NBA pioneers are Cratchits in this 'Christmas Carol'

December 25, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

This is a Christmas tale. In honor of that eminent writer Chuck Dickens, consider it an updated version of "A Christmas Carol."

So for this tale we'll need an Ebenezer Scrooge. We need someone greedy and self-centered. We'll need someone, or a group of someones, who'd gleefully hoard a large pile of money for himself or themselves. I nominate the NBA Players Association, the labor group that represents those filthy rich guys who play for the National Basketball Association.

But this tale needs a Bob Cratchit, some poor, forgotten soul or group of souls being squeezed out of their rightful share of money by Scrooge. I nominate those NBA players who retired before 1954 and are not included in the NBPA pension plan. At least that's what Bill Tosheff, president of the Pre-1955 NBA Players Association, claims.

Tosheff called me this summer. Only a few weeks before his call, I had bought a book by Neil D. Isaacs in New York called "Vintage NBA: The Pioneer Era, 1946-1956."

"I'm in a book called 'Vintage NBA,' " Tosheff told me.

"I just bought that book!" I answered, wondering if some weird, Twilight Zone stuff was going on here. Tosheff then told me more about the 65 or 70 guys -- now in their 70s -- who played three or four years in the NBA before 1955 and were excluded from the pension plan in the 1988 collective bargaining agreement the NBPA made with league owners.

"All we're asking is $300 or $400 a month," Tosheff said. "We think the league can manage that."

The NBA can manage that and a lot more, what with the multimillion-dollar salaries they are handing out to guys like Allan Houston, Chris Childs, Dale Davis and Antonio Davis. You've never heard of any of these guys? That's the point. The NBA clearly has money to burn. If they have millions to give Houston, Childs and the Davises, they can kick a few hundred a month to guys like Tosheff, Kevin O'Shea, Bob Lavoy and Wally Osterkorn.

I called the NBA Players Association office three or four times to see if anyone could tell me why the guys who played before 1955 were being given the back of the NBA's hand. But apparently Players Association officials are seldom in the office. On about my fifth call, a woman answering the phone passed the buck to the retirement office.

I called the retirement office and, months later, am still waiting for a return call. It seems that the Players Association and retirement office don't care to answer questions about why those guys who started the league -- taking buses and trains to cities like Sheboygan, Wis., and Anderson, Ind., where they often suited up in freezing dressing rooms -- and kept it alive so that JTC guys like Houston and Childs could make millions aren't even worth a few hundred bucks a month.

Can't you just hear the current owners and players saying, a la Scrooge, of guys like Tosheff, "Is there no Social Security? Is there no Medicare?"

It seems that the attitude of the retirement office, Players Association and NBA owners is, Who cares about a bunch of guys now in their 70s who played back in the days before the league even had a 24-second clock? We shall see, gentlemen, we shall see.

Today, the NBA has a double-header on NBC. Mind you, I'm not suggesting anything, but wouldn't it be downright fun if the NBC switchboard were suddenly flooded with hundreds of calls from basketball fans demanding to know why the NBA can't share some of its millions with the guys who started the league? Wouldn't it be even more fun if the trend were to continue throughout the basketball season?

Here's an idea that might well redefine fun: Because the Players Association thinks the guys who played before 1955 aren't worthy of pension money, let current players put their skills on the line to prove it. Let some of these no-names currently making millions have a free-throw contest with the old-timers in their 70s. My money would be on the old-timers. If the old-timers win, they get to be included in the pension plan.

Tosheff, who likes to be called "Tosh," said that with his two-handed set shot he could outshoot most of the players in the game today. He even tried to give Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers some tips on free-throw shooting, without much success, apparently.

"Today's [game is] based on speed," Tosheff said in "Vintage NBA." "A lot of agility and guys who can really score -- over the rim. There is more one-on-one, a lot of grabbing, shoving and talking trash. Too much money is being paid to many young men."

"Tosh" is damned right. It's time the NBA and the Players Association gave that money to some of the pioneers.

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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