Last month, the National Basketball Retired Players Association – an organization that features 900-plus players and 12 chapters across the United States – announced that Caron Butler would be joining its Board of Directors. The 38-year-old, who officially announced his retirement from the NBA in February of 2018, will serve a three-year term.
Recently, the NBRPA has been electing younger, newly-retired individuals like Butler, Jerome ‘Junkyard Dog’ Williams (45 years old) and Grant Hill (46 years old) to leadership positions. This is no coincidence. These players resonate with today’s athletes and they’re instantly recognizable to even the youngest current NBA players.
Why does that make Butler and Hill valuable to the NBRPA? Because many former greats feel that today’s NBA players simply don’t know much about the league’s history and, as a result, fail to acknowledge the needs of retired players. By putting younger retirees on the NBRPA’s Board of Directors, the hope is that they can strengthen their relationship with current players and get more done, which would ultimately benefit everyone (since, after all, every current player will someday retire).
“For the most part, they aren’t aware of [how former players paved the way]; they think it’s always been like this,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, said of today’s players. “If they talked to Bill Russell, they would find out that when he first came into the league, there was a quota for black players on a team – they couldn’t have more than one or two back in the ‘50s. They don’t understand that when the NBA first started, it was segregated. It was like that for three years! They don’t have any perspective; I think that’s what [the problem] is. The NBA does a good job of trying to educate the young guys. The [rookie] orientation thing that they do, I think that helps. Some of the guys do get to the point where they know and appreciate [former players]. Some guys are aware; that’s one reason why I love LeBron [James]. He’s aware of what went down… I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. But [many players] are usually surprised by it all. They just don’t know.”
“I don’t really think they care [about the past],” Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe added. “There are some guys who come out to our events and they understand. I remember when LeBron came out, he had a pretty good appreciation for the guys who played before him and the history of the game. He’s always been that way. But now, you have other guys who are 18 years old, 19 years old or 20 years old and they haven’t really [learned the history]. All they know is [what’s taught to them] by their AAU coach. They don’t know how the game used to be played. There’s no appreciation for the history of the game.”
During All-Star Weekend, several retired players said it’s not uncommon for a current NBA player to walk past – or even interact with – a legend and have no idea who they just encountered, thinking they’re just a random fan.
“Some of these guys don’t even know who they’re walking by! It’s the craziest thing,” 17-year NBA veteran Sam Perkins said. “It should be improving, but I’d say it isn’t… That was one of the first things I learned, for myself, as a rookie – knowing who’s who. I guess some guys are conscious of it, but some just aren’t. I know LeBron knows who’s who, but there’s a lot of guys who don’t know… Hopefully they’ll learn. It was a conscious thing for me. But the young players today, if it’s not taught to them. It should be taught because they should know who’s who. You walk around here [at All-Star Weekend] and you see so many legends from back in the day. But, of course, they probably don’t know Emmette Bryant. But that’s how it goes, you know?”
“They don’t know the history,” five-time champion Ron Harper said. “They just don’t know.”
“What I hear through the Retired Players Association is that the younger players really have no idea about the past and the history,” Hall of Famer Dave Cowens added. “Yesterday, Caron Butler made the distinction between young baseball players and young basketball players. Young baseball players from, say, the Dominican Republic know who Roger Maris and Willie Mays are. I don’t know if today’s young players from Europe know who some of the [legends] are, especially if they played in the ’60s and ’70s. You wonder why that is, in a game with far fewer players than baseball or football? But that’s just the way that it is.”
Retirees have viewed this as a lost cause for quite some time, but individuals like Butler are hoping to mend the relationship between past and present players. The two-time All-Star recognized this problem as his playing career was winding down and it’s what motivated him to get involved with the NBRPA. He believes he can help bring the two groups together.
“Listen, that’s the main reason I’m on this board,” Butler said. “We have to repair this bridge between the current players and the people who paved the way – the true trailblazers in this game who helped give us this platform that allows us to make millions of dollars while doing something that we love. We have to pay it forward. I want to make a true difference. At the end of the day, I want to be able to look back and see my fingerprints all over a bunch of positive changes. There are so many ways we can promote the old-school guys alongside the current players, and we have to tap into that. If we don’t, we’ll all be forgotten [eventually].
“As a recently retired player who has tried to keep my face out there, I can help push these messages and change these narratives – and that’s what I’m trying to do. We’re working on this right now. We had meetings during All-Star Weekend. Our Board of Directors met with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for about four or five hours and our next step is to take [some of our ideas] to the National Basketball Players Association. We need to get everyone on the same page to move this initiative forward.”
It’s worth noting that some retirees don’t blame today’s players for not knowing much about their predecessors.
“Back when we played, we were probably limited in the respect and reverence that we showed our predecessors,” Hall of Fame finalist Sidney Moncrief said. “You can’t know everyone. Players come and go. So even though I’m a five-time NBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year – which is a status that 95 percent of players in the NBA right now will never get to – it doesn’t mean today’s players should know who I am. That was so long ago! … I see today’s players as very respectful. And now, with today’s technology, if they see a guy or hear a guy’s name, they can pull out their phone really quick and look them up. That’s happened to me a few times with players. They’ll pull out their phone and [Google me]. Then, they’re saying, ‘Oh wow, you did this and that!’ But I think it’s unfair to hold today’s players to a standard where we expect them to meet us former players and know all about us on the spot [without looking us up]. Time has passed by! That was 30 to 40 years ago!”
Even if today’s players don’t have the best grasp of NBA history, they deserve credit for making some big changes that have benefited retired players in recent years.
In 2017, player representatives from the National Basketball Players Association unanimously voted to fund health insurance for retired players and their family members. Anyone with at least three years of NBA experience received coverage for themselves and their relatives. This is something that retired players had asked for since the 1990s, yet it wasn’t passed until this current group of players voted it through two years ago.
“For a long time, we had been pushing for health insurance for our retired players. Before, once a player left the game, their health insurance was taken away,” NBRPA Chairman of the Board Spencer Haywood explained. “A lot of our guys were having to work [in retirement] to make ends meet and keep their health insurance. Then, I spoke to LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and the rest of the National Basketball Players Association’s Executive Board and they said, ‘Hey, we can help you guys out. We’ll get you some health insurance.’ I thought [the coverage] would be something simple. But instead, they’re dropping over $15 million per year to get us the same health insurance they have. I was just like, ‘Wow.’”
Without any prompting, many of the retired players – including Abdul-Jabbar, Monroe, Perkins and Haywood – praised LeBron James’ knowledge of the league’s history and willingness to fight for former players. Haywood credited him as one of the biggest proponents behind the healthcare change.
For someone like Monroe, this meant a lot. He’s had 47 surgeries over the years – including seven procedures on his knees, five on his back and five hip replacements. When he started experiencing his health issues in 1991 – just one year after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame – he was told the NBA and NBPA couldn’t do anything to help him. After years of giving everything he had to the game, the NBA wasn’t there for him when he needed them most. Fortunately, Monroe appeared in some TV commercials throughout his playing career so he was able to get insurance through the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Think about that: The AFTRA stepped up and took better care of him than the league he helped grow into a multi-billion business. Now, he’s happy other retired players won’t have to go through what he did, but he’s still frustrated that it took decades to get done.
“It was a great thing to see,” Monroe said. “I’ve been part of the Retired Players Association for years and we’ve always tried to work with the current players – the players of today – to try to put together insurance plans and things of that nature because, at some point, they’re going to be retired players too! Why not set something up for yourselves?! For whatever reason, it took this long. Us retired players started pushing for this stuff in the early ‘90s and it took until the last couple years to get the current-day players to finally say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this.’ Even though [it was frustrating] that it took that long, we still appreciate it because there are a lot of guys out there who played this game and who have no other recourse, so this at least gives them a little bit of hope to take care of themselves. We’ve had guys who passed away because they couldn’t get to the hospital. Now, at least guys like that will be able to get taken care of and looked at [by a doctor].”
Monroe is referencing players like Darryl Dawkins, who passed away at 58 years old, and Moses Malone, who passed away at 60 years old. Both men died in 2015, so they didn’t have any kind of health insurance from the NBA or NBPA. It seems these tragedies pushed everyone involved to come up with a solution so that former players could get the medical attention and treatment they needed.
“The healthcare [coverage] was something that retired players had been talking about dating back to when I was in the NBA back in 1996,” Jerome Williams said. “When I became a retired player, I understood how important it was for guys who have played the game to have healthcare. It was often harder for them to get healthcare [elsewhere] because of the injuries and surgeries they’ve had. When the players stepped up and actually put this into play, I was really happy. The money [the league is generating] has exceeded everyone’s expectations, yet guys were still without health insurance. It was really causing a lot of pain in our basketball community because we felt like a lot of guys were dying when they shouldn’t be dying. We’re talking about guys dying early – in their 50s.
“As players learn more about the history, they’re more appreciative. I think that providing healthcare was an example of that. This year, the pensions are increasing as well, so there’s even more money being put into the hands of the retired players – and that all has to be approved by the current players. So there are definitely a lot of bridges that are being built and the relationship is improving.”
As Williams mentioned, today’s NBA players have also agreed to increase retired players’ pension payments. On average, former players are now earning an additional $300 per month, according to Butler.
Now, a 62-year-old who played 10 or more years in the NBA will earn over $215,000 annually from his pension. For comparison, “a 10-year NFL veteran who retired prior to 1993 receives [a pension] of approximately $30,000-40,000 a year, pretax, at age 55,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
According to the NBRPA, pensions increased by nearly 50 percent for players who start receiving payment at age 50, with corresponding increases for players who start receiving payment at later ages. The age-50 benefit now pays out more than $800 per month per year of service, which is up from its previous level of $559 per month. The pre-65 pension benefit amount – paid to players who played in the league before the pension plan was established – will increase from $300 to $400 per month per year of service.
Making these improvements to the pension program required an additional $33 million annually in funding, which the NBA and today’s players agreed to split equally. Also, if a former player wants to take college courses, they can get tuition reimbursed by the NBRPA up to $33,000 annually as well.
“The current players – the ones who are earning significant riches – agreed that it’s important to put some money aside for the guys who paved the way,” Butler said. “In addition to improving the pension program, they included an educational component with it as well. Now, retired players who didn’t finish their degrees can go back to the school and the guys who did get their degrees can further their education even more. They provided enough funding to make $120,000 available to every person who has ever played in the Association; all they had to do is fill out some paperwork.”
Just as a player can receive life-long insurance after playing three years in the NBA, a player becomes eligible for the pension program after playing in the league for three seasons. It’s also worth noting that, for active players, the NBA matches their 401(k) contributions up to 140 percent in order to set them up for retirement success down the road.
While Butler is happy to see these changes, he believes there’s a lot more that must be done.
“Providing healthcare insurance is low-hanging fruit; that’s something that should’ve been a given,” Butler said. “Going forward, we want to do more [than the bare minimum]. Going forward, we want everyone – from the NBA to the Players’ Association – to show more of an appreciation for the past and those who built this league’s foundation. We need to actively honor and include retired players on a consistent basis… There are positive things that are happening and we’re making progress, but there’s so much more that needs to take place and that’s what we’re actively working on. And we’re determined to do more than just surface-level stuff too.”
Right now, the NBA is thriving and bringing in more money than ever before. Last season, the NBA’s revenue was $7.4 billion, which was up 25 percent from the 2016-17 campaign. For the first time in NBA history, all 30 franchises are valued at $1 billion or more, according to Forbes.
As a result of the league’s growth and popularity, today’s NBA players are making jaw-dropping sums of money. This season, the average salary for an NBA player is $7,392,592. There are currently 47 players who are earning at least $20 million this season (including 11 who will earn $30 million).
With so much money to go around, taking care of the retired players who played a crucial role in getting the league to this point should be a priority – especially considering many former greats didn’t get a chance to cash in during their playing days. In 1970, the average NBA salary was a meager $35,000, according to “Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan’s Game and Beyond.”
Cowens, who made the All-Star team eight times during the ’70s and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1972-73, had to work a number of offseason odd jobs to make ends meet. For example, he ran a Christmas tree farm with his family, installed fencing and held an annual basketball camp. Many of today’s players would likely be shocked to learn that an MVP had to work side jobs to support himself. That’s why the NBRPA wants to create a dialogue between former players and current players and put initiatives in place so retirees can also benefit from the league’s prosperity.
“When you see all of his money coming into the league and see what the NBA has grown into, it’s important to remember that it was built on the shoulders of giants like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving and Oscar Robertson and Jerry West and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan – all the guys who took this game and propelled it forward from generation to generation,” Williams said.
Every retired player who spoke to HoopsHype was thrilled to see how much money today’s players are earning. They were legitimately happy to see today’s stars being paid what the market dictates, but they did want to ensure that current players appreciated their role in getting the league to this point.
“We were born too soon,” Abdul-Jabbar said with a smile. “But I think it’s great. God bless them that it’s worked out that way. It wasn’t possible when I played. The only money they had to pay us were what they got from ticket sales and the TV contract. Now, they have [revenue coming in] worldwide. It’s a lot of money to share. God bless them, they hit the jackpot! Give thanks to the NBA management in New York for being far-sighted; David Stern and Commissioner Adam Silver have done a terrific job.”
“They’re very blessed, and they should be happy; they should also thank the NBA Players’ Association and the players who came before them,” Hall of Famer Alex English said. “Not only did we work to put a lot of this stuff in place so they could make this kind of money, they’re riding on the backs of the guys who helped make this league like the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Bill Russells, the Dominique Wilkins, the Wes Unselds, the Elvin Hayes and so many others. Even though the [players I mentioned] aren’t making the type of money that they see these guys making today, they’re all very happy to see today’s players earning that.”
Retired players have plenty of lessons that they can pass on to today’s players. Going forward, the NBRPA would love to create more conversations between former players and active players because it would benefit both parties. Butler has suggested carving out time for retired players to meet with current players during the season as well as during events like the Rookie Transition Program.
“You don’t want it to be a situation where the older guys are constantly telling the young guys what to do because that’s not going to fly,” Butler explained. “But they can help them, and they have a connection because they’ve all gone through the same thing and faced similar adversity. Only a small handful of people can say they’ve played in the NBA. There are so few people that can connect over that. That’s a special, special fraternity. That’s a relationship that needs to be valued and prioritized. That connection between retired players and current players is important to the fabric of the game.”
This would also help retired players continue to feel connected to the game and league they love, which Butler believes is very important. The NBRPA is working with the NBA and NBPA to provide retired players with more access to the franchises they played for back in the day as well as their local teams.
“Once you have ‘ex-NBA player’ before your name, you lose your connections and pipeline to NBA organizations unless you’re one of those top guys where they can’t tell the story of basketball without mentioning your name,” Butler said. “When you give your all to an organization, you want to maintain that connection! For a lot of these retired players, they just don’t want to lose their access to the game, to the league. They still want to feel connected. Something as simple as complementary NBA League Pass or some complementary tickets to see some games [would go a long way].”
Today’s NBA players helped their predecessors get healthcare coverage after no progress was made for two decades. They also volunteered their own money in order to improve pensions. While they may not be as knowledgeable about NBA history as the retirees would like, the current players do seem open to helping where they can.
Going forward, the hope is that individuals like Butler and Hill will only be able to further strengthen the relationship between the generations. Then, several years from now, current players like James, Wade and Paul will be retired and can continue their fight for the rights of former players from the other side of the table.