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‘A Christmas miracle’: Former ABA players get first payout from NBA

INDIANAPOLIS – ‘Hey, there must be some mistake,’ Bo Lamar said on the other end of the phone call to Scott Tartar, who listened then told Lamar, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 American Basketball Association draft: ‘No. There’s no mistake.’

John Fairchild, a player for the ABA Indiana Pacers’ 1970 championship team, called around, too, to find out if he was ‘seeing things’ on this check from the NBA that was much more than he had expected.

Pacers’ ABA star Bob Netolicky heard from Fairchild, and many of his former ABA friends, and made a call to Tartar.

‘The NBA messed up,’ Netolicky said. ‘No. The NBA didn’t mess up,’ Tartar assured him.

‘They were all literally sitting around going, ‘What the hell?” said Tartar, co-founder and president of Indianapolis-based Dropping Dimes, which helps struggling ABA player and their families. ‘These checks were so much bigger than many expected.’

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After an eight-year battle with the NBA, Dropping Dimes earlier this year convinced the league to give recognition payments to former ABA players.

The first installment of those payments were sent out this month. ‘Just in time for Christmas,’ Tartar said. ‘Yes, it kind of is a Christmas miracle.’

A miracle for the ABA players in many ways. First of all, those players weren’t sure if they would ever get the pensions they believed they were owed when the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, leaving behind many players who never earned a spot on an NBA team.

A miracle because many of these players really need the money. IndyStar has covered the plight of these former ABA trailblazers and champions who now are struggling to pay for rent, medical care and basic necessities in life.

A miracle because many of these former ABA players weren’t expecting what they saw on those first checks from the NBA. One issued to a Pacers great — who isn’t being named — totaled more than $100,000, just for December.

‘Unbelievable. I am telling you,’ Tartar said. ‘I have shed some serious tears over this. It’s just insane how impactful this is going to be to these players.’

‘So many happy conversations with players’

The former ABA players are now in their 70s and 80s. Some are homeless, living under bridges. Some die alone with no money for a gravestone. Others can’t afford dentures or a new suit to go to church.

‘As far as this pension thing, the NBA is waiting for us to die off,’ Frank Card, who played for the ABA’s Denver Rockets, told IndyStar in February 2021.

At the time, Card was a retired public bus driver, living in a rented apartment. The pension would have meant a different life for him. 

‘I’m not asking for some kind of hand out or something I didn’t work for or deserve,’ Card 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?”

After the article published, the NBA spoke publicly on the issue for the first time to IndyStar, saying it was in discussions with Dropping Dimes on pensions for former ABA players.

The discussions weren’t soon enough for Card, who died two months later at 76, more than a year before the NBA board of governors voted in July to pay $24.5 million to former ABA players.

The agreement, reached by the NBA and its players association, ended a years-long battle between the league and Dropping Dimes, who had argued that these ABA players blazed the trail for what the NBA game is today — fast-paced and flashy with 3-point shots and slam dunk contests. And they deserved a pension for that.

When the agreement was reached, about 115 players were eligible for the payout, which the NBA called ‘recognition payments,’ not pensions. Those players either spent three or more years in the ABA or played at least three combined years in the ABA and NBA and never received a vested pension from the NBA.

But when the checks started arriving in mailboxes this month, the payouts had changed for some of the players. Some were getting extra money from their time in the NBA. Some, who didn’t think they would qualify for either league, were getting money they didn’t expect.

The math, the money, the way the NBA figured the payouts is a complicated equation from actuaries, lawyers and financial types. But the gist of it is ABA players are finally getting their due, Tartar said.

Even some widows and family members of ABA players are receiving unexpected checks, Tartar said, including the widow of Sam Smith who, before his death, had a chilling photo taken in his hospital bed with an ABA basketball.

‘He grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to him,’ said Tarter, who took the photo. ‘And he said, ‘I would do anything to get the NBA to help these guys.”

Before his death, Smith said he considered himself lucky compared to his former teammates. At least he had health insurance from his career working at a Ford plant. But the pension money would have been a windfall for the family, said Smith’s wife, Helen, after he died.

‘It would have been life-changing,’ she told IndyStar. ‘Because we were living. We were getting everything paid, but we couldn’t do a lot more.’  

Now, finally, she is getting what Smith was owed. And Tartar said it is stories like the Smiths that mean the world to him.

‘I am ecstatic,’ Tartar said. ‘I’m having so many happy conversations with players and families. It’s incredible.’

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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