SI Vault
Tom Meschery
October 02, 1972
A former basketball star and coach has left the game he loves—but only, he strongly feels, after loyalty and integrity had departed it first
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October 02, 1972

'there Is A Disease In Sports Now...'

A former basketball star and coach has left the game he loves—but only, he strongly feels, after loyalty and integrity had departed it first

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As a kid, I was on the fringe of being what you might call a hood. But while my buddies were getting into trouble, I was in a gym working out or down at a playground. I got into a few scrapes and was put on probation, but the point is: I loved sport and, as the clich� goes, sport saved me.

I spent 11 years in pro basketball, 10 of them as an NBA player, and last season as coach of the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association. As a player, I was grossly underpaid by today's standards, but I never bargained. My last year I made $35,000. The first contract I signed was with Eddie Gottlieb, nicknamed "The Mogul," one of the founders of the National Basketball Association. He walked into my room at a college all-star game in Kansas City in 1961 and asked me how much I was worth. You do that today and the kid won't answer. His agent will, and he'll tell you his client is worth $4 million because he led his college team in scoring, for half a year anyway. (And the owners pay it, which has to be the greatest practical joke I've ever heard.) I was ecstatic just to be asked to play. As a first-round choice I commanded a nice contract: $12,000 a year and a $2,000 bonus. That's not even the minimum now.

It was around 1967 or 1968 that I first began to notice the change in pro basketball. With the emergence of the ABA, the competition for the big dollars started, and the old owners no longer fitted in. They were basketball men, pure and simple. Certainly they bargained over nickels and dimes, but it was understandable. They didn't have a lot of money to work with. Men like Eddie Gottlieb of the Warriors, Ben Kerner of the St. Louis Hawks and Danny Biasone of Syracuse stood in the lobbies selling the tickets, rushed to their offices to count the money, then headed for the dressing rooms to pay the players' salaries. The players' demands for big money finally forced these men out, and brought in new owners who were concerned with sports only in a business sense. Now the bed is made and they're in it, players and owners together, side by side.

The players have no rapport with the owners. They know that they are simply their boss' ego objects. The owners think: "I own Wilt Chamberlain. I own Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I own. I possess. I can go to a cocktail party and talk about how these are my guys." But to Eddie and Danny and some of the others, it was different. When my father died, I was in the Army and I needed money to pay his bills. I called Eddie Gottlieb. The money was on the way that day. And he never took it out of my salary. It paid my dad's hospital bills.

Today's owners have no real commitment to sport. Now instead of paying a player for the job he can do for the team, the owners pay him for his publicity and public-relations value. Look what Madison Avenue has done with Pete Maravich: his hair goes to the right, his hair goes to the left, his hair goes in for a lay-up. He is one of the few young players whose huge contract the owners do not complain about. After all, they tell you, Pete has already attracted enough extra fans in Atlanta to more than pay his tab. What they do not tell you is that Maravich is only a good, improving ballplayer. He might eventually become a great one, but he was certainly not worth a $1.8 million contract, particularly when the disgruntlement Pete's high salary caused among the Hawks" established players is taken into account. And if the fans go out to see an athlete put the ball behind his back when a chest pass would get the job done, then they're just as silly as the owners who pay the $1.8 million.

Agents are another symptom of the fever that pro basketball is running. Many of them are the products of deceit, and its master. Talk about double crossers! How about an agent who makes a deal with a club to deliver one of his players at a lower price if the club will pay another of his players a higher salary? It happens. How about an agent who takes a kickback from a club in return for delivering his client at a lower figure? It happens. Agents pay off college coaches, then negotiate for the coach's seniors—after they have been properly introduced, through the coach, of course. They lend college kids money or give them clothes, even automobiles, in return for an exclusive right to negotiate their contracts—then they charge 15%, at least, for their services. They talk kids into giving them power of attorney. The list of abuses and behind-the-back dealing goes on and on. One of the worst problems is that some agents rip their percentage right off the top of the young players' huge salaries and bonuses. Then they disappear without ever attempting to provide their clients with even the simplest sort of assistance, such as hiring lawyers to oversee the execution of those extremely complex contracts the agents were responsible for drafting in the first place.

What fans do not realize is that ultimately they are the ones who pay those inflated salaries. It is all passed down from the big people in sports and television to the little people. The consumer, a/k/a the fan, just pays a little higher price in the stores, that's all. It's getting so people can't afford sports in America. There was a time when sports provided cheap entertainment for ordinary folks. Now they are becoming a plaything of the rich.

Meanwhile, with all of this emphasis on money, we are turning out dehumanized athletes, conditioning them early to strive only for those talents that ultimately will make them rich. It starts in the Little Leagues and the Pee Wee Leagues. By the time a boy reaches high school, he is all "sloganed-out." He has been programmed to believe winning is everything. But winning is far from everything. If it were, losing would be nothing. And if losing is nothing, then sports should not exist.

Young players today spend all their time learning skills when they should be enjoying competition. We stress the learning process at the expense of absorbing simple, genuine enthusiasm. Pre-high school sports should be directed toward spontaneity, not organization. They should be directed toward lessening tension, not creating it. There is no need for high school state basketball tournaments. This may seem drastic, but at that age it seems counterproductive to arrive at an ultimate winner when we could have half a dozen winners. It is good for the young to argue the never-to-be-settled championship. And if we did away with the pressures and stresses on achieving fame and greatness at a young age, we also would do away with the professional ambitions that weigh so heavily on many of today's high school coaches.

High school coaches emphasize championships and winning, but there is a noticeable decrease in the enthusiasm of high school boys toward sports. They don't reject sports in the way people think of dropouts, but in the casual way of the young. If there is a parallel to the games of the 1970s, it can be found in the war games played by many of the sons of medieval noblemen, or the games played by the Indian children years ago. They were taught to play at war, to refine skills that would help them become formidable warriors. It appears that we have substituted sports games for war games. Our children must be physically fit—not to have fun, but to achieve excellence. To make mistakes while competing is, sadly, no longer a joking matter.

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