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Breaks of the Game: Red, the Celtics, and the Original Labor Battle

I'm willing to wager that the majority of the readers of this blog (and any other NBA/basketball related site) have had enough of labor dispute posts to read.  Proposals, counter-proposals, walking out of meetings, video of NBA players wearing "STAND" t-shirts over fine-tailored suits.  The fans are tired of it and simply want basketball to commence on time.  To think now that players and owners are haggling over millions of dollars as compared to what they originally argued over makes it even more mind blowing.

These handful of pages from David Halberstam's "Breaks of the Game" delves into those battles and touches upon the influence of Red Auerbach and the Celtics players of that generation.  Picking up from Page 293, Halberstam goes into the role of Larry Fleisher, then head of the Player's Association:




Some interesting things to note:

  • Back then, Fleisher seemingly had the majority of the power as opposed to now when David Stern has it
  • Red was the leader in back-channel bullying over the league as opposed to now, where it's agents and their runners
  • For the first eight years of NBPA union presidency, Fleisher earned no salary because there was no money to be made… far cry from what Billy Hunter is making now
  • Back then players were denied ANY chance of choosing where they wanted to play as well as any medical benefits or pension plans… Quite different from the luxuries the players are fighting for today
  • Fleisher organized the first union, made up heavily of Celtics.  Page 295 highlights how Red deliberately went after intelligent players, then paid them horribly yet they remained loyal.
  • Page 295 also touches upon how many of the owners were simply looking for a quick, easy tax break and weren't interested in winning
  • Fleisher made the important decision on recruiting only the BEST players from each team to form the union because in his mind, that was the only way they could win the most basic elements they were fighting for (this is unlike today's union where you see average players on camera for the most part)
  • With the rival ABA league forming, things got even muddier going to the courts to help decide the issues
  • The players resorted to a strike during the 1964 All-Star game to help their cause and winning this huge battle because ABC essentially forced the owners to agree to give them a pension plan or else they would get no TV money that year OR the next
  • In 1967, the players threatened to sit out the entire PLAYOFFS due to the slow progress from the owners, then the networks forced the owners to get it together, and the union won again
  • Page 299 has an interesting tidbit featuring Red and Senator Ted Kennedy.  During the fights in court, Kennedy was a cosponsor of the owners legislation (handed down through the years), but being a liberal, he did not want to appear anti-union or anti-"black" (a HUGE deal especially during this period of history) so he asked his aide to find out how he got on the wrong side.  The aide, Eddie Martin, said that Red assured him that all of his players were on the owners side, only Ted told his aide that Red assured you wrongly!

As you can see, the original labor dispute was a lot uglier and had issues at stake that were more understandible to fan.  Medical benefits, pension plans, the freedom to choose where you want to work (to a degree) were all issues of that time.  Not many of us can honestly relate or comprehend what the players and owners are fighting for today, but perhaps the players of the old generation can remind them of what a labor dispute really meant.

Another interesting element here is the power of the TV networks.  That is the one thing that has not changed today and in fact has an even bigger influence on both parties involved.  Sure these summer leagues and glorified pickup games are a cute distraction during normal summers.  But I wonder if it won't be long until a giant like ESPN or even TNT start to secretly jump in these meetings and tell them to get their act together.  It worked back then, and honestly, while there are a ton more channels to choose from nowadays, nothing rates higher than live sports.

It will be interesting to see how this fiasco finally shakes out, but going back and reading how the original battles relate to today's is always fascinating.