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.’ ”
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.”
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, 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].”