LeBron James is said to be “mulling” making a bid for the presidency of the NBA players association.
Oscar Robertson held that post longer than any NBA player in history.
To this day, Robertson remains the biggest name to have served his fellow players in that capacity. And as one of the game’s true Olympian figures, Robertson cannot imagine a better candidate than James, who is on his way to similar heights.
“Yeah, he’d have to think about it — I think he would have an excellent situation,” Robertson said in a phone interview Thursday evening. “I think if he was president of the players [union], he would excel like he does on the basketball court. I guess, maybe now with all the advice and the consultants and things, it would be a different situation.”
Robertson, the NBA’s legendary “Big O” during his Hall of Fame career in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, served as president of the National Basketball Players Association from 1965 to his retirement in 1974. Those were some of the league’s, and the union’s, most tumultuous years, when the two sides hammered out the makings of today’s so-called “player-owner partnership” mostly by colliding repeatedly into each other.
Big O key in early labor battles
Organized by Celtics great Bob Cousy in 1954 and further established by his Boston teammate Tom Heinsohn from 1958-65, the union in 1965 still was fighting for what now would be considered bare essentials: pay for preseason games, better medical care, the concept of an All-Star “break,” modest bumps in meal money and pensions, and a boost in the minimum player salary — out of FOUR figures. All of the strategies and jargon that were in play during the 2011 lockout, like cancelled games and filings with the National Labor Relations Board? Those were in play in the 1960s, too, when the NBPA’s power base was a lot more tenuous.
“Actually, I was naïve when I started,” Robertson said. “I didn’t know anything about it. Sometimes it’s fate, what happens. So I just got involved. I didn’t know anything about the union whatsoever — I knew what it was because I was in it, but as far as how to run it, it was on-the-job training for me.”
The American Basketball Association (ABA) sprang up in 1967, exacerbating tensions between the NBA’s owners and the players. By 1970, with salaries bid ever higher and the two leagues in merger negotiations, the union filed an antitrust lawsuit to block such a move, given its impact on their employment and freedoms. The players sought to abolish the college draft and the option clause in standard contracts that bound them to their teams in perpetuity. Acrimony spiked, and a lawsuit in the matter soon became known for the union president’s name attached to it: the Oscar Robertson suit.
“I’m glad that I was a star,” Robertson recalled Thursday. “Because if I was a mediocre player, I wouldn’t have lasted very long. Because in those days, the league hated you as a player rep and they wanted to get rid of you.”
Robertson, now 74, wasn’t just a star. He was the LeBron James of his day (or vice versa). Many people know of him as the master of the triple-double — in 1961-62, he famously averaged at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for an entire season. What too many neglect, of course, is that Robertson averaged 30.8 points along with those 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
Even fewer realize that the 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard averaged a triple-double over his first five seasons in the league: 30.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 10.6 apg in 384 appearances from 1960-61 through 1964-65.
Robertson’s game gave him a voice, not unlike James in Houston at All-Star weekend in February. On that Saturday, at the union’s membership meeting at the Hilton, James commanded the room by probing and leading the discussion of NBPA executive director Billy Hunter’s job performance and ethics, outgoing president Derek Fisher’s role, the members of the union’s executive committee and the very future of the association.
James and veteran Jerry Stackhouse, through their comments, questions and actions that afternoon, reportedly imposed order on a group spinning out of control. Stackhouse, who recently told FoxSports.com that the union hopes to name a replacement for Hunter (and acting director Ron Klempner) sometime after Christmas, isn’t expected to be active as a player this season.
But James’ star power as a possible NBPA president could boost the union’s credibility and impact.
Stars have tradition of taking NBPA spotlight
The star-driven NBA has had, for more than a decade, a union driven by role players. What Cousy, Heinsohn and Robertson began, others such as Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas and Patrick Ewing continued. But since 2001, Michael Curry (2001-05), Antonio Davis (2005-06) and Fisher (2006-present) have headed the NBPA.
Through the union’s first 47 years, 10 players served as president; seven wound up in the Hall of Fame and the 10 combined for 75 All-Star selections. In the past 13 years, Davis’ 2001 All-Star appearance stands alone. None of the last three presidents is headed to Springfield.
That didn’t preclude them from being effective — Fisher worked tirelessly and often thanklessly through the prickly lockout two years ago. But the clout that comes with star status — James has two NBA titles with the Heat, four MVPs, Olympic gold and more — can help immensely, Robertson said.
“I felt I commanded a lot of respect from a lot of different ball players, when you say something to the guys,” Robertson said. “And if you’re friendly with ‘em, other than playing basketball, it will help also.”
Finding NBA stars willing to take on the role, while sacrificing time and outside earning opportunities, has gotten more difficult. Robertson thinks it has something to do with the stakes these days.
“That’s always been [an apathy] problem with some guys,” he said. “But you look at it over the years, with all of the problems they’ve had, a lot of players because they’re making money, they just don’t get involved. They don’t need to — it might hurt you selling a pair of shoes or a headband or something.”
Robertson: NBPA prez a job of ‘sacrifice’
People can debate the merits of a union president who dominates All-NBA teams vs. one who relates (and earns similarly) to the league’s middle class. Either version will wind up logging long hours. “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a sacrifice,” Robertson said. “Especially if you do a good job. If you do the job [the way] they’re going to have confidence in you, sometimes it gets a little lonely. Until something happens.
“I didn’t think about whether it was hard or not [to make time]. It was an opportunity. There was an awful lot going on when I was with the players association, a lot of changes that needed to be done. Some we did right, some we didn’t.”
Robertson is proud of the gains achieved by the NBPA during his tenure. The Robertson lawsuit triggered negotiations that led to free agency, as well as a settlement that paid more than $4 million to then-current players and another $1 million in union legal fees. Pensions improved and the minimum salary tripled on his watch.
Only a handful of his peers or players since have thanked him for his service, Robertson said (“But I didn’t do it for that anyway”). He also said he paid a professional price. Robertson was dropped after one season as color analyst on the NBA’s network telecasts because, legend has it, some owners bristled at such a prominent role for the player who sued them.
On the other side of the ledger, however, Robertson points to the strides they all made. “Look at the money guys are making now,” he said. “Look at the [charter-jet, luxury-hotel] travel. There’s an orthopedic doctor at the games. You get better meal money. You have a right to go to other teams if you don’t have a valid and existing contract with your team.
“There’s no doubt about it — we were there during some [pivotal] years for the NBA.”
So there are some of the pros and cons, in Robertson’s view, as James mulls a potential candidacy: The time commitment, the opportunities skipped, the politics involved, knowing when to delegate and so on. The Hall of Famer said he would be willing to advise James, if asked. Also, Robertson’s old friend Jim Quinn — the attorney who worked on the lawsuit four decades ago and helped broker the lockout settlement 20 months ago — is again working with the NBPA in its search for Hunter’s replacement.
The union’s greatest challenge now? “Getting rid of personality tiffs. That kills you,” Robertson said.
“Somebody gets upset … because somebody doesn’t like what you’re doing, and they start this current going against you. A lot of players, when they start to make millions of dollars and they get agents who also are afraid to have their little nest egg cut off, that’s what happens.”
James, through force of personality and basketball superiority, might be the right choice to stem that.