January 14, 1964 is the most important day in NBA history.
(Video below courtesy Mike Trudell at Lakers.com)
That day the best players in the game, including Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, barricaded themselves in Boston Garden locker rooms before the NBA’s 14th annual All-Star Game - refusing to play.
Before the season NBA players had demanded to commissioner Walter Kennedy that NBA owners recognize their newly-created players union. As part of that recognition, the owners were to set up a pension plan for the players, who also attempted to direct the league to require each team to staff a medical trainer while also cutting down on unreasonable travel and game schedules.
Kennedy and the owners completely ignored the demands, only to have the players refuse to play in the NBA’s first-ever nationally-televised all-star game a few months later.
And I do mean refuse. They were serious.
So what happened? Let Jerry West tell you:
“Bob Short was the owner then, he walked into the locker room and said he wanted to talk to me and I came outside.
“He said, ‘if you don’t play this game, you’re never going to play another game of basketball.’
“And I’m 26 years old and my career had really started to accelerate, and, it took a lot of courage but I said,
“‘Mr. Short, I’m never going to play another game of basketball.’
“The game was delayed over an hour, and it took enough players with courage to be threatened with, ‘you’re outta here,’ to start that union.
“And from then on this league has changed. Players have rights.”
In a piece by Adrian Wojnarowski’s of Yahoo Sports today titled, “NBA playersâ€™ union leader takes bold stand,” Wojnarowski has the latest on the league’s looming labor strife. Included is the tale of a “galvanizing moment” featuring current NBA Players Union leader Billy Hunter at the most recent NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
The room was thick with league executives, coaches and players on the afternoon of Feb. 19, and they listened to Hunter insist he couldnâ€™t come in good faith and tell them everything was well within the NBA. Hunter said the owners had made a crippling proposal, a long lockout loomed and these players in the room would bear the biggest financial and public relations burden of a work stoppage. And then he started to tell them he had thought long and hard about the way Oscar Robertson and Jerry West staged a protest at the 1964 All-Star Game, threatening a boycott until they had leveraged the league into the most rudimentary of medical benefits and pension contributions.
Yes, Hunter had been thinking long and hard, losing sleep over the possibility of declaring an uprising of his own. He dropped dramatic, long pauses and left everyone â€“ including Stern, who had started barking into the ear of his deputy, Adam Silver â€“ thinking that Hunter had come to advocate the players make some kind of bold stand themselves in Los Angeles. In the end, Hunter stopped short, insisting the All-Stars had an obligation to play the game, but the message to the players was unmistakable: Hunter wouldnâ€™t back down to Stern, and maybe even had the ability to rattle him, the way the commissioner and owners had been trying to unnerve the players.
The current NBA, unlike in 1964, has a business model that is clearly broken. Broken not because of the players, but because of fiscal malfeasance rendered by egomaniacal team owners.
So for all Hunter’s bluster, there’ll be no player boycott this time around.
Not in the least considering most NBA team owners would more than happy to oblige their request.