King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NBA and its union beat the buzzer for three dozen elderly pioneers who've waged a long battle for pension benefits.

Published February 20, 2007 5:00PM (EST)

Bill Tosheff can finally stop banging on doors that won't open. His 18-year crusade to get the group of about 85 NBA pioneers he calls "my guys" came to a happy end over the weekend when commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter announced a new plan that will bring them a chunk of money and a regular check.

Well, a happy end for the ones who are still alive.

"I got 38," Tosheff, 80, said Monday night from his home in San Diego, where he'd driven from the All-Star festivities in Las Vegas earlier in the day. "I just started checking today, and a couple of them have died, so I'm down to middle or even low 30s right now."

Tosheff's guys, veterans of the birthing days of the NBA, had been cut out of the pension plan since 1988, when men who played before the 1965 founding of the union were included for the first time, but only if they'd spent five years in the league. The vesting requirement for post-'65 players is only three years.

That seemed unjust to Tosheff and his guys, three- and four-year veterans of the NBA and its predecessor, the BAA, in the '40s, '50s and early '60s. Tosheff, known to all as Tosh, played for the Indianapolis Olympians and Milwaukee Hawks from 1951 to 1954.

What especially made Tosh and his guys burn was a clause that counted years of military service as NBA service, but only if there was no gap in between. In many cases, the NBA and the players association were essentially punishing men who had fought in World War II and then completed their college education before joining a league that barely existed and paid wages that hardly compared with today's multimillion-dollar contracts.

The new pension plan, in addition to giving a raise to former players already included, gives Tosheff's men a $20,000 lump-sum payment, and then $3,600 a year for every year in the league, retroactive to July 2005, when the current collective-bargaining agreement was signed.

"When I heard the news I just kinda like sat down," Tosheff said. "I didn't know whether I was going to have a heart attack or wet my pants or what."

"I was overjoyed," said "Easy" John Ezersky, 85, who drove a cab for 50 years in New York and San Francisco after playing three years for the Providence Steam Rollers, Baltimore Bullets and Boston Celtics from 1947 to 1950. "I shook a little bit. I was very happy to hear about it. To be perfectly honest with you I've been going into debt the past few years. I go into debt about two or three hundred dollars a month playing around with credit cards and all because it's the only way I could exist."

Walt Budko, who played for the Bullets and the Philadelphia Warriors from 1949 to 1952, is retired from a successful career in the insurance business. He says he never needed the pension money, but joined the fight on principle.

Tosheff's "always after me for a little more money to handle his expenses," Budko, 81, said from his home in suburban Baltimore, "which I did because he was a pretty focused guy and he was passionate about it and I think a lot of it's attributable to his efforts, really, keeping the issue in front of their faces."

Tosheff explains his persistence by saying he just couldn't accept that any setback was permanent. "There's gotta be a door to open," he said. "You've got to keep pursuing, you've got to keep bugging."

Tosheff and the men he represents tend not to be bitter about today's players making millions -- "God bless these guys, let 'em get everything they can get," Ezersky says -- saving their bitterness for a group of old-timers led by Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes and others who were included in the pension plan in 1988. That's when the key five-year vesting requirement was introduced for pre-'65ers.

"Bob Cousy and his group should never have accepted that," Ezersky said. "They should have said everybody with three or four years can come in. That's where I was bitter. Why would ballplayers treat other ballplayers that way?"

Cousy, interviewed two years ago, told this column his group didn't negotiate anything, it simply accepted what the NBA handed down without a thought about three- and four-year players, a subject Cousy says didn't come up at the time. Tosheff disputes Cousy's account.

The announcement comes on the heels of a brief media flurry about former NFL players, many of them indigent or with health problems directly related to their playing days, underserved by that league's pension plan. Or, as Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure put it at a Super Bowl-week press conference, "Our pensions suck, plain and simple."

Tosheff says the timing may not have been a coincidence.

"I think No. 1 they might have outdone football," he said. "I'm not sure that's it, but this is all a game of marketing and politics. I think when Billy Hunter finally made up his mind and got his people to say, 'OK we'll do it,' then it became."

Tosheff credits Robert Criqui, the league's executive vice president for finance, for being "a friend and ally" over the years.

"All along Bob Criqui told me that my guys would not be forgotten," he said. "That's the very words he used. I have a lot of confidence in Bob Criqui."

Ezersky has a different idea about the timing. "I'm 85 years old," he said. "Most of us are 80 or better. I guess they figured, 'Well, enough of 'em have died away, let's get this other group a little bit of money."

Ezersky, who lives in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek in a condo subsidized by family members, says the pension money, which should start arriving in a few months, will let him get out from under what he calls "tremendous" credit-card debt and allow a more comfortable life.

"I'll have a few extra dollars to take my wife to McDonald's," he said.

Those who achieve long-sought goals often feel empty afterward, with nothing left to pursue. Don't worry about Bill Tosheff.

"Well, let me tell you what," he said. "I'm very entrepreneurish. I'm working on a couple of things." He says he has consulted on a movie about Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, one of the NBA's first black players, and he has worked with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar on a book and documentary about early black basketball teams.

He also has an idea for a line of vintage-player trading cards based on his collection of photos. "Keep the flow coming," he said. "Keep the river flowing, and let the tributaries go into the veins of my guys I represent. I think we waited long enough and this could have been done a long time ago."

"I give them a lot of credit for righting a wrong," Budko said of the NBA and the union finally coming through. "The only thing is, I've got nothing to bitch about now."

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