The Forgotten 1964 NBA All-Star Game Labor Action Should Still Inspire Us

Today, the NBA will host an All-Star Game over the objections of many of its players. But back in 1964, stars were willing to go on strike and not play the exhibition, despite threats from ownership, to win retirement pensions and basic protections. It’s a classic reminder that no matter who you are, collective action works.

In the second quarter of the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, Wilt Chamberlain knocks the ball away from Jerry Lucas. Players holed up in the locker room just before the game, where they voted eighteen to two in favor of a strike. (Bettmann/Getty)

“I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” LeBron James said last month. “I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game.” With dozens of games this season already canceled, fans almost entirely absent, and players physically and mentally exhausted from the grind of a compacted schedule and COVID protocols, LeBron’s apathy toward the league’s insistence on its midseason exhibition makes perfect sense. James is hardly the only player who feels this way.

Karl-Anthony Towns, who lost his mother and six other relatives to the virus and endured a frightening experience with it himself, remarked: “I personally don’t believe there should be an All-Star Game, but what the hell do I know? Obviously, I haven’t dealt with COVID.” “The big dog says he has zero excitement and zero energy for the All-Star Game, and I’m the same way. I really right now don’t care about the All-Star Game. We cannot see our families,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said, alluding to James.

James Harden agreed: “Especially with a condensed schedule, it feels like everything was forced upon players. It’s already draining to be playing a lot of games in a week. I feel like that was a week for us to kind of relax, be with our families and kind of take a step back away from basketball.” Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul George felt similarly: “I’m not a fan of it. With everything that’s going on, I think it’s just [not] smart.”

Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox was even more direct. “I’m going to be brutally honest,” he said. “I think it’s stupid. If we have to wear masks and do all this for a regular game, what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back?” The “all this” Fox referred to is the constantly shifting set of rules implemented to decrease the risk of COVID spreading. The NBA keeps trying to balance public safety and public relations, yet unlike James or Antetokounmpo, the owners are not blessed with world-class balance or grace. Wherever a protocol makes sense, there’s a profit motive in place to cancel it out.

The league wants the players competing against one another in a physical contact sport for forty-eight minutes, but no longer allows them to hug or greet each other up close afterward. Some games have been canceled due to teams being too shorthanded to play; other times, teams are forced to play anyway, like in a game between Philadelphia and Denver where the 76ers were forced to play despite having only seven players available. The day LeBron made his comments, Brooklyn hosted Toronto, a team playing all their home games in Tampa, Florida, this year, per Canada’s quarantine. The Nets’ Kevin Durant was told just before game time that he couldn’t play due to an associate of his having an inconclusive COVID test. A few minutes later, Durant was cleared to play. About an hour later, he was pulled from the game and ineligible to play for a week after that same associate tested positive. Though Durant was quarantined, the Nets and Raptors kept on traveling and kept on playing.

In keeping with these mixed messages, the league is flying players and their families from all over the country to Atlanta this weekend for a meaningless game that a number of their employees are not comfortable with or emotionally invested in. The owners’ selfishness is grotesque but hardly surprising; capitalism and sociopathy are as symbiotic a cause or effect as the chicken and the egg. What is somewhat surprising is why the players aren’t using their leverage to either scrap the game or elicit some concession(s) from the owners in exchange for participating. There is precedent for such an action, from the first threatened strike in major American sports history, from a union with far less power and far more at risk than is the case today.

As detailed in Joshua Mendelsohn’s book The Cap: How Larry Fleisher and David Stern Built the Modern NBA, the NBA’s first televised All-Star Game was scheduled for January 1964. The owners had hired as their commissioner J. Walter Kennedy, a former public relations director for the Harlem Globetrotters and the Basketball Association of America, one of the two leagues that merged to create the NBA. Kennedy was known for his connections in the world of television, and, given that professional basketball was less popular than baseball, football, college basketball, or boxing, the league was desperate for exposure.

By then the NBA players had grown tired and angry after years of pleas and promises were ignored by the owners. Both Celtic great Tommy Heinsohn, who helped form the NBA Players Association, and labor legend Larry Fleisher informed Kennedy the players wanted assurances from the owners regarding a pension plan. Kennedy told them the owners wouldn’t make that promise.

Heinsohn knew that elite players had unique leverage — the league wanted its All-Star Game on TV in the absolute worst way. But he also knew the risks in flexing that power. Heinsohn had already tried talking about the pension issue with his boss, Celtics owner Walter Brown. Brown was no hard-liner; he was respected by his players and had integrated the NBA when his team drafted Charles Cooper, the league’s first black player, in 1950. Heinsohn and Brown were closer than most owners and players: in the offseason, Heinsohn, who held a second job as an insurance salesman, handled Brown’s personal estate. Still, Brown was completely opposed to the idea of a players’ pension. “I don’t have a pension. Why should you guys have one?”

After an unproductive meeting with Kennedy and Pistons owner Fred Zollner, where the two paid the athletes the same lip service the union had heard for years about kicking the can further down the road, the players, furious, agreed that without a written commitment to a pension plan from the owners, they would not play in the All-Star Game. From inside the arena as tip-off neared, they sent word of their decision and holed up in the locker room. Heinsohn hired a police officer sympathetic to the players to guard the door from angry owners forcing their way in.

Los Angeles Lakers owner Bob Short tried anyway: “I ordered [Elgin] Baylor and [Jerry] West onto the floor. . . . They were being talked into doing wrong things by Heinsohn. If I had been allowed in the meeting, I would shown them where they were wrong.” Baylor’s response that night did not sound like that of a confused individual: “Go tell Bob Short to fuck himself.” Players had voted eighteen to two in favor of a strike.

The owners caved, kicking and screaming all the while; five months later, the NBA announced the players’ new pension plan at the same meeting where they announced the league’s first national television deal.

The NBA always claims the sky is falling whenever the players ask for more money, more freedom, more anything. COVID provides the league an obvious excuse to push back: last year revenue was down 10 percent, with $800 million of that the result of lost gate receipts. There was speculation that a full season without fans in attendance could mean a 40 percent drop. The league adjusted itself so that its loss of expected profits didn’t penalize teams for their payrolls by subjecting them to the luxury tax, a measure designed to artificially cap player salaries with no commensurate cap on owner revenues.

The NBA is used to playing by a different set of rules than its employees, whether that’s million-dollar athletes or working-class people who collect tickets, sell concessions, or work in parking garages. Like in the larger society, there is socialism for the bosses and capitalism for everyone else.

The NBA players have more leverage now than they’ve had in years. The league is incredibly popular and the players’ presence on social media as athletes and entertainers gives them more clout than previous eras, when any platform required mass media. If the players don’t want to play a meaningless exhibition during a global pandemic, they should refuse. If it means that much to the owners, the players should refuse to play without gaining concessions.

If, back in 1964, players who needed off-season jobs to make ends meet and who had no legal rights to negotiate with other teams could risk their careers for a pension, what stops today’s players from fighting for one weekend off?