KRAVITZ: ABA reunion is about more than catching up; it’s about providing help for needy ABA players

Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - This is the NBA’s shame. These men, all gathered together for a 50th reunion of the late and lamented American Basketball Association, are back together in Indianapolis this weekend, but for all the autographs and the tall tales and the glad-handing, this much should not be ignored: Many of them, too many of them, are in need, and they are in need largely because the cash-rich NBA can’t find it in its heart to give them a decent pension.

It is a fanboy’s delight to see the men of my childhood, to see George Gervin and Artis Gilmore and Billy Keller and all the others, but it is with a profound sadness to see so many men who are struggling physically and financially. This is why the Dropping Dimes Foundation is so terribly important, why it’s important for old ABA fans to donate, why it’s important for current NBA players, especially those from teams like the Pacers who got their start in the ABA, to support the pioneers of that once-great and influential league.

Why is this the NBA’s shame? Because the current pension for ABA players is $60 per month for every year of service in the ABA. Sixty bucks. That’s a tank of gas and a meal at TGI Friday’s. That’s shameful. Meanwhile, former NBA players bring home roughly $2,000 per month. Former ABA players like Bob Netolicky have tried to embarrass the NBA and bring ABA players’ plight to light, but his appeals to their humanity and generosity have had limited success so far. It’s as if the NBA-ABA war is still being waged, and these aging men, many of them with creaky knees and other pressing health issues, are the victims in this fight the ABA likely won’t win.

As Netolicky once told me, “A lot of our guys don’t have time. We’ve got people dying, living under bridges. It’s heartbreaking.’’

For a league that is so forward-thinking in its approach to virtually every issue, the NBA is oddly tone-deaf to the plight of ABA players, treating them like spurned family members they refuse to acknowledge as their own.

This is where Dropping Dimes tries to patch as many holes as possible. The foundation is the brainchild of late Pacers center Mel Daniels, along with three local Indianapolis men (Scott Tarter, John Abrams and Ted Green), who all helped to get the organization off the ground.

“I wish Mel was here tonight,’’ Darnell Hillman told me. Then he peeled back his jacket to reveal a T-shirt reading “Slim – 34.’’ “This was his baby. We were a big family, the ABA guys. We’d play a game, then we’d drive to the hotel, pick [the opposition] up and go out. We’re still a family, as you can see right now.’’

For now, the Foundation is largely limited to smaller yet hugely meaningful gestures.

The Dropping Dimes Foundation de-molded and renovated the dilapidated old home of former New Orleans Buccaneers forward Jerry Rook. (provided photo)

Like the way they de-molded and renovated the dilapidated old home of former New Orleans Buccaneers forward Jerry Rook, who was able to move back into his home after Dropping Dimes paid for repairs.

Like a crew of former Pacers and former Kentucky Colonels meeting up in Kentucky and dropping in on former ABA players Ron Thomas and Bird Averitt and helping any way they could.

There are so many examples, but perhaps none as alternately uplifting and heartbreaking as the story of former Pacer and Shortridge grad Charlie Jordan. Here is where I’ll let his sister, Dorothy Jordan Brown, tell his heart-wrenching story:

"When he was let go by the Pacers [in 1976], he went overseas [to France and then Italy] and then he got married, which was his downfall," she told me. "Then he got a divorce and went back to their home to get some things. She asked for money, he said he had none, and understand, he had a son with her, so his son overheard her talking to her brothers saying, 'I wish he was dead.' To make a long story short, his son was in the bathtub at the time, he heard what was being said, he rushed out to the corner to find his dad and found him badly beaten about the head. He needed 80 staples to close the wound.

"From that, he had a stroke. He's had heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, some dementia. He just turned 64, but he lives in a [local] nursing home. I tried to keep him four times, but I'm going to turn 66 soon; he was just too much for me. My mom tried to keep him, too, but he had become this person, he was a grown-up but he acted like a child. He started peeing everywhere. Then he was in and out of homeless shelters and he was acting up there, too. When Darnell [Hillman] and others helped, they had our bathroom fixed to give him better access, but then he stuck his diapers down there and it overflowed, feces went everywhere. I talked to him about it and he cursed me out and told me he’d throw me down the steps. I said enough is enough. It hurts me to say that he became a bum. He’s still not Charlie. He grew up with a lot of pride."

When Jordan’s former teammates came to see him at his nursing home, they noted the one thing Jordan wanted more than anything was a new suit so he could go to church. So they went to a big and tall man shop, got him some suits, some pajamas, some socks and other bits of clothing.

“Oh, the emotional high it gave him, I can’t even describe it,’’ his sister said. “He had been through so much and he was depressed and at a low point in his life when he thought that no one cared. Then Mel and Darnell and Neto came out and it was just such a wonderful day. I said if I ever hit the lottery, I’m going to give them everything because it’s so amazing. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes because it made him so happy to be around them again, he even started to talk about wanting to play basketball again.’’

The NBA doesn’t seem inclined to acknowledge this, but it owes the ABA and its coaches and players a huge debt of gratitude. The ABA gave the NBA the 3-point shot, the Slam Dunk Contest, the free-flowing style of game that has become all the rage with the league’s best teams.

The least the NBA can do is pay homage and provide help to those ABA pioneers in need. They need the aid. And they deserve it.

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