Now Swift’s voice is back and he is crying, not from self-pity — although my Lord, who would blame him? — but from gratitude. Years ago Swift had turned to Netolicky to help track down his ABA pension. His pension was small but for whatever reason, perhaps an oversight, he’d never received a penny. Netolicky connected Swift with the San Antonio-based pension administrator, who sent Swift a check for back payments. These were hard years for Swift. He had lymphoma. And a stroke. Alzheimer’s. Three hip-replacement surgeries. One knee replaced, with another needing replacement when Skeeter Swift died at age 70 on April 20, six days after leaving the message that Bob Netolicky is playing for me. “We can never … repay you for all that you’ve done for us,” Swift says in stops and starts before dissolving in a rush at the end. “And uh … I’ll just wait to hear from you. Bye-bye.”
Shortly after leaving Netolicky, I’m talking to an attorney in Chicago, an attorney who represents ABA players. His name is Steven A. Hart. ABA players want the NBA, which absorbed their league in 1976, to increase their pensions. That’s what Hart and I are talking about. Well, I’m talking. Hart is yelling. “NBA cares, right? NBA cares?” the attorney says, booming out an NBA slogan. “Well, care about whom? I’ll tell you who they don’t care about: legacy ABA players.”
In the matter of fairness, this is important: ABA players haven’t sued the NBA for better pensions because they aren’t sure they have a case. “It’s possible a court would decide the NBA doesn’t have to do what we’re asking,” Netolicky is saying, “and we don’t have the time to find out. People are dying out here. We found one player living under a bridge. So here’s what we’re saying: “Maybe the NBA doesn’t have to do this. But it’s the right thing to do.”
In the decades since, NBA pensions have risen to nearly $2,000 per month. Under no legal obligation to do so, the NBA and players union chose to raise pensions of former NBA players, too. Pensions for ABA players are still $60 a month, per year played.
For the Wednesday Oklahoman, I wrote about David Vance and the birth of the blocked shot as an official statistic. You can read that column here. But the occasion gave Vance and I reason to look at all kinds of great memories about the ABA. The American Basketball Association spent nine years as an upstart league before finally merging with the NBA in 1976. Merge is not really accurate. The NBA absorbed four ABA franchises; 10 started that 1975-76 season. Three folded before the year was over, and three didn’t make the cut.