody who ever refereed," said Eckman. "My hand to God on that.
"I had playoff and title games, plus major college tournaments. I must have worked around 7,000 games overall. One year the NBA was in such bad shape I didn't get paid until August. Working a playoff meant $75 a game but you had a long wait to collect. Back then, the NBA sent you to places where they didn't always have franchises but it scheduled there anyhow."
Stern, the Cleveland attorney, said, "As far as I can determine, these six referees are the only ones hanging out there without a pension. Even trainers are included. And if they took care of them it wouldn't influence the present pension system in any way. You're only talking about six loyal and competent retired referees."
Meanwhile, the present NBA commissioner, David Stern, no relation to the Cleveland lawyer who is trying to assist the forgotten referees, receives a salary of $3.5 million annually, totaling $27.5 million for five years. He also collected a $10 million bonus. Yet six old referees can't get a pension that would average about $700 a month.
If the NBA has a conscience it must have trouble sleeping at night.