NBA Not In Tune With Former ABA Players

The NBA has a program called NBA Cares. Sam Smith, an ABA (American Basketball Association) great and pioneer who helped blaze the trail for the sport of basketball and more importantly, for helping break race barriers in America on and off the court, was the most recent former ABA player to die waiting on help from the NBA. 

Sam Smith is one of the first African Americans to play basketball at the University of Louisville in 1962 along with Wade Houston and Eddie Whitehead. Smith transferred to Kentucky Wesleyan where he won a Division II National Championship in 1966 with his game winning basket and was named the 1966 NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player. Smith is a two time All American (1966-67). Also was selected to the 1967 NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team. Smith collected 1,102 career points and 714 rebounds in his college career and averaged 17.4 points and 12.3 rebounds as a senior.

Smith was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals with the 28th pick in the 1967 NBA draft. Instead he chose to go with the other pro basketball league the ABA, which eventually merged with the NBA in 1976. Sam signed with the Minnesota Muskies. In his pro debut, Smith balled out and scored 24 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against his home state team the Kentucky Colonels. From 1967 to 1971, Smith played five years in the ABA with the Muskies, Kentucky Colonels and Utah Stars averaging 8 ppg, 7 rbg and 1 apg. He became an ABA champion with the Stars in 1971. 

However like Sam Smith, most former ABA players died waiting on help from the NBA. It’s around 108 ABA former players living. Those players ages range from the ages of sixty and mid eighties. Some have 9-5 jobs with no benefits, while some are homeless. All different struggles in life for the former ABA players, but the one thing they all have in common is, they’re waiting on help from the NBA. Maurice McHartley a former ABA player told Dana Hunsinger Benbow of the Indianapolis Star “the NBA’s waiting for us to die off” in February 2021 in her story titled ‘Former ABA players struggling and running out of time’. Sam Smith was 79 years old when he died. 

The NBA has had a pension plan since 1965. To meet the requirements to qualify for the NBA’s player pension plan, 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. In order to earn a year of service, a player must be under contract for at least one game during the NBA season whether they’re active or inactive. 


After the merger in 1976, Sam Smith and many of the ABA players never played in the NBA. For the ones that did, most only played for two years max. The most notable names that went on to have a career in the NBA are names like Moses Malone, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, George Gervin, Mel Daniels and a host of others. Meanwhile Sam Smith, Maurice McHartley, and others who didn’t have at least three years in the NBA, still feel the NBA should offer a pension for the remaining ABA players that’s still living. 

Tim Frank, Senior Vice President of NBA operations communications has said the NBA is in discussions with the Dropping Dimes Foundation on the issue. 

The Dropping Dimes Foundation is a foundation founded by Scott Tarter and Dr. John Abrams focusing on the well-being and betterment of former players of the American Basketball Association and their families who are experiencing financial or medical difficulties and have encountered significant financial hardship or sickness. 

According to Dropping Dimes if the NBA agreed to help the 108 remaining ABA players with a minimum of $400 a month, it would cost the NBA $1.8 million a year. Bob Costas said in the report with Dana Benbow from February 2021 “The bottom line is the amount of money it would take to fully fund reasonable pensions, not exorbitant pensions, is a relative pittance

Co Founder of Dropping Dimes Scott Tarver said in the same report with the Indy Star, “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.” “It’s our hope at the Dropping Dimes Foundation that they (NBA) actually follow through with this for the sake of so many wonderful guys out there who have been waiting for a long time.”

If we look at the NBA today, it almost completely models the ABA structure. The ABA had the flash, the three point shot, and the slam dunk contest. Both the three point shot and the slam dunk is the real excitement for your casual basketball fan today. The three point shot has changed the style of play in today’s NBA. Before the merger, the NBA never had a three point line until it was adopted in the 1979-80 season. The ABA used the slam dunk contest as a marketing tool to compete with the NBA which was a slam dunk win for the ABA versus the NBA from a fan’s point of view. Eventually, the NBA added the slam dunk contest in 1984 and the three point contest in 1986 as marquee events at All Star Weekend. Another huge win for the ABA versus the NBA prior to the merger was that you could enter the ABA Draft directly out of high school. Moses Malone was the first player signed out of high school. 

So if the NBA money, tv deals, and lucrative lifestyle it offered was the main reasons used to force the ABA to merge with the NBA, and if Dropping Dimes calculations are correct that it would only cost the NBA $1.8 million to offer a $400 pension to the remaining 108 players, and if Adam Silver cares about the players from the past and the integrity of the NBA like he says he does. Then what is he and the NBA waiting on to give the remaining living 108 former ABA players a pension? I mean, Adam Silver makes $10 million dollars annually as the commissioner of the NBA. He technically can pay the $1.8 million himself. The 24 second shot clock is running out of time for the 108 living players Adam Silver. Shoot the shot, you’ll swish it!

Randy Holcomb

Randy Holcomb

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