During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
Maurice McHartley is in the rehab waiting room, talking quietly, hushed, about how it all happened. He was driving back to his apartment, subsidized housing in Atlanta, when his chest started tightening, the sweat started soaking his clothes.
He survived because of “his lady,” he said. When he got home, McHartley told her he just needed to rest on the couch. She insisted he get to the hospital where doctors told him he’d had a heart attack. Stents were put in. But his heart needed more.
So McHartley was in the waiting room on Feb. 4, five months later, for cardiac rehab that costs him $50 a week out of pocket. It doesn’t sound like much to most, he knows, especially to a former pro basketball player.
“But it is to me,” said McHartley, who once was a player in the American Basketball Association.
He waits some more, the clock ticks toward his appointment time. No big deal. He talks about how used he is to waiting.
McHartley has waited, he says, for too long. Waited for a pension from the NBA. A pension that would give him $400 a month, at least.
He is retired from a job as a newspaper truck driver, after playing four years in the ABA. Yet, he’s had to ask for financial help plenty of times in the past few years.
“A pension, there’s a lot of things it would go toward,” said McHartley, who during his career played for the ABA’s Miami Floridians, New York Nets and Dallas Chaparrals. “Car insurance, upkeep on your car, food intake, rent. So, it’s a lot of things that would help out with your overall living.”
McHartley is diabetic with kidney problems and now heart trouble. He said he isn’t asking for a handout. He is asking for what he and the remaining 108 ABA players who didn’t qualify for pensions under the NBA’s contract when the two leagues merged, say they earned.
Many of 108 those players – the same ones who helped create the style of game that is today’s multi-billion-dollar NBA – are struggling, worn out and desperate.
They are in their late 60s, 70s and 80s. Some are homeless, living under bridges. Some die alone with no money for a gravestone. Others can’t even afford dentures or a new suit to go to church.
“They should have already done it,” McHartley said, of the NBA. “So many guys have missed out. Think of how many of us have passed and never got anything.”
The NBA did make a move to help out some players not getting pensions, those who were in the league before 1965, when the contract was established.
“About all those guys were white,” McHartley said.
Neither he nor any of the other former ABA players want to make this a racial issue. But, they say, the NBA seems to be two things. It claims to lead the charge of professional sports leagues in social justice and racial equity. The league did not reply to repeated requests for an interview for this story.
And yet, the players of the ABA left destitute are mostly Black. They have fallen through the cracks and the NBA is doing nothing to pull them out.
‘Pawns in this whole thing’
Three white men — Dick Tinkham, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson — sat around a table one day in the late 1960s with an idea. Create a basketball league that would challenge the NBA, in existence nearly 20 years by then.
Make it flashier, faster, a more entertaining form of play. Do away with that slow offensive game revolving around a big center in the middle. Use a red, white and blue ball.
Then, at the peak of the league’s success, force a merger with the NBA and make money, lots of it.
And so was born the ABA in 1967.
There were no television contracts as the league launched and it didn’t have loyal fans. The ABA needed to be edgy to inspire allegiance.
The ABA used a 30-second shot clock, as opposed to the NBA’s 24-second clock. It allowed the 3-pointer, which had started in the American Basketball League. It introduced a slam dunk contest.
And when it came to building rosters, it was the Black players who were drawn to the ABA.
The league allowed players to sign out of high school and without playing college, something the NBA banned. That meant players from financially disadvantaged backgrounds were prime recruits, needing to make money to help their families now rather than later. The ABA offered hardship signings.
Those players built the league which, during its nine-year span, was in many ways magical. It was a different breed of sport, a quirky, wacky era of the game.
It had mascots like the Pacers’ Dancing Harry, who cast spells on other teams. Players were permitted to have Afros and sport bell bottoms and fur coats, not allowed in the NBA.
Big name players such as Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Dan Issel, George McGinnis, Bob Netolicky, Darnell Hillman, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown thrilled fans with stunning skills and showy plays.
By night, wild parties lasted into the wee hours of the morning. By day, cheesy, outlandish promotions drew fans to the games. In 1973, the Denver Rockets held Halter Top Night. Every woman wearing a halter top and accompanied by a paid ticketholder was admitted free.
In 1975, the Pacers brought in a live bear to their arena. Victor the Wrestling Bear took on local TV personalities and wrestlers at halftime, with a promise to wrestle fans.
A photo from 1973 gives a revealing glimpse: Daniels inside the Pacers locker room talking to coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard. In one hand, Leonard has a beer and a cigarette.
Yet, in nine years, the ABA never secured a national television contract. Financial troubles persisted. Collectively, the teams of the ABA were the little brother to the NBA — never good enough. It was a league that had to fight and claw to get even a sliver of respect.
Many times, ABA games were played in gyms in front of hundreds — high school-level attendance. Sometimes, after those games, teams would go to hotels only to be turned away because they hadn’t paid the bill from their last stay.
When the ABA disbanded in 1976, merging with the NBA, four of its 11 teams were absorbed by the NBA — the Pacers, Nuggets, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs. The rest of the players on those other teams were left hanging. No pension, salaries shut off, health insurance gone.
“The pawns in this whole thing are the Black players who were lured in to the ABA,” said Scott Tarter, co-founder of Dropping Dimes Foundation, an Indianapolis-based organization that helps struggling former ABA players. “Then they’ve just been forgotten about.”
Nearly 80% of the players Dropping Dimes help are Black. Eighteen men on the organization’s pension list have died in the past two years; 13 of them were Black.
Those players made the NBA game what it is today and they deserve something for that, Tarter said.
“There is absolutely no question that predominantly African-American players came into the ABA and changed the style of play, made it more entertaining,” said Tarter. “And now the guys who freaking made it work can’t pay basic medical bills or buy dentures. It’s absurd.”
‘Shouldn’t have to be like that’
Frank Card considers himself one of the lucky ones. And yet, he lives in a rented apartment, not a posh house. He is a retired public bus driver.
As he puts it, he and his wife Charlotte aren’t raking it in “but we’re not homeless either.”
In his heyday, playing for the ABA’s Denver Rockets, Card lived a different life. He bought a brand-new Pontiac Grand Prix in 1971 and it was something else.
“It had a silver bottom with a black top … this damn thing looked like it was moving when it set still,” he said. He remembers a white man who saw him in it one night and thought he was a valet driver.
“I thought damn,” he said. “That’s the way it is?”
But when he was Card the basketball player, he could go to restaurants, hotels, clubs and they knew him. “People treat you … when you play pro basketball, people treat you really differently than they treat everybody else.”
Card left that behind when his pro basketball career ended in 1974. He worked nearly 25 years for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. He was paid well and has a pension.
“We are not out on the street,” he said. “I’m very thankful and happy I was able to do what I did.”
Thankful to not be on the street. That’s the way many of these former ABA players measure their success. If they’re not homeless, they’re a success.
Before Daniels died, he talked about players living under bridges in New Orleans. Recently, word has spread among former ABA players about the November death of former ABA All-Star George Carter, who had cancer and was unable to work his job as a limo driver, leaving him with no money and no family.
“I was sorry to hear about George’s predicament. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of guys who have predicaments like that,” said Card. “That makes me mad over and over and over again. And it shouldn’t have to be like that.”
Card wants people to understand. This isn’t about trying to get something for nothing.
“I’m not asking for some kind of hand out or something I didn’t work for or deserve,” he said. “I don’t know why these guys don’t step up and say, ‘Why shouldn’t we take care of them like they took care of us?’ “
Instead, Card believes the NBA is just buying time.
“As far as this pension thing, the NBA is waiting for us to die off,” he said. “Adam Silver and the board are waiting for us to die so they don’t have to worry about it.”
Cost to NBA: ‘A relative pittance’
Dropping Dimes has done sophisticated calculations. If the NBA agreed to help the 108 remaining ABA players with the minimum $400 a month, it would cost the NBA $1.8 million a year.
“The bottom line is the amount of money it would take to fully fund reasonable pensions, not exorbitant pensions,” said Bob Costas, “is a relative pittance.”
One year’s salary for the 12th guy on the bench of an NBA team could fund all of it. And, by attrition, that amount is only dwindling, said Costas, who is a board member of Dropping Dimes and got his start in broadcasting calling radio play-by-play for the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis.
The remaining ABA players range in age from 68 to 84. The average male life expectancy is early 70s.
“These guys are dying very quickly and they are not going to be around much longer,” Tarter said. “It’s not a callous thing to say. It’s important to recognize. That $1.8 million? The NBA won’t even need to fund 10 years from now.”
NBA players have had a pension plan since 1965. Any player with at least three years of service in the league is eligible for a monthly payment and access to other benefits, such as life-long healthcare coverage, a college-tuition reimbursement program and more.
Many of the ABA players never got to the NBA after the merger. Some did, but played only a year or two. Without those three years of service, it doesn’t matter how much they contributed to the ABA. They are left without that payout.
“There were guys whose whole career might have been in the ABA and they didn’t make a fortune and they hit upon hard times and they have no fallback,” Costas said. “We hear these stories of these ABA players who can’t make rent, can’t afford medical expenses and, unfortunately, funeral expenses.”
Tarter said Dropping Dimes is in discussions now with the NBA about the plight of those former ABA players.
“Those talks are taking place at a high level and the NBA has indicated it’s interested in addressing the problem,” he said.
Tarter said most of the players he’s talked to said they were promised a pension when the two leagues merged.
“They were under the impression,” he said, “they would be taken care of.”
‘Everything ripped away’
A simple suit was a luxury for Charlie Jordan — such a luxury that he couldn’t buy one in 2015 when he wanted to go to church.
Jordan was plagued by dementia, riddled with arthritis and with severe diabetes. His family reached out to Dropping Dimes not to ask for money. Jordan just wanted a suit so he could go to worship service on Sunday mornings.
The 6-8 Jordan, who played for the ABA Pacers, used a walker to enter the Style Store for Big & Tall in Indianapolis in August 2015. His sister, Debra Jordan-Turner, was there with him. She said he’d been depressed and not up to doing much.
“Actually, I need a new suit and shoes,” said Jordan as he sat in a chair outside the fitting room, “so I felt that getting up this morning, it was worth it.”
After his ABA stint, Jordan played in international leagues. He coached briefly in Spain at a university. He’s been married and divorced twice. He has suffered a stroke and a heart attack.
“He’s had everything ripped away from him that he had,” Jordan-Brown said at the time.
She remembers her young brother sneaking out of the house to IPS School 44 to play basketball on the outside courts. She remembers him dominating, having such a promising future.
Jordan played just one year for the Pacers, the 1975-76 season. He wasn’t drafted in the merger. After that, hard times came hard. Jordan’s story isn’t a rarity in the league.
“There are some guys who did fine,” Costas said. “But there are others, many others, who didn’t.”
What Dropping Dimes is doing for struggling ABA players has spread among them. Tarter gets calls daily. He has become friends with many of these players.
The most recent application for assistance came in this week. A Black player, 77, a jack of all trades still working at a country club in Kentucky. As he talked to Tarter, he kept saying “yes sir and no sir.”
“He was so nice and so humble,” said Tarter. “And I was saying to him, ‘Hey. I’m a fan of yours. You are my hero. I want to call you sir.'”
The man’s wife has cancer and there are medical bills to pay that he can’t. A woman at the club told Tarter the man never turns down work. Yet, he still struggles.
“These guys aren’t asking for the world,” Tarter said. “They just want to live normal lives. Just like what he said to me at the end of our conversation, ‘Just anything you can do to help.'”