Flash forward: Charlotte arena, this Sunday, 17 February 2019 (Michael Jordan’s 56th birthday no-less). The NBA All-Star game. TV crews from around the world are going through their pre-game build-ups, with 10 minutes to go before tip. The anthem singers are warming up in the tunnels leading to the court. This is the NBA’s marquee promotional event.
Backstage, the in-arena staff are in a state of pure panic.The sold out crowd have created a nervous energy in the arena. The court is empty. LeBron, Steph, KD, Kyrie, AD, The Beard, Russ, The Greek Freak and The Process all sit in their locker rooms, refusing to take to the court.
The likelihood of this scenario unfolding is absurd, bordering on the ridiculous. But what if this isn’t a fantasy? What if this had already actually happened.
Flash back: Boston Garden (OG), 14 January 1964. The NBA is about to start it’s 14th All-Star game. This is a huge deal for the league, the first time the event will be nationally televised. But behind the curtains, trouble is brewing. The Stars of the era, and (then) future Hall of Famers; Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit, amongst others, sit in the locker room refusing to take to the court.The world’s most famous NBA Stars are refusing to play.
The reason for the act of protest? The league’s failure to recognise the player’s union (in its tenth year of existence) and their commitment to improving player conditions. Say what you will about the modern millionaire lifestyle of an NBA player, but before the National Basketball Players Association’s inception, there was no pension plan, no minimum wage and no health benefits for players. An average salary of just $8,000 per year meant players often had to have second jobs just to make ends meet.
Despite threats from owners to end players careers if they didn’t acquiesce and take to the floor, the players stood firm. Finally, their demands were met and the game tipped off ten minutes late. After a decade of being pushed away by the league, the players were finally able to start balancing the power.
Now, the NBPA represents the highest salaried group of unionised employees in the World and is on call for its members, 365 days a year.
(Credit to the NBPA for the use of this video – the more astute amongst you may recognise the voice-over artist as none other than GB legend Pops Mensah-Bonsu)
Today’s union is, unsurprisingly, a vastly improved and far reaching organisation. Their core mission remains unchanged, but they now have a much wider remit:
“The NBPA mission is to ensure that the rights of NBA players are protected and that every conceivable measure is taken to assist players in maximising their opportunities and achieving their goals, both on and off the court.”
Given the importance of the their role, it’s surprising that they only really tend to be seen in the public eye during Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations, when the prospect of every fan’s worst nightmare gets mentioned in hushed tones… a Lockout.
Inside the NBPA
To get a first hand look at what the NBPA does, Double Clutch had the honour of being hosted for an exclusive tour of their offices in downtown New York, late last August. Their location is not very obvious at all, no sign on the building, not even a suggestion in the lobby that you’re in the right place – offering the anonymity and escape that (literally) larger-than-life millionaires require in the bustling streets of New York.
DC has had the pleasure of being in a few cool offices over the years. The NBA UK HQ is awesome – a real shrine to NBA fandom. But these NBPA offices are something else. These are state of the art workspaces combined with NBA quality practice facilities… These are jaw-dropping.
The reception area is sleek and smooth, lashings of black and gold overlaying modern funky furniture – there’s a huge screen behind reception, showing a Hardwood Classic on NBA TV. We’re met by Director of Brand Communications, Niveen Rasheed, a Princeton alum and former professional player.
Rasheed starts the tour, we make our way into a communal area. Lots of grey industrial furnishings, long tables and kitchen facilities – essentially a staff breakout area. Turning right we make our way down a long corridor. One wall is adorned with recently commissioned art, inspired by each player recognised at the 2018 Players’ Voice Awards.
From classic award types (MVP, RoY, DPOY) to new titles of recognition (Toughest to Guard, Best Side Hustle and The Most Respected) the Players’ Voices echo through the corridor. After being displayed at HQ, they will be gifted to each of the award winners for display in their own, personal, trophy rooms.
At the end of the corridor, we make a sharp left, followed by a quick right, suddenly the room opens up into a full-scale NBA quality court. The surprise of this expanse of space being hidden halfway up a New York high rise takes you aback, but not as much as the realisation as to what’s unfolding meters away.
The court is thriving with activity. There are at least eight people split across the two hoops. Standing tall amongst the near-sided cluster is DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. Getting one of his rehab workouts in whilst in town, Boogie is calmly sinking free throws with a group of coaches. I’m reliably informed that his Achilles recovery is going well and that the previous day had seen a monumental milestone passed, as he dunked off his left leg for the first time.
At the other end of the court, buzzing around the wing, is Kemba Walker. Honing his catch-and-shoot off curls, it’s these (relatively) unseen hours like this that elite stars have to put in to hone their craft each year. To improve, to prolong their careers and to ultimately cash cheques. And the impact of Kemba’s workouts have been borne out through this season, with Walker averaging 25 points, six assists and being selected as an All-Star starter. Surely cementing himself as a marquee free agent come July 1st.
Both Boogie and Kemba were in New York for the launch of NBA 2K19. The NBPA offers them, and their fellow 448 colleagues, these world class facilities whenever they’re in town and at a moments notice. As we move away from the hardwood, we make our way up to a mezzanine floor overlooking the court. This is the onsite gym, all the latest tech plus a cold pool and hot tubs. Everything an NBA player could want or need.
But it’s not just a player’s on-court interests that the NBPA caters for. Their charitable arm, the NBPA Foundation is designed to maximise the impact of NBA players’ off-court endeavours too. Offering funding, support and publicity for the work that takes place in local communities around the globe.
The Foundation has helped numerous players, including Pau Gasol, Kristaps Porzingis and, more recently, Malcolm Brogdan, to create and deliver projects that the players are both passionate and invested in. Co-signing foundation programmes with grants of up to $25,000, players are subjected to a rigorous application process by the Union – this support and funding is not thrown around on a whim.
The NBPA is also challenged with helping it’s members prepare for life after basketball. It’s long been a talking point that NBA players quickly move from ultra-rich to bankrupt once they’ve hung up their sneakers.
In 2013, analysts at Mint.com reported that 60% of NBA players file bankruptcy within five years of retirement. Whilst the figure is shocking, it’s not all that surprising. The average NBA career (for which the athlete has dedicated their whole life to achieve) is just four years. And whilst the financial reward is high, a players potential earning window is brief.
One of the key roles of the NBPA is the development of players to maximise off-court earnings and prolong sustainable life after basketball. The Union offers a number of courses for its members in the of-season, ranging from franchising to investing to real estate. Each one geared to give today’s stars the best possible chance of protecting their assets once their playing days are over.
It’s a difficult concept, getting people to think of their futures, when the now feels like it will last forever. But the NBPA is working hard to improve the numbers of players attending and it’s a ringing endorsement when a marquee player, like Steph Curry, on a max contract with a whole host of marketing deals, takes time out of his off-season to attend.
With the current CBA set to run through June 2021, there are a couple more years left in which the NBPA will continue to operate out of the public eye. Be it supporting the #MoreThanAnAthlete movement, negotiating with league to overturn the one-and-done rule, or helping the next NBA start in his philanthropic ventures. So, when the NBA Stars take to the court on Sunday before the eyes of the world, remember that back behind the proverbial curtain is the NBPA, protecting the players’ interests and enabling these athletes to remind you daily, that they are greater than this label, that they are bigger than basketball.