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Oscar Robertson is known as one of the best players in NBA history, a triple-double machine who set the stage for the versatility of today's NBA superstars like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Draymond Green. But The Big O's larger legacy may lie in spearheading the fight for his fellow players' financial equity and free agency, joined by fellow stars John Havlicek, Bill Bradley, Wes Unseld, and more. In Hard Labor, Sam Smith, best-selling basketball scribe emeritus and author of The Jordan Rules, unearths this incredible and untold fight for players' rights and examines the massive repercussions for the NBA and sports in the United States in the 40 years since. Diving into how "The 14" paved the way for the record-setting paydays for today's NBA players - stars and role players alike - as well as the harsh consequences faced by those involved in the lawsuit against the NBA, Hard Labor is an essential read for both NBA and sports fans alike.
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About the Author
Sam Smith is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Jordan Rules, Second Coming, and There is No Next. Sam received the Naismith Hall of Fame 2012 Curt Gowdy Media Award and he writes for Bulls.com. You can follow him at @SamSmithHoops.
Read an Excerpt
Back in the Day
Not many books about basketball begin with a story about Thomas Jefferson. Though perhaps more should, since if basketball were invented in the 18th century, Jefferson might have been Michael Jordan. We know as the third president of the United States, Jefferson was regarded by many as one of the greatest ever to play his game. Jefferson as a basketball player probably would have resembled Jordan. Jefferson was tall for his era, though not the tallest like George Washington, about 6'3", muscular with little body fat and kind of loose limbed, with large hands and feet. Good for defense, though in Jefferson's case it protected his view of the natural rights of man. His posture was erect in suggesting confidence and authority. Perhaps he might not have possessed the jumping ability, though his authorship of the Declaration of Independence certainly was a slam dunk.
Jefferson's decades of public service, lavish spending given his aristocratic upbringing, and charitable nature left him late in life essentially bankrupt. Devastated about the prospect of leaving his family in debt, Jefferson asked the general assembly of his home state, Virginia, to permit a public lottery of some of his properties, a practice used in some large sales before the American Revolution. He sought to raise money for his debts. It officially was against the law in Virginia, so Jefferson sent his oldest grandson to the state legislature for permission. The initial request was denied, shockingly, given all Jefferson had done for the commonwealth in public service. It was later approved on appeal. Advertisements began to appear in newspapers around the country for the lottery.
But plans for the lottery were dropped because so many private citizens — simple farmers, shopkeepers, and merchants — came forward in groups or as individuals to send money to Monticello for Jefferson's plight. About $10,000 came from New York, $5,000 from Philadelphia, $3,000 from Baltimore. It would be 20 to 30 times that much in today's dollars. Though most of the citizens didn't have as much money — or certainly assets, since Jefferson always planned to retain his Monticello estate — the recognition and appreciation existed for his role in enabling them to enjoy life, liberty, and happiness, freed from the bondage of English rule. For not only articulating their hopes and wishes in America's seminal document — Jefferson's ultimate ideal of self-expression — but sacrificing to serve the people as Continental Congress delegate, ambassador, secretary of state, and president. Jefferson lived well; he basically stocked the Library of Congress after the British burned the city in the War of 1812. He was, despite his "cash flow problems," better off financially than most of the people who helped him. The larger point was the charitable and collective American spirit, perhaps that same idyllic and romantic view of the American people that gave Jefferson so much confidence in the simple decency of his fellow citizens to carry on a republican experiment that no one at the time believed could endure: a government from the consent of the governed. Though it never was easy, certain, and simple, it was much better and they were grateful. They understood the sacrifices of people like Thomas Jefferson and that their future was brighter because of them and that their heirs would enjoy better lives.
So they said thank you in the best expression they could, coming to the aid of Jefferson when he was in need of help for his own financial independence.
That was the inspiration for this book.
The Oscar Robertson suit is basketball's seminal document that, in effect, created the modern National Basketball Association. Because it not only allowed for the merger with the jazzy American Basketball Association in 1976, but it helped create the environment for the fabulous growth of the NBA in a partnership with its players that has enhanced and grown the game to its current level, where it is challenging to be the most popular sport in the world. Its players, like America's citizens benefitting from their curious little experiment, have profited exponentially. It would be the nexus of competition and slam dunk economics.
The suit, filed in 1970, initially blocked the NBA's proposed merger with the ABA on antitrust grounds. NBA players finally had negotiating leverage with the advent of the ABA in 1967. So they filed suit to stop the merger after the NBA realized it couldn't ignore the ABA out of business, like it did the ABL of the early 1960s. The NBA went to Congress to seek an exemption like baseball and football had, but was rebuffed. The ABA then filed its own antitrust suit against the NBA. With the NBA losing in court and the NBA players running out of money to battle in court, settlement talks began at the start of 1976 and an agreement was officially signed in July 1976. Talk about your Spirit of '76.
It evolved into an instrument for the freedom of players through free agency, finally breaking the hold teams had on players with the reserve clause, which tied a player to his team for perpetuity. Free agency would be introduced in stages with not much movement until the 1990s. However, it has become not only an economic vehicle to drive NBA interest but a tangential element as compelling as the games. LeBron's TV "Decision" was rated as high as playoff games. It has leveled the playing field in the NBA more than ever thought possible and enabled players to determine their actual worth in the market, which is only fair for any worker and, as we like to say, the American way. It is the model of capitalism of which we are so proud and connected. It has been an essential element in the fusion that has enabled the NBA to explode on the worldwide market.
Even the greatest admirers of Jefferson would never say he saw his words providing the base for sanctioning the end of slavery and women's suffrage. After all, among the many contradictions of the man, he was a Southern slaveholder who didn't free most of his slaves upon his death, as George Washington did, and didn't believe women had the natural abilities to govern. Oscar Robertson and his fellow plaintiffs, along with attorney Larry Fleisher in the historic action, never could be convinced where the NBA would be today. The average salary — average, to emphasize — in the NBA likely will be perhaps $8 million by the end of 2017.
"I came in 1962 and signed a contract with the Chicago Zephyrs, a one-year deal, $15,000 and their option for another year at the same number," recalled Don Nelson, the Hall of Fame coach and longtime Boston Celtics player. "I remember Larry Fleisher telling me during that time, 'Nellie, some day every player in the league will be making $500,000.' I laughed. My second year I was traded to the Lakers. I go in to negotiate, no agent or lawyers allowed back then. [Owner] Bob Short is in there with a room full of lawyers. He says, 'Tell you what I'm going to do. I'll give you $15,000 if that's what you want. But then there will be no playoff share.' He said if I wanted a playoff share he'd give me $10,000 and the rights to a playoff share. That was it. I didn't believe Larry, but he was right. What those guys stood up for is why we have such a great league today."
What those guys stood for was not popular with their employers, who kind of liked the idea that players had no bargaining leverage, that once you were drafted, that team held your rights for life and there basically were no competing leagues. Heck of a business model. It was once known as slavery; it evolved in the 19 century to be called monopoly. Owners reacted with high dudgeon. How dare they with what we are paying them! Though they could hardly defend the working conditions. But management also had a point. For a long time into the late 1950s, the league was barely surviving. And then with the salary battles with the ABA into the early 1970s, several franchises were teetering. The league often was propped up with expansion fees as the NBA grew from nine teams in 1965 to 17 in 1970. The players' action was hardly nihilistic. It was equally significant and in sync with the tenor of the times, the black working man standing up to the white establishment. Not just for simple, long-earned civil rights in schools and restaurants, but fairness in the workplace, dignity in your profession. It wasn't a Nat Turner rebellion, but a movement for economic equality and personal dignity. Done so by the working men for the succeeding generations. Shaking free of the economic yoke of tyranny as the Founders did for their personal rights. And it fit with the times: historic civil rights legislation, protests against government actions and behavior, free expressions of love, music and protest, political disruption, cities in flames, citizens outraged demanding their liberties. So the NBA players were, in some respects, an extension of the movement sweeping the country. They had been rejected, suppressed, and ignored. They would make their demands while also mindful of the institutions.
It was not trickle-down economics but bottom up and, significantly, led at the point by a point guard, Robertson, someone accustomed to trying to bring out the best in others. As one of the highest paid, perhaps Robertson had the most to lose. But his lifelong instincts on and off the basketball court spoke to leadership. It was a contest not only for the rights of citizen/athletes, but in some regard for the soul of professional sports, so players could have a voice in the game and their own future. Robertson was both humbled and motivated when asked to take on the responsibility of player association chief and the lawsuit against the NBA. But it was always in Robertson — from demanding his place to pushing for excellence in those around him — to step forward and take responsibility. Many others would express themselves, like Bill Russell, Dave Bing, Elgin Baylor, Chet Walker, Willis Reed, and Jerry West. Oscar's legendary vision extended further than the 94' x 50' dimensions of the basketball court. He embraced the fundamentals of the game and stood for the fundamentals of change.
"Oscar is a man of conviction," says Pat Riley, the Hall of Fame coach and Miami Heat president. "He probably was bulletproof as far as his career, but it wasn't popular to speak out against corporations. We were coming out of a decade with civil right legislation, youth, war, and he put himself out there, like Muhammad Ali, like Jim Brown. You have to do that to be heard, to have clout. Oscar was the one who would tell us to stay the course, be tough, get your rights and freedom. Players were owned by teams. The Robertson case was the trigger that sort of started everything, slowly, then the merger and the doors began to open to free agency. There always has to be a pioneer who steps forward."
The NBA players of the late 1960s became the modern-day trustbusters. They challenged an inequitable business model and made it better for themselves and the monopolists. The needs of the few are outweighed by the needs of the many. And can result in the improvement of the system.
"Every time people want change to make things better whether it's on minimum wage or human rights or whatever, it's, 'Oh we can never do this. It will be the end of everything. The league will fold.' Then when it's forced upon them it turns out to be the best thing that ever happened," said Bill Walton. "Oscar Robertson, the lead plaintiff, was the one guy at the time who didn't have to do that. He was at the top, he was going to be fine. That's why I love what those guys did, what Oscar and [Bill] Bradley and [John] Havlicek, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Dave DeBusschere, Wes Unseld, these guys are guys who represented the dream of the team."
"We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
— Benjamin Franklin upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which would have been considered treason if the colonies lost the war
At first it wasn't easy to unite the NBA players. That's how Tommy Heinsohn became president of the players association, handing it off to Robertson in his own give-and-go when he retired in 1965. "It was a pretty loose organization," Heinsohn says with a laugh. "I'd literally go into locker rooms and tell guys, 'Give me $25.' Cousy would never do that. Bob sent out a letter and just thought everyone would jump in. He wasn't going knocking on doors. I might have to fight with a few guys for the $25. The Detroit owner was anti-union, [Fred] Zollner, so it was tough to get those guys. It was a tough start."
It's not going to be comfortable suing your employer. There can be repercussions, imagined, believed, contrived, or otherwise.
One of the famous stories, obviously denied by the NBA because, well, it could be expensive in licensing fees, is that Jerry West's silhouette is the logo for the NBA. Alan Siegel, a designer who worked with Major League Baseball in the 1960s on a logo, has said he was hired by commissioner Walter Kennedy in 1969 to come up with a family-type logo to represent the league. Siegel, a New Yorker, looked through some photos from Sport magazine and settled on West, whom he enjoyed watching while attending Knicks games. The story that's been around the NBA for many years is it was supposed to be Robertson. But, well, he wasn't so easy to deal with, and as head of the players association he would be most associated with the suit.
Ironically, if anyone had asked the humble and self-critical West about the logo, which he still uncomfortably barely accepts, he might have been the first to suggest Robertson, whom West, despite their similarity in ages, considered almost an idol.
"Many have looked at Oscar [negatively] because of his being the name there as the leader of this group. I think he's been looked at differently," West told me last year, still as distinguished and confident looking as when he rose for his penetrating jump shot. "I almost think he's been victimized by owners knowing full well we were indentured. Oscar was vilified and never could get the kind of front office jobs I did because of his free agency work. Like Curt Flood in baseball, actions have consequences. They did what they believed was right and how can you not respect that? I wished I could find out my real worth when I played, but I never could." National Basketball Players Association attorney Larry Fleisher once told Sports Illustrated, "There's something sick with a system in which someone can say 'I own Moses Malone.' Even if he is paid $13.2 million for his services, he doesn't own him. What seems at first to be just semantics eventually pervades people's thinking." It was the rejection of a generally accepted institution, and understandable as the very values, morality, and ethics of the game were inappropriate. The NBA players kept winning in court, which led to the historic 1976 settlement, thanks to Fleisher's idea of filing a class action as an association on antitrust grounds. It would be the marriage of equity and competition.
"It's amazing to me, the players now," West added. "The young players do not have a clue what went on; there is no appreciation for those players. I say to myself, How many players in this league deserve to make this gigantic amount of money? A few, maybe five or six. I'm happy for the ones who make it and should make it. One of the things that used to bother me a lot is when Michael Jordan was playing; it drove me crazy he was not compensated accordingly until the last few years of his career. He sold the [arenas] out. Certainly, I am not jealous of those players today. But I don't think they know how much one person, Oscar, could make this much difference in their lives, in their pay, the way they are treated, how they are taken care of today. I admired so many things he had to endure because of that one thing in his life where he and a group of players because of his stature he wasn't afraid to go out there and take all the barbs thrown his way."
So few really understood that the players association was clobbering the NBA with its legal arguments to eliminate the reserve clause even as the NBA declared in court it was vital for its very survival. Though in a case not necessarily drawing much public sympathy. Pro athletes still were highly paid relative to other workers of the era and there was the glamour and other distractions.
"We've got war protests going on, the Weathermen underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army. So your fight for freedom wasn't exactly a concern," noted Phil Jackson, a Knicks player at the time. The NBA hoped the public and courts would likewise agree the issue was simplistic, unimportant, when it came to the significance of the enterprise.
Excerpted from "Hard Labor"
Copyright © 2017 Sam Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Our Players xi
1 Back in the Day 1
2 You'll Never Play Again 29
3 Elgin, Wilt, and Bill 47
4 Mr. Bradley Goes to Washington 89
5 The "Bad" Influence of "Pogo" Joe Caldwell 123
6 Rick Barry vs. the World 157
7 Bob Cousy Can't Get Those Dues 167
8 The Mad Russian Warrior Poet 183
9 Camaraderie and a Crashing Plane 197
10 The Kangaroo Kram 223
11 Spencer Haywood Was First 249
12 The Subtle Art of Wes Unseld 279
13 Twyman Becomes Someone to Stokes 289
14 The Decision 299