INDIANAPOLIS — The NBA Board of Governors on Tuesday voted to pay $24.5 million to former American Basketball Association players, many of whom are struggling to pay rent, medical bills and purchase the basic necessities of life.
The settlement reached by the NBA and its players’ association ends a years-long battle started by the Indianapolis-based Dropping Dimes Foundation.
Dropping Dimes, a nonprofit founded in 2014 to help former ABA players and their families, has asked the NBA to give players in the now-defunct ABA the money they claim they deserve.
About 115 players are eligible for the payout, which the NBA calls “recognition payments” rather than annuities. These players either spent three or more years in the ABA or played at least three years in the ABA and the NBA together and never received a vested pension from the NBA.
The agreement pays players an average of $3,828 per year for each year they have been in the league. For example, a player with at least three seasons gets paid $11,484 per year. A player with the most years of service, like Freddie Lewis, who has nine years, is paid $35,452 per year.
“It’s an incredible day for former ABA players,” said Scott Tarter, CEO and founder of Dropping Dimes, “one that we and the players have hoped for and worked so hard towards for many years.”
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The money used to fund ABA payments is split 50:50 between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.
“Our players have a genuine sense of appreciation for those who paved the way and helped us achieve the success we enjoy today,” said Tamika Tremaglio, NBPA executive director. “We have always considered ABA players to be part of our brotherhood and are proud to finally recognize them with this benefit.”
After the vote, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the players and team governors “felt a need to act on behalf of these former ABA players who are aging and, in many cases, facing difficult economic circumstances.”
“These pioneers made significant contributions to growing the game of professional basketball, and we all believe it is appropriate to give financial recognition to this group for their influence.”
“It means so much to them”
Tarter was alone in a warehouse surrounded by ABA memorabilia when he got the call from the NBA last week. A call he had been waiting for.
“I literally shook,” Tarter said. “Did that really happen?”
While the NBA didn’t give ABA players everything Dropping Dimes asked for — it covered all 140 living former ABA players and paid $400 a month for each game year — Tarter said he still celebrates.
“In a way, we think these aging ABA players who broke so many barriers in the 1960s and ’70s deserve even more recognition,” he said. “But I can’t stress enough how much it means to them that the NBA and NBPA recognize their tremendous contributions to the NBA game today.”
What the NBA approved gives 3-year-old players about $957 a month instead of the $1,200 Dropping Dimes had been asking for. That’s still not enough for some, said Tarter, who expects many players will still turn to Dropping Dimes for help.
In other situations, the money will be life-changing for those players, he said.
Tarter points to Bird Averitt, who won an ABA championship with the Kentucky Colonels in 1975. When he died in 2020, he was using kerosene to heat his home because he couldn’t afford to pay the electric bills.
There are many former players in similar situations or even worse off than Averitt, Tarter said.
When the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, only four ABA teams were acquired, leaving many players suddenly without paychecks, health insurance, and pensions.
Aside from the financial help the NBA deal offers, it honors the pioneers of the professional game, Tarter said.
“It means so much to them personally,” he said, “from the standpoint of their own legacy in basketball.”
“Don’t ask for a hand”
The Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network, published a story last year that revealed that 80% of former ABA players who are struggling financially are black. These are the players who ask Dropping Dimes for help.
These players paved the way for what the NBA game is today, fast-paced with 3-pointer and slam-dunk contests, and they deserve something for it, Tarter said.
He and his organization are dedicated to getting the NBA to “do the right thing,” Tarter said.
The former ABA players are now in their late 60s, 70s and 80s. Some are homeless and live under bridges. Some die alone with no money for a headstone. Others cannot afford dentures or a new suit to go to church.
More than 10 players on the Dropping Dimes pension list, now 140, have died in the past three years. Time was a factor urging the NBA to act, Tarter said.
“As for this pension thing, the NBA is waiting for us to die,” Frank Card, who played for the ABA’s Denver Rockets, told IndyStar in February 2021.
At the time, Card was a retired public bus driver living in a rented apartment. Retirement would have meant a different life for him.
“I’m not asking for any kind of charity or anything that I didn’t work for or deserve,” Card said. “I don’t know why these guys don’t stand up and say, ‘Why shouldn’t we take care of them like they took care of us?'”
After the publication of the article, the NBA spoke publicly on the subject for the first time.
“We are in discussions with the Dropping Dimes Foundation on this matter,” Tim Frank, senior vice president, League Operations Communications, told IndyStar in 2021.
The discussions weren’t soon enough for Card, who died two months later at the age of 76. Instead of flowers, his obituary asked for donations for Dropping Dimes.
Former ABA player Sam Smith died while awaiting retirement from the NBA, leaving behind a chilling photo. George Carter died penniless and without a family. Many other players who called on Dropping Dimes for help died while awaiting a decision from the NBA.
When the ABA dissolved and merged with the NBA in 1976, four of its 11 teams were acquired by the NBA – the Pacers, Nuggets, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs. Many players stayed away with no pension, suspended salaries and health insurance.
“They were just forgotten,” Tarter said in 2021.
Maurice McHartley, who played in the ABA for four years, spoke to IndyStar last year.
He is retired from a job driving a newspaper truck and lives in public housing in Atlanta. He said he’s often been forced to ask for financial help in recent years.
“A retirement, there’s a lot of things it would come down to,” said McHartley, who played for the ABA’s Miami Floridians, New York Nets and Dallas Chaparrals during his career. “Car insurance, car maintenance, food, rent. So there are many things that would add to your livelihood.”
Dropping Dimes is owned by McHartley and so many other former players. In its eight years, the foundation has helped with small things — gas money, a new suit for church, a rehab session.
And it’s helped with big things — funeral expenses, big medical bills, and rent.
And now, Dropping Dimes has helped these players get what they needed most.
“That, these pensions, was our big mission from day one,” Tarter said. “What’s happening now, giving these guys what they deserve.”
“I felt like I was talking to Mel”
Dropping Dimes has an advisory board supported by big names in esports, media and basketball. Among them are Bob Costas, Reggie Miller, George McGinnis, Julius Erving, Myles Turner, Peter Vecsey and Bob Netolicky.
But one name on the board (now in memoriam) is Mel Daniels, and he was the fiercest fighter Dropping Dimes had, Tarter said.
As Tarter sat in that downtown ABA warehouse last week on the phone with the NBA, he said he looked up at the ceiling and thought of Daniels.
“I literally looked up listening to this and felt like I was talking to Mel,” he said. “Too bad Mel isn’t here to see it in person. That was his idea the whole time, saying, ‘We’ve got to do something for these guys.'”
In 2015, while helping former player Charlie Jordan choose a new suit, Daniels spoke to IndyStar about how sad it was to see his league and teammates suffer.
“There are some ABA players who live under bridges,” he said. “They have nothing. People don’t know how bad it is for them.”
That includes former ABA players like Randy Denton, who had no idea the men he played with were struggling.
“I didn’t keep in touch with anyone and then this thing bubbled up a few years ago and my first thought was, ‘I’m so sorry,'” said Denton, who played five seasons in the ABA and one year in the NBA. “It was emotional to see these guys suffer.”
Denton began following the plights of the players and felt helpless.
“I’m not as bad as some of these guys. I read these stories and just cried. I wish I’d given them a million dollars,” he said. “I knew those guys. I played with those guys.”
While Denton knows the money will help other players more than him, he also said money isn’t the only reason this NBA deal matters.
“It would mean a lot to me from a basketball standpoint. It would mean a lot to me because we were as good as the NBA players, we played just as hard,” he said. “And we get peanuts, get nothing, no recognition.”
“The financial benefit will change the lives of many of these former players who were paid so much less while playing,” Tarter said. “However, not every former ABA player qualifies for the recognition benefit, and there will still be players who need it.”
Even as dropping dimes and former players partied Tuesday night, Tarter said he knew his job wasn’t done.
“Dropping Dimes re-dedicates itself to continue to help in the best way possible, with the respect and dignity these players deserve for what they have done for their sport,” he said. We’re a small operation, but we’re a determined group.”
Follow Dana Benbow on Twitter @DanaBenbow.