NBA is slammed for denying pensions to retired ABA players:


NBA is slammed for denying pensions to retired ABA players after ex-Utah Stars guard Sam Smith died following his failed crusade for a $2,000 monthly stipend from the league

  • The NBA is being denounced for denying pensions to elderly retired ABA players following the death of 79-year-old Sam Smith, a former Utah Stars guard
  • Smith died last month after years of financial problems, and once needed to borrow money from a charity in order to pay for his daughter’s funeral
  • He and his wife Helen were battling the NBA for a $2,000 monthly pension
  • Smith didn’t qualify for a pension since he played in the ABA – a rival league that merged into the NBA – and didn’t have the required three accrued NBA seasons
  • A charity named the Dropping Dimes Foundation is working with ex-ABA players
  • The NBA says it’s having ongoing talks with the DDF about ABA player pensions

The NBA is being denounced for denying pensions to elderly retired ABA players following passing of 79-year-old Sam Smith, a former Utah Stars guard who died of congestive heart failure on May 18 after his failed crusade for a $2,000 monthly check from the league.

‘It would have been life-changing,’ his widow Helen told the Indianapolis Star of the $2,000 pension that never came. ‘Because we were living. We were getting everything paid, but we couldn’t do a lot more.’

‘I am so mad at the NBA,’ said Scott Tarter, the CEO and founder of Dropping Dimes, a charity aimed at helping struggling former ABA players and their families. ‘Here is a guy who should have been enjoying a pension and instead … another one is gone.’

The NBA is being denounced for denying pensions to elderly retired ABA players following the death of 79-year-old Sam Smith, a former Utah Stars guard who died of congestive heart failure on May 18 after his failed crusade for a $2,000 monthly check from the league. In this picture, taken weeks before his death last month, Smith is seen with the ABA's tri-colored ball

The NBA is being denounced for denying pensions to elderly retired ABA players following the death of 79-year-old Sam Smith, a former Utah Stars guard who died of congestive heart failure on May 18 after his failed crusade for a $2,000 monthly check from the league. In this picture, taken weeks before his death last month, Smith is seen with the ABA’s tri-colored ball

Smith played for the ABA's Utah Stars, Minnesota Muskies and Kentucky Colonels

In 2018, he attended the ABA's 50th reunion at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis

Smith played for the ABA’s Utah Stars, Minnesota Muskies and Kentucky Colonels (left). In 2018 (right), he attended the ABA’s 50th reunion at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis

Established in 1965, the league pension plan requires retired players to have three accrued NBA seasons in order to receive benefits, such as a monthly payment and accesses to long-term healthcare.

This presents a problem for many players of the now-defunct ABA, a rival league that was partially absorbed by the NBA in 1976. Four of the ABA’s 11 teams merged into the NBA (Denver Nuggets, the New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers) leaving players on the other seven teams without a place to play for the 1976-77 season.

Even players fortunate enough to make it to the NBA struggled to accrue three seasons in the league. As a result, wealthier ABA/NBA legends like Julius Erving and George McGinnis qualified for pensions, but, according to the Indy Star, 138 deserving former ABA players have been denied.

Documentarian Michael Husain, who is chronicling the struggles of former ABA players to get their pensions, said many have told him that they fear the NBA is trying to wait out the problem.

‘I don’t want to believe it,’ players said to Husain, he told the Star, ‘but in some ways, it feels like they are just waiting for us to pass.’

Dropping Dimes has asked the NBA for retired ABA players to get $400 a month for each accrued season, which would cost about $35 million, according to the charity. That’s certainly not a negligible cost, but for the massive NBA – a league that projects $10 billion in revenue for its ongoing season – the price appears to be more affordable.

As reported by the Star, the $35 million price tag is about a third of what the NBA donates to charity annually from money accumulated from player fines.

Moses Malone (22) overpowers David Twardzik (13) of the Virginia Squires in Malone's first pre appearance, October 3rd, with the Utah Stars of the ABA

Moses Malone (22) overpowers David Twardzik (13) of the Virginia Squires in Malone’s first pre appearance, October 3rd, with the Utah Stars of the ABA

The NBA told the Star in February of 2021 that it is engaged ‘in discussions with the Dropping Dimes Foundation on the issue,’ and a league spokesman confirmed Wednesday that those talks are ongoing.

Of course, it is too late for Smith, who won a title with the Stars and played for the Minnesota Muskies and Kentucky Colonels before an anxiety attack cut his career shot in 1972. He then began working a night shift as a security guard at a Ford assembly plant in Indianapolis, which helped him get long-term healthcare into his retirement.

Scott Tarter, CEO and founder of the Dropping Dimes Foundation, which helps ABA players and their families

Scott Tarter, CEO and founder of the Dropping Dimes Foundation, which helps ABA players and their families

But without the pension from the NBA, Smith’s golden years were anything but.

He needed a loan for gas money to get his Kentucky Wesleyan reunion. Years later, following the tragic death of his daughter, Smith and his wife asked Dropping Dimes to help cover her funeral expenses.

‘He called me up in tears,’ Tarter told the Star.

Smith’s retirement had been mostly healthy, until March 31 when he collapsed after being sedated by his dentist. A surgery to repair a broken femur followed, but there were complications and Smith ultimately suffered a stroke. 

In his final days, while battling severe health issues in the hospital, Smith asked Tarter to take a photograph of him so the world could see what he’d been reduced to by the NBA.

‘He grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to him,’ Tarter said. ‘And he said, ‘I would do anything to get the NBA to help these guys.’

The haunting photograph shows Smith alongside the ABA’s famous tri-colored ball, looking on lifelessly from his hospital bed.

Days later, Smith was sent home on hospice, where he ultimately passed.

‘He died without any recognition, without any respect, without any pension,’ Tarter said.

Forward Julius Erving (Dr. J) #32 of the New York Nets drives against forward Gerald Govan #25 of the Utah Stars during an American Basketball Association (ABA) game at the Nassau Coliseum circa 1975 in Uniondale, New York

Forward Julius Erving (Dr. J) #32 of the New York Nets drives against forward Gerald Govan #25 of the Utah Stars during an American Basketball Association (ABA) game at the Nassau Coliseum circa 1975 in Uniondale, New York

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