NBA veterans cry foul over exclusion of some old-timers from pension plan


WASHINGTON -- There were no cameras rolling. No microphones placed under the witnesses' chins so every word could be recorded. No cluster of reporters with notebooks in hand to take down every detail.

Not for this congressional hearing.

Three of the four witnesses were too male, too white and too old to make a good news story. Bill Tosheff, John Ezersky and Walt Budko played professional basketball in the 1940s and 1950s. They played when pro basketballers traveled from town to town in rickety buses, planes or trains and dressed in rundown locker rooms and were paid -- if they were lucky -- whopping four-digit salaries.

Tosheff -- he prefers to be called "Tosh" -- spent three years in the Army Air Corps and three in the National Basketball $l Association. Ezersky was in the second wave of troops that landed in Normandy on D-Day. Rep. William Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat who sat on the committee that heard the three former players, presented Ezersky with a gold medal from the French government commemorating his participation in that landing.

Budko played three seasons with the Baltimore Bullets and one with the Philadelphia Warriors. His main claim to fame, he says, is as the father of Pete Budko, a standout player at Loyola High School in Towson and the University of North Carolina more than 15 years ago.

The three sat before Rep. Harris Fawell, the Illinois Republican who heads the Employer-Employee Relations Subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Joining them was Neil Isaacs, author of "Vintage NBA: The Pioneer Era, 1946-1956." They had come to argue that the NBA should add them to its pension plan. The pension plan for pre-1965 players includes those who played five or more years and forgets those who played less than five years.

"I charge the NBA has forgotten those who suffered the rigors to play pro basketball," Ezersky said, adding his claim that the league and the NBA Players' Association have enough money to include these old-timers.

Budko spoke in the same vein.

"I was naive enough to believe that my prior playing time and military service entitled me to some benefits," Budko said. "The JTC NBA and players' association have not demonstrated [fairness] in dealing with the pre-1965, three- and four-year players."

No NBA representative testified. But Chris Brienza, a spokesman for the league, said the NBA had been more than fair.

"In 1965, the NBA instituted a pension plan," Brienza explained. "Those who played three or more years were eligible. They got $285 [multiplied by] the number of years played, per month. In other words, if you played 10 years, you got $2,850 [in monthly pension pay]. In 1988, a plan was instituted for those who played before 1965. Those who played five years or more were eligible for a pension of $200 [multiplied by] years of service, per month."

That is exactly what has the old-timers rankled. Why, Tosh, Ezersky and Budko want to know, did the 1988 plan stipulate five years of service instead of three?

"Stern made a 'sweetheart' deal with the old NBA players that knocked out the three- and four-year players by rearranging the rules," Tosheff charged. Stern hasn't relented, Tosheff continued, because "he doesn't want to be pushed. He doesn't want to be pressured."

Brienza said the NBA has been generous to the old players.

"The plan we have now, we feel, is eminently fair," Brienza said. "A lot of guys played for teams that no longer exist. They had no pension plan. The NBA and the players' association had no legal obligation to offer pensions to the pre-1965 players."

Did the NBA and the players' association have a moral obligation to those players? Absolutely, Brienza said, adding, "That's why we went back and included those guys. I challenge anyone to find a company that would go back and find those workers who weren't eligible for a pension and created one for them. I think people are really missing the point here."

Indeed, we are. Here we have men who served their country during World War II being given the brushoff by wealthy NBA owners and players.

Not only did guys such as Tosheff, Ezersky and Budko play for the joy of the game and keep it viable so it could become the popular and rich sport it is, but they also helped gain a military victory that enabled NBA owners and players to sit on their butts and enjoy their riches.

What thanks do they get? Stern and company flip them the bird.

Here's an irritating irony: Latrell Sprewell, the spoiled brat who assaulted a coach and then claimed unfair treatment, will get a pension while Tosheff, Ezersky and Budko won't. Something is wrong there. Something that fans of pro basketball should make known to David Stern.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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