Posts Tagged ‘J. Walter Kennedy’

The All-Star Game That Nearly Wasn’t

NEW ORLEANS – In the months, weeks and days leading up to the 1964 All-Star Game, the NBA players and their still-budding union had been blown off more than once by the franchise owners and the league’s hierarchy. Officers and player-reps of the National Basketball Players Association would travel to a Board of Governors meeting, encouraged that they would have an audience with the bosses, only to be left cooling their heels outside the room.

Until the evening of Jan. 14, 1964, when the owners of the NBA’s nine teams were the ones on the wrong side of the door, banging and pleading to get in.

“The owners kept putting us off and putting us off,” said Tom Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics’ Hall of Fame player, coach and broadcaster who was NBPA president at the time (owing mostly to his offseason job in the insurance field). “Finally, we decided, ‘We’re not going to play the All-Star Game.’ ”

Boom!

Golden State Warriors vs. Boston Celtics

Tom Heinsohn was the NBPA President during the NBA’s 1964 labor negotiations at All-Star weekend. (Getty Images)

The NBA won’t exactly be celebrating the 50th anniversary of this pivotal moment in its history at All-Star Weekend in the Big Easy. But without it, the league might look nothing at all like it does now, with players and owners building it into one of the most popular sports options on the planet.

Like the union itself – founded in 1954 by Celtics guard Bob Cousy – the issues of 1964 had been on the table for most of a decade. The players were trying to institute a pension plan to cover their some portion of their retirement years. There were concerns about working conditions, such as meal money, full-time trainers (home and road) for each team and schedule considerations (for example, no Sunday matinees after Saturday night games). There also was the sheer recognition of the NBPA as the collective bargaining voice of NBA players, with Larry Fleisher as their executive director.

“They’d tell us they were going to do all these things,” Oscar Robertson said this week, “and then they’d change their minds.”

According to Heinsohn, it was the NBA’s first commissioner, Maurice Podoloff (for whom the MVP trophy is named), who was most resistant to a unionized labor force for the league. The otherwise genial Podoloff, on orders from the league’s nine owners, “did everything possible to thwart our efforts,” Heinsohn said. His successor, J. Walter Kennedy, was said to have fallen right in line with that tactic.

That offseason, one more attempt to pitch their demands to the Board of Governors got dashed. So in the months leading up to the All-Star Game – a Tuesday night affair, not the weekend it is now – Heinsohn and union VPs Lenny Wilkens and Bob Pettit had notified management of their last-ditch plan.

An unexpected opportunity to negotiate

No one took it seriously until that day. A major snowstorm over the nation’s Eastern half led to All-Stars players and NBA owners arriving through the afternoon. Heinsohn met his guys in the hotel as they did, getting them to literally sign onto the petition to boycott the game that evening.

Cincinnati’s Wayne Embry, who arrived with Royals teammates Robertson and Jerry Lucas after being diverted from Cincy to Minneapolis to Washington, with a train to Boston, said: “Tommy was in the lobby. He says, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ ”

Said Heinsohn: “[That list] was the ‘Magna Carta’ of the players association.”

Wayne Embry

Cincinnati Royals star Wayne Embry was a big player in the 1964 NBA labor talks. (Getty Images)

Interestingly, there was a wild card in play that worked in the union’s favor: For the first time, the All-Star Game was being televised live in prime time. The window of air time was finite.

“You can imagine what was at stake for them,” said Embry, the burly center who became pro sports’ first black GM with Milwaukee in the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era. “But there was a lot at stake for us, too. It got pretty tense, with owners threatening players.”

The clock was ticking. Kennedy was sweating. ABC made it known that it would pull the plug on the telecast if the impasse wasn’t broken.

Owners such as the Celtics’ Walter Brown came to the East locker room at Boston Garden, each imploring his players to reconsider. Brown, of course, represented the host team and felt more pressure than his peers for what was unfolding. “He wound up calling me the biggest heel in sports,” Heinsohn said, “and saying, if there’d been a team out in Hawaii, he’d have sent me there.”

Legend has it that Bob Short, the Lakers owner, tried to barge into the room but had to settle for barking some orders to the cop posted outside the door. Said Heinsohn: “He tells this old Irish police guy, ‘I’m Bob Short, the owner of the Lakers. You go tell Elgin Baylor that if he doesn’t get his ass out here fast, I’m done with him!’

“So Elgin gets the word and said back to him, ‘Tell Bob Short to go [expletive] himself.’ ”

‘It was something we had to do’

As tempers flared, the players’ resolve intensified.

“We weren’t quite united at first but we soon got there,” was how Robertson recalled it. “It took a little conversation but we got it done. People came in the locker room making threats, telling us we were going to ‘kill basketball’ and ‘What are you doing?’ It was a TV game and we could understand that, but it was something we had to do. If you negotiate in good faith and you agree to do something, you should be true to your word.”

Oscar Robertson

Oscar Robertson, an NBPA exec in 1964, was one of the loudest voices calling for change in the NBA’s labor agreement. (Getty Images)

The “good faith” view of ownership rapidly vanished. Jerry West, Baylor’s L.A. teammate, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011: “The players were controlled by the owners. All of us felt like we were slaves in the sense we had no rights. No one made anything then. You had to work in the summer. It was the stone ages of basketball.”

With ABC executives in his ear and game time fast approaching, Kennedy conferred with his owners. Then he knocked on the locker room door, entered and told the players that, yes, their concerns would be addressed: a pension plan, the working conditions and the rest, giving the NBPA a real voice and solidified seat at the bargaining table.

Pettit and Embry recalled a vote taken by show of hands, with an 18-2 outcome in favor of playing the game.

“There was a lot of discussion, pros and cons among the players,” Pettit said, “and there were players who still thought we should not go out and play. I think it was Wilt Chamberlain who said, ‘We’ve got the commissioner’s guarantee that he’ll do everything in his power. We need to go out and play the game.’ I guess we went out three or four minutes before what was supposed to be tip-off, took one or two layups [as warm-ups] and started the game.”

Embry recalled a delay of about 15 minutes. Others have referred to the near-boycott as “the 22-minute strike.” That night, Robertson was named MVP after scoring 26 points with 14 rebounds and eight assists in the East’s 111-107 victory. Bill Russell had 13 points and 21 rebounds, Chamberlain went for 19 and 20 and Pettit had 19 and 17.

NBPA’s stance paves way for today’s players

The real winners, of course, were the NBA’s rank-and-file players and their union. In time, the pension plan initially designed for only active and future NBA labor was extended back to cover pre-1965 players. That and the other benefits laid a foundation for much of the players’ condition today, including (after subsequent lockouts and wranglings) a $5.7 million average player salary in a league generating $5 billion in annual revenue.

“You talk about money, there wasn’t a whole lot of money in that [locker] room in terms of salary,” Robertson reflected. “Today, I think it would be very, very difficult when guys are making millions and millions of dollars per year for playing basketball – I don’t know if [a threat to boycott the All-Star Game] would have happened today or not. I don’t think a lot of players today are even aware that this happened.”

The NBPA will try to educate them a bit this weekend. Ron Klempner, acting executive director of the NBPA while a search for Billy Hunter‘s replacement continues, told NBA.com this week that the 1964 All-Stars’ stance will be remembered in a video shown before the union’s annual players-rep meeting Saturday.

“Our players are being made very aware of the importance of that stand taken by the 1964 All-Stars,” Klempner said. “It was a watershed moment for labor relations in sports, in terms of the recognition of our union and really in terms of fairness.”

Klempner said the union hoped to have one or two of the participants attend the meeting and possibly other weekend events. Pettit, who lives in Baton Rouge and is a season-ticket holder for the New Orleans Pelicans, is a handy and natural choice. Robertson’s name was in play, though at midweek he said he still had a schedule conflict.

Said Pettit: “It’s important to let [current players] know. Hopefully I’ll have that opportunity to touch base with them on what happened.”

Sixteen of the 20 All-Stars from 1964 still are alive, 50 years later, and it remains a source of pride for those who interviewed. That year was a big one across America, with the Civil Rights Act out of Washington under President Lyndon Johnson. And the stand taken by the NBA players had a ripple effect across other pro sports.

“It was very much a defining moment, 50 years ago, in the history of the NBA and its players,” said Embry, who went onto serve in management roles with Milwaukee, Cleveland and currently Toronto, in addition to private business opportunities such as McDonald’s franchise ownership. “Having been on both sides of unionization in later life, as it turned out, it worked well for both. You’re always going to have labor negotiations, but think about what it would be if you didn’t.”

In the moment, though, that sort of clarity didn’t come easily. Back in 1964, Embry was a 26-year-old from Springfield, Ohio, manning the middle for the Royal, living pretty much paycheck to paycheck and letting others in that East locker room do most of the talking.

“I thought, ‘Well, there goes my job.’ I was an All-Star but I wasn’t a superstar,” Embry said. “I was scared [sick].”

West Praises His Former Rival, The Big O

Jerry West and Oscar Robertson being honored in 2010.

Jerry West and Oscar Robertson being honored in 2010. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

They entered the league in lockstep, spent the same 14 seasons as rivals and exited at the same time as well. Perennial All-Stars and eventual Hall of Famers, fiercely chasing championships in a zero-sum game. One guy black, one guy white.

If you didn’t know better, you might think that Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were the first draft of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, their heated rivalry played out 20 years earlier in simpler times – the 1960s rather than the ’80s – but essentially the same.

Except that West wants to make sure you do know better.

“They didn’t guard each other, OK?” West said by phone recently. “I guarded him and he guarded me. That would be our biggest difference with those two guys.

“When you saw Boston play the Lakers, you saw [Bird and Johnson] playing with a team, you didn’t really see those two guys playing each other. It’s a huge distinction. … I did not fear him. I know he didn’t fear me. You get to the point where you can’t sit around and admire how someone else plays. You have to go make them play against you.”

Bird and Johnson were intense competitors pitted against each other from the start, courtesy of the 1979 NCAA championship game, whose duels ripened into a friendship. Robertson and West had their own dynamic and parallel careers, only different.

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They were teammates before they were foes, dominating the trials for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, then helping the Americans grab gold in Rome.

That’s where Zeke From Cabin Creek first saw The Big O in all his budding glory.

“To me, he was so far ahead of the other players who were playing then,” West recalled. “I looked at him and it was like, my God, playing with someone who was a wise old grandfather. He was one of those people who seemed to be a step ahead of the game.

“I thought, ‘He knows so much more about this game than I do.’ It was almost like watching some genius perform his magic, regardless of what it is.”

The two had gone 1-2 in the 1960 Draft, Robertson to the Cincinnati Royals – he had played in college at the University of Cincinnati – followed by West to the Los Angeles Lakers. After their shared Olympic moments, they settled into stellar yet ultimately frustrating grinds trying to match professionally what they had achieved as amateurs.

Robertson led the Royals to the playoffs six times but never got past the mighty Bill Russell-led Celtics to even reach the Finals. West, working with NBA legend Elgin Baylor, got to the Finals just fine but lost all seven trips, six of them to Robertson’s nemeses from Boston.

“This league then was dominated by one team and one franchise,” West said. “When that happens, you certainly get frustrated. … Sometimes you feel like you’re carrying a little more load than other players. The mental burden on you is enormous.

“But people who say ‘He wasn’t good enough to get his team there,’ that’s really ridiculous.”

All Robertson did in Cincinnati was make the All-Star team all 10 years while averaging 29.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.3 assists. He was named 1964 Most Valuable Player, two seasons after authoring his signature performance – averaging a triple-double (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) through all of 1961-62.

Robertson has shrugged off that achievement, one of the NBA’s most famous, by saying he merely was trying to play the right way – and played a lot that season. But for West, it was another case of his rival setting the bar higher.

“Again, it was me looking at him and saying, ‘Well, he’s an all-around player. How am I going to prosper in this game unless I become an all-around player?’ West said. “If you’re any sort of competitor, you judge yourself against the very best players.”

Robertson, West in 1970

Robertson, West in 1970
(Vernon Biever/NBAE)

In April 1970, Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, where at age 32 he joined up with a 23-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win the 1971 NBA championship. Now there was separation again from West, one ring that belonged to Robertson.

“I was thrilled for him,” West said.

A year later, West finally broke through, winning the title with his own Hall of Fame center, Wilt Chamberlain.

The two men have been linked in competition, eventually friendship, for more than 50 years. They see each other a couple times each year, West said, and “we always have more intelligent talk than just talking about basketball.”

West, who is six months older (May 28), made a career in the NBA after his playing days, coaching the Lakers for three seasons before becoming one of the league’s most respected general managers. Robertson did none of that. He had one season as an analyst alongside Brent Musburger on CBS NBA telecasts, and that was it. Robertson believes NBA owners held it against him when he put his name to the class action “Oscar Robertson suit” that opened the door to free agency. Friends like West and Wayne Embry, The Big O’s teammate in Cincinnati turned successful team executive, agree.

“I don’t think there’s any question in my mind and particularly in his mind, that that was a huge detriment,” West said. “I think it’s a shame that someone with his knowledge didn’t have a chance.

“One of the things I always admired about him and Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, when it wasn’t in vogue to talk about the things our black players had to endure then, they spoke up.”

Different times then, but not so different that those players should be eclipsed or neglected from the G.O.A.T. discussions. Robertson especially.

“Trust me, there were a lot of players who could play in this era,” West said. “People who say, ‘Oscar couldn’t do this, he couldn’t do that,’ that’s the biggest bunch of crap I’ve heard in my life. He would be a tremendous player today. He’d acquit himself against everyone because of how he played the game.

“He just played the game so efficiently, half the time he didn’t even look like he was playing. To me, that’s the greatest compliment of all.”

NFL Wasn’t The Only League To Play 50 Years Ago This Weekend

The NFL wasn’t the only major American sports league to play on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963.

The NBA had one game scheduled on that date, which later came to represent one of the greatest regrets of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle‘s career. Oscar Robertson scored 32 points to lead the Cincinnati Royals past the visiting St. Louis Hawks, 122-113, on the same day pro football staged, with extreme mixed emotions, its slate of 12 games across the country.

President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas on Friday afternoon, but the mourning that descended on the nation didn’t completely bring sports to a halt.

Rozelle’s decision to stick to the NFL schedule was criticized at the time and, in hindsight, almost certainly would have been handled differently today. In a Los Angeles Times story looking back to that weekend and the Rams’ game against Baltimore, writer Paresh Dave recounted Rozelle’s thinking:

In New York, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle received call after call from owners. Several thought like the Rams’ crew — they didn’t want to play. At least one said Sunday’s games should go on.

The competing American Football League games and nearly every major weekend event, except for a few high school and college football games, had been canceled.

Rozelle diverged, making a decision that would later dog him and remain a major consideration for decades to come whenever unimaginable calamities befell the nation.

The deciding factor for Rozelle was a call that day with the “uniquely situated” Pierre Salinger, according to the book about the 1963 season “Clouds Over the Goalpost.” Salinger, the White House press secretary, said to Rozelle, “Jack would have wanted you to play the games.” U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, had also wanted the games to continue.

But what about the NBA? It split the decision.

Harvey Pollack, 91, one of the league’s walking treasures as its one-man archives and statistical repository, couldn’t pull the details immediately from his memory banks. But a handy past copy of his own “Harvey Pollack Statistical Yearbook” was all he needed.

“I almost forgot I had this in my book. Postponed, cancelled or moved games … pages 162-163,” Pollack said, setting the phone aside momentarily.

Turns out, the NBA had three games scheduled on the night of the day that Kennedy was slain. All three – New York at Baltimore, Boston at Philadephia and the L.A. Lakers at San Francisco – were postponed by commissioner J. Walter Kennedy.

The Lakers-Warriors game was made up on January 10, the Knicks and Bullets caught up on Jan. 23 and the Celtics-76ers game got pushed all the way to March 3.

Given the chance to do things over, the NFL probably would have done the same thing to its Sunday schedule, according to the Times story:

“If we offended anybody, we apologize,” Rams owner Dan Reeves said after attending Sunday morning Mass. “But there can be no disrespect to President Kennedy’s memory when none was intended.”

Reeves offered refunds to fans unwilling to come to the Coliseum, where Kennedy had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president three years earlier in front of 50,000 people.

Two days after his death, almost 49,000 people entered the Coliseum. It was a slightly above-average crowd for the Rams. Four of the six other NFL games that Sunday sold out.

But the NBA already was back at it, its lower profile on the American sports scene perhaps shielding it from the second-guessing the NFL faced. On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, its two regularly scheduled games went off as usual: the Knicks won at home over Detroit, 108-99, and St. Louis also won at home, beating Cincinnati 133-121. A day later, that Hawks-Royals game was the only one on the NBA schedule — it was a nine-team NBA back then — and the Royals got even on the tail end of their home-and-home set.

Pollack was asked what else he might have remembered of that weekend. Naturally, he was working. The master statistician also handled football games for Temple University and wound up heading to Gettysburg, Pa., in the hours immediately after JFK’s murder.

Informed that the 76ers’ game against Boston was being postponed, Pollack — who otherwise would have missed the Temple game on Saturday — hopped in the car with the school’s sports information director.

“I told him, ‘OK, I’ll go,’ ” Pollack recalled. “When we got to the motel in Gettysburg where the Temple team was staying, there was a sign on the door: Game postponed Saturday.”