Original publish date: February 27, 2018
This past year, my iPhone has been busy catching texts from Bob Netolicky. April 20, 2017: We lost Skeeter today. May 8, 2017: We lost Hawkeye today…October 2, 2017: We lost the Hawk today…November 26, 2017: We lost Snapper today… December 7, 2017: We lost Fatty today. No, we haven’t been playing Words With Friends. These are the nicknames of the former ABA players that have died in 2017: Skeeter Swift, George Irvine, Connie Hawkins, Steve Jones, and Roland Taylor. Neto has watched as fellow all-stars, teammates and roomies have slowly passed away. His eye is tuned to the news for a specific reason: Bob Netolicky is on a mission.
The former Drake University All-American, 4-time ABA all-star and 2-time Pacer champion has been working on a pension deal with the NBA. The sad fact is, since Neto started this quest, by his count, 50 former ABA pension eligible league-mates have passed away. No passing has affected Neto more than that of his old roommate, Harley “Skeeter” Swift.
Neto and Skeeter shared a couple ABA milestones during their careers. Both were members of the last Dallas Chaparrals team for the Chap’s final game on March 26. 1973. and both men were starters on the very first San Antonio Spurs team for their inaugural game on October 6, 1973 (a 91-89 exhibition game victory over the their NBA in-state rival Houston Rockets). Most people forget that Neto spent the 1972-73 season in the lone star state before coming back to the Pacers to finish out his career.
“Skeeter” played five seasons in the ABA. Along with the Chaps & Spurs, he played for the New Orleans Buccaneers, Memphis Pros and Pittsburgh Condors, averaging 11.6 points per game during his professional career. Years ago Swift had turned to Netolicky to help chase down his ABA pension. It wasn’t much, but Skeeter was in a desperate situation. He was battling lymphoma and recovering from a stroke. Skeeter had three hip-replacement surgeries and was in need of another. Alzheimer’s had taken hold and the 6’3″ former East Tennessee State Buccaneer standout was a shadow of his former self.
Netolicky put Swift in touch with the San Antonio-based pension administrator, who sent Swift a check for back payments. It came just in the nick of time. On April 14th of 2017, Neto received a voicemail from Skeeter. Swift was in the hospital, literally on the gurney prepping for surgery to repair that busted hip. “Hey Roomie, just wanted to call you before I head in (to the operating room)” Swift says between long pregnant pauses to choke back tears. “I can never repay you for all that you’ve done for me. And uh … I’ll just wait to hear from you. Bye-bye.”
Neto thought he’d have plenty of time to return the call after giving his roomie a few days to recover. He never got the chance. 70-year-old Skeeter Swift died on April 20, six days after leaving that message. Netolicky has played this message for his old Pacers coach, Hall of Famer Slick Leonard (who still calls Neto “Bobby”). He has played it for teammates including Darnell Hillman and George McGinnis. Sometimes, he just plays it for himself as a reminder of what it is that he is fighting for. I have heard it a few times myself, and trust me, it is a tear-jerker.
Most of the ABA alumni are in their seventies now. Some are unhealthy, others are broke. Many are bewildered by the lack of concern by an NBA whose game today more closely resembles that of Dr. J and Connie Hawkins than it does Dave Cowens and Walt Frazier. Today, the average NBA salary is approaching $5 million. ABA players want the NBA, which absorbed their league in 1976, to at least treat them as well as the NBA pre-1965ers. ABA alums can’t help but chuckle at the league’s 2018 slogan: the NBA cares. They watch as the NBA sponsors days of service, visit children’s hospitals and build schools in Mexico City, while legacy ABA players struggle to cover medical bills, keep the lights on or, in some cases, survive while living out of their cars.
Netolicky has managed to shake loose some of that often promised, but seldom delivered, pension money to alleviate the most dire circumstances of his former teammates and rivals. Neto states, “People are dying out here. We found one player living under a bridge, another out of his car. All we’re saying is that legally, maybe the NBA doesn’t have to do this, but it is the right thing to do.”
On April 5th, a couple weeks before Skeeter Swift died, ABA legacy players delivered signed petitions to the NBA and National Basketball Players Association in search of better pensions. The petition quotes from the 1976 ABA-NBA merger agreement that stipulates “pension rights and privileges for ABA players equivalent to that provided NBA players.” As of yet, the NBPA hasn’t responded to the ABA petition and has refused to comment publicly “out of respect for the ABA players.” However, don’t dismiss this petition movement as just another money grab by already overpaid professional athletes. The ABA retirees are just asking for what the NBA promised them.
“We started this thing 9 years ago when most of the guys were turning 63 and reaching retirement age.” says Neto. “Back then we had around 195 eligible guys who played 3 years or more in the league. Now we’re down to 147.” And the number changes almost every week. When asked how easy it has been for the ABAer’s to collect their promised pension from that 1976 merger, Neto replies, “Well, it was supposed to be managed by a group in San Antonio, but the paperwork was never properly administered and a lot of guys fell through the cracks.”
I’m not making excuses for the inflated salaries of athletes, believe me. But today’s athletic salaries are a tiny fraction of those from the 1960-70s era. Keep in mind that an average career length of a pro athlete is 3.3 years for the NFL, 4.8 for the NBA and 5.6 for Major League baseball. Netolicky, along with Byron Beck, Louie Dampier, Gerald Govan, Stew Johnson, and Freddie Lewis, are the only players to play all nine seasons of the ABA, twice the career span of today’s ballers. They, along with the other surviving ABA alums, have been waiting for their promised pensions since the Bicentennial year. Think about that for a minute.
Neto continues, “The NBA player pension has been increased 30 times since 1976 while the ABA pension has remained the same ($60 per month for every year of service minimum 3 years) with no collective bargaining rights and certainly no cost of living increase. All we wre asking is that ABA players receive the same pension ats the pre-1965 NBA guys are getting.” NBA pensions weren’t created until 1965, meaning players before 1965 were shut out. That changed in 2007 when the NBA gave pre-1965 NBA players a pension of $300 per month for every year of service (again, minimum experience: 3 years). In other words, a six-year NBA veteran from the 1950s receives a pension of $1,800 a month while an ABA 6-year vet receives $ 360 a month.
While it is true that many of the ABA vets, Bob Netolicky among them, never played a game in the NBA, the only 2 teams Neto played on were absorbed by the NBA. Not only did the NBA absorb four ABA franchises (the Pacers, Spurs, Nuggets and Nets), they also adopted some of the ABA’s most iconic features: The 3-point shot. The slam-dunk competition. The All-Star Weekend party. The petition also points out that NBA teams sell ABA apparel on line and in their gift shops. The Pacers recently offered replica throwback jerseys for ABA icons Mel Daniels, George McGinnis, Billy Keller, Freddie Lewis and, of course, Netolicky. “I haven’t seen a penny of that,” Netolicky says.
Neto wants to make it clear that his beef is with the NBA, not the Indiana Pacers. “The Pacers have been good to me over the years. I’m proud of the teams we played on and we are still a family a half century later. Playing for the Pacers and being part of the Pacers family has been one of the highlights of my life. I’d like to think that we did our part in contributing to the rich sports tradition Indianapolis enjoys today.” However, in this writer’s opinion, what’s right is right and just like Hoosier sports fans care about their city, they should also care about the players that helped build its sports legacy.
To be fair, it must be noted that the NBA and the player’s association have agreed to allow ABA players access to the NBA Players Legacy Fund. ABA players in need can apply for grants totaling a lifetime maximum of $10,000. But those grants are a one-time benefit reserved for the most hardship cases. Not to mention, this benefit is not widely known among former ABA players. And natural attrition continues to shrink those eligibility numbers every month.
Like many Hoosier kids born in the sixties, I grew up as a fan of the ABA. My allegiance will always be with those great Pacers teams. I can recall with perfect acuity the rotation of that red,white and blue ball, the coolness of those blue suede Adidas sneakers and the loudness of Slick Leonard’s suits. And I can also visualize those star spangled Nets uni’s, the blue-grass jerseys of the rival Colonels and the sparkly silver glitter flecked jerseys of the Spirits of St. Louis. Not to mention the fros, furs and goatees that defined the hoop stars of the ABA. All of these memories make me smile. Bob Netolicky hopes that these same memories will also move the NBA to do what is right and proper by the former ABA players who helped set the style for today’s league.
Fans of the ABA will soon have opportunities to show up and support the league alumni. Bob Netolicky, Robin Miller and former Pacers and league President Dick Tinkham have written a book appropriately called, “We changed the Game.” The official release party and book signing will be held right here in Irvington at the Irving Theatre on Sunday March 18th from 2:00 to 4:00. The trio, along with other former ABA Pacer greats, will be on hand to share stories, answer questions and sign copies of their book for fans. The event is free to the public.
Indianapolis will also play host to the 50th Anniversary of the ABA on Saturday April 7th. ABA Stars and Hall of Famers alike will converge on the Circle City for this once-in-a-lifetime event. The public is invited to come out to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse that Saturday from 11:00 to 3:00 for a memorabilia show and autograph signing. Part of the festivities include a special ring presentation for ABA alumni. Sponsored by the Dropping Dimes foundation, each player will receive an exclusive 50th ABA anniversary alumni ring as a token of appreciation for the players who changed the face of pro basketball. Mark your calendars, stayed tuned for future articles and make plans to attend these landmark events.