Simon Gourdine’s most notable NBA moments came long before social media, but the former league and players association executive who died at age 72 would have had lit up Twitter, Facebook and other Internet outlets had they been around through Gourdine’s wildly divergent pro basketball incarnations.
A Manhattan native, lawyer and Harvard MBA who worked as an assistant district attorney in New York, Gourdine first linked up with the NBA in 1970 when NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy hired him as his in-house counsel. Gourdine was named NBA deputy commissioner in 1974, becoming the highest ranking African-American executive in sports at that time.
Alongside another young lawyer working for the league – guy named David Stern – under Larry O’Brien, Kennedy’s successor, Gourdine helped negotiate labor agreements with the players in 1976 and 1979. But when he felt his chances of succeeding O’Brien were fading, Gourdine left in 1981 to work for the Department of Consumer Affairs in New York City.
He returned to the NBA scene in 1990 on the other side of the bargaining table, as the National Basketball Players Association’s general counsel. When executive director Charles Grantham abruptly resigned in April 1995, Gourdine took over the top job and negotiated the labor deal that ended the 1995 lockout and instituted the NBA’s first rookie wage scale.
But Gourdine was forced out by a group of players and their agents, including Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, who felt the deal favored the owners and had urged the decertification of the union. They pressured the NBPA’s executive board to oust Gourdine despite a freshly signed two-year contract; an arbitration panel awarded him approximately $1 million in back pay and interest when it ruled he had been fired without cause.
“I was fired by Patrick Ewing,” Gourdine joked years later.
The episode bore similarities to the in-fighting that surfaced after the recent NBA lockout ended, with executive director Billy Hunter and the NBPA board seeking the resignation of union president Derek Fisher and Fisher countering with claims against Hunter.
Gourdine returned to legal posts in public and private enterprises, including the New York Housing Authority and as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of trials.
None of his public service generated the level of publicity Gourdine got from working, at separate times, both sides of the NBA aisle. And it apparently always rankled him when folks then or more recently suggested that, given his early employment by the league, he went easier on Stern and the owners in negotiations.
He told Sports Illustrated as much in a 1995 article while still working for the NBPA:
But will Gourdine’s appointment mean a softer line from the players? The word moderate makes Gourdine bristle. “I can be accommodating, but if that means I’m easy or overly flexible, I reject that,” he says. “I grew up in the middle of the civil rights struggle. A moderate was someone who maybe was too accommodating, who wasn’t pushing hard enough.”
Malcolm X was Gourdine’s hero. Still is. When he was a junior at City College, Gourdine interviewed Malcolm at a Harlem restaurant for a term paper.
Recalls Gourdine: “At the end of the interview we went out into the street, and he called out, ‘Brother Gourdine.’ He had a flair for the theatrical. ‘Before you go back to the college on the hill and write about the Black Muslims, I ask one thing of you: Please be fair.’ “
That’s probably what Gourdine would ask now as people, basketball fans and others, recall his life and deeds.
UPDATE: NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement paying tribute to Gourdine:
“Simon Gourdine made an extraordinary impact on the National Basketball Association over his nearly 20 years of service with our league. As both the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner and Executive Director of the Players Association, Simon brought the same zeal, integrity and excellence that he exhibited from his days as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. The NBA family has lost an innovator and a great friend. On behalf of the league, I want to express my condolences to Pat, their children, David, Peter and Laura and the entire Gourdine family during this time. Simon will always be remembered by his friends at the NBA.”