The NBA’s Dirty Secret : Amid Ostentatious Wealth, Old-timers Destitute Without Pensions
Hey, Michael. I need to talk to you and Shaq and Dennis and all those other multimillionaires in the NBA. And try to bring along David Stern, the commissioner, though he might not be too receptive. We’ve got some unfinished business.
I need to talk to you about Elmore Morgenthaler.
I know, you never heard of him.
Michael, the best thing about that $30-million contract you signed and the big-money deals of your buddies is that none of you will have to live in apartment 29 at 1139 McClanahan Rd. in Marlin, Texas.
That’s where Morgenthaler lives. It isn’t pretty.
No street signs. Not even an address posted on his apartment complex. There are weeds.
Morgenthaler was one of the NBA’s first seven-footers. He was 7 feet 1 when he came out of Boston College and played for Providence and Philadelphia in 1947 and 1949.
He wasn’t much of a player. But then, neither is Jon Koncak. Elmore played a total of 31 games in two seasons.
In an era when NBA games were played in high school gyms and roller rinks, and owners didn’t always have checks on paydays and guys laundered and patched their own uniforms, guys like Elmore held your league together for you.
Did you know another 1940s NBA player, John Ezersky, has to drive a cab in San Francisco to make ends meet? He’s 74.
Ever heard of Max Zaslofsky? He played 10 NBA seasons, twice averaging more than 20 points a game. He died in 1985. Didn’t live long enough to collect on his pension, the NBA says.
His widow, Elaine, almost 70, is struggling on $7,200 a year.
John “Brooms” Abramovic played three seasons in the late 1940s. No pension. His story: Quadruple bypass, no insurance.
Virgil Vaughn, two seasons in the late 1940s, is, along with his wife, ailing. No pension.
These were your set-up men. They set the table for all you guys.
I visited Morgenthaler not long ago.
I asked him about your contract, Michael. At the time, it was out that you wanted at least $18 million. I asked him if in 1947 he could have imagined that one day an NBA player would be paid $18 million a year.
He said, “I couldn’t have imagined anyone ever making $18,000!”
Elmore’s income is a monthly Social Security check for $618. That’s it.
His rent, $162.50, comes off the top. Sometimes his air conditioning bill is $50 a month. He has a phone, but maybe not much longer. No one calls him anymore, he says. Besides, it’s too expensive.
After groceries and other essentials, he’s obligated to turn everything else over to a convalescent home in Waco, 25 miles away, where his wife, Doris, is confined.
He visits his wife whenever someone offers to give him a lift to Waco.
We haven’t even talked about his health.
Twelve years ago, he had a stroke. His right arm and part of his left leg are paralyzed. He can barely walk. He’s maybe a year or two away from a wheelchair.
His ankles are terribly swollen. His right fingernails haven’t been trimmed in months. When I asked him why all his toenails bleed, he said: “Damned if I know . . . jungle rot, I guess.”
Here’s Elmore’s shoe deal: He wears a pair of old-fashioned black low-cuts that he bought before most of today’s pros began playing college ball.
He has concentration lapses and is easily confused.
An early 1950s NBA player, Bill Tosheff, has been trying for years to get the NBA or the National Basketball Players Assn. to bring the hard-luck pioneer-era guys like Elmore into your pension plan.
He gets polite letters. But the response is always “No.” He showed me a couple. The letters usually say: “As you no doubt know, we are not legally required to provide pensions for players not qualified. . . .”
That’s nonsense. It doesn’t wash anymore. Not when Shaquille O’Neal signs for $120 million for seven years, Dennis Rodman gets $8.5 million for one and Dikembe Mutombo $50 million for 10. And Stern? The NBA is generating more money than it knows what to do with.
Not legally required?
How about morally required?
This is the NBA’s dirty little secret. No one blames today’s NBA players for any of this. But because the people who run the league don’t seem interested in correcting this injustice, the old-timers feel today’s players are their only hope.
Of course, it’s the same with major league baseball and the NFL. They stiff their needy old-timers too.
The NBA would prefer that guys like Elmore just stay out of sight. This, from an organization whose merchandising arm alone grossed $3 billionlast year.
How can this happen?
This man is going to die in soiled sheets.
Does anyone in the NBA care?
The old guys don’t qualify for a pension?
The most shameful part of this is that it’s so easily fixable.
Based on last season’s NBA player salaries, I count 73 guys making at least $3 million a year.
How about if we get NBA players to create a foundation. It wouldn’t take a lot of money from any individuals.
If Elmore and others like him could get, say, another $500 a month, it would almost double their income.
Elmore could pay for a ride to visit his wife. He could once in a while eat in a restaurant. Or keep his phone and call an old teammate every now and then.
We’re talking about maybe 75 old guys in need. They’re dying off. If this is allowed to go on much longer, the problem will eventually just go away.
There’s no question, NBA players are very charitable and generous.
Yes, Michael, I know about the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club you’re building in downtown Chicago, and that you contributed $2 million. I know about the $1 million you recently donated to your alma mater, North Carolina. And I know you gave $100,000 to Nike’s charity fund.
I know Shaquille O’Neal brought 20 high-achieving school kids to every Orlando Magic game last year, as well as terminally ill children, and that he provided Thanksgiving meals to the homeless and Easter baskets to hospitalized children.
But that’s charity. The first NBA players should not be charity cases. They’re your guys. They’re the first link in the chain that led to the huge contracts of today. They invented the NBA.
They never played basketball seeking big salaries, pensions, shoe deals or limo service. They played because they loved the game, just like you, Michael.
They believe they had something to do with getting this league up and running. They believe they earned pension benefits.
As Al McGuire put it: “The NBA doesn’t count money anymore, it weighs it.”
So reach out and touch these guys.
As the saying goes: “From whom much is given, much is expected.”
Oh, I almost forgot.
Michael, you suppose the league or players’ association might reimburse me $36.47?
I looked inside Elmore’s refrigerator and nearly gagged. Blue fuzz growing on leftovers. I took him to the grocery store.
As I was throwing frozen dinners (his choice) into the cart, I thought:
“Hey, why am I doing this? The NBA should be doing this.”
Sure, I’ll take a check.
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