Thursday, February 17, 2011
Instead of All-Stars, NBA fans were almost treated to All-Silence.
The NBA was about to go live on television in 1964 for one of the first times, a major opportunity for a struggling league, when the game's top talent threatened to back out of the All-Star game a few hours before tip-off.
Long before the labor lockout in 1998-99 and before whatever awaits the NBA this summer in a new labor negotiation, in 1964 a group of players became pioneers of a sort, banding together to fight for a pension, among other things.
The howling blizzard outside the Boston Garden was an appropriate metaphor for what was happening inside on that January night.
Angry team owners fumed in a hallway inside the arena as their star players, including Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson, barricaded themselves in a locker room and announced they would not play unless they were guaranteed benefits originally forwarded to the commissioner's office the previous summer.
The players wanted a pension. They wanted athletic trainers on every team. They wanted improved playing conditions — no more Sunday afternoon games after a Saturday night game.
The players had tried to tell Commissioner Walter Kennedy that they were serious at a meeting several months earlier.
"We brought in our reps," said former Boston Celtics All-Star Tom Heinsohn, "and they kept us in the lobby and never brought us upstairs."
The owners were definitely listening now.
Heinsohn was the president of the players' association, a position for which he had plenty of practice. He studied labor relations as a student at Holy Cross. He worked on pension plans in an insurance business during NBA off-seasons. His father had been a union official.
He was the one handing the All-Stars a sheet to sign as they arrived at the arena.
"We had a fairly good consensus as they dribbled in," Heinsohn said. "We relayed what we wanted to do and they all signed the paper that they would support this thing.
"We went down and talked to the commissioner at about 5 o'clock and told him that because they hadn't met with us, we were not going to play unless they met our demands. They had a board of governors meeting that day and nobody talked to us."
The game was a couple of hours from tipoff. The line of irritated owners grew quickly outside the locker room.
The NBA was nothing like it is today. It was a nine-team league that did not have a large national following. The minimum player salary was $7,500 — a star such as Heinsohn never made more than $28,500 — and most players had a second career to make a living. (Today, the average NBA salary is $5.8 million.)
The All-Star game was being televised for the first time in 1964 — a big deal to the league and the owners, who were not pleased to hear about the budding revolt.
"At times, certain owners would try to get their players out of the locker room and browbeat them," Heinsohn said.
Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics' general manager and coach, angrily told Heinsohn that he was "the biggest heel in sports."
Lakers owner Bob Short approached the locker room in a fury.
"He said to an Irish cop that guarded the door, 'Tell Elgin Baylor if he doesn't get out there, he's through,' " Heinsohn said.
Baylor's response: Sorry, Bob.
Lakers star Jerry West, then 25 and in his fourth season, stood his ground with Baylor.
"I was young and just trying to feel my way along and build a career for myself," West said. "[Short] said to us very threateningly, 'If you don't play in this game, you're probably never going to play again.' I then said, 'I'm never going to play a game.' I am pretty defiant."
West's mood was steeped in his belief that players were not getting what they deserved.
"The players were controlled by the owners," West said. "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."
The minutes moved rapidly inside the locker room. Tipoff time was approaching. A chance at major TV exposure was evaporating quickly.
Finally, Kennedy made a decision. The commissioner met the demands of the players, who were overjoyed.
"He formally recognized the players' association and agreed to the pension plan and all the other things," Heinsohn said.
The game was delayed about 15 minutes. The Eastern Conference defeated the West, 111-107, but all the players were winners that night.
In the photo above, West All-Stars Bob Pettit and Jerry West look for a steal as the East's Oscar Robertson, bottom, falls to the court during the NBA All-Star game at Boston Garden. The East won, 111-107. (Associated Press / January 15, 1964)