Indianapolis-When Sam Smith died in his modest home on the eastern side of Indianapolis, he swallowed his pride shortly before and lost a man who called to ask for gas money. .. He lost a man who had to call to seek help with his daughter’s funeral expenses.
He lost a man who was a player in the American Basketball Association and a pioneer who paved the way for the NBA today.
But basketball ended because of Smith. After winning the ABA Championship at the Utah Stars, he got a job as a security supervisor at the Ford Assembly Plant in Indianapolis. He has been many years old. The times have become tougher. More years have passed.
Five years ago, when Smith celebrated his 50th reunion at the Kentucky Wessrian NCAA Division II Championship, he called the Dropping Dimes Foundation to help ABA players and their families struggle.
Smith didn’t have the money to reach his reunion, he told Dropping Dimes CEO and founder Scott Tarter. He needed a loan and claimed it was a $ 250 loan. Dropping a dime gave him money and told him it was a gift, not a loan.
Smith was waiting in the hope that he wouldn’t have to call Dropping Dimes again. He said he owe the NBA a five-year play at the ABA, which merged with the NBA in 1976, hoping for a $ 2,000 monthly pension.
Two years later, Smith had to make another call. His daughter died of a single mother, and his five-year-old son was raised with autism by Smith and his wife Helen.
“He called me in tears,” Tarter said. Smith didn’t have the money to pay for her daughter’s funeral.
Dropping a dime helped, Smith waited a bit longer in anticipation. The pension from the NBA did not come.
A few weeks before Smith died on May 18, at the age of 79, a chilling photo was taken lying in a hospital bed next to ABA Basketball. It was a picture Smith wanted people to see.
“He grabbed my arm and brought me closer to him,” said Tarter, who took the picture. “And he said,’I will do anything to the NBA to help these guys.'”
Maybe the pictures will help them. Smith knew it was too late for him.
“It would have changed my life.”
These former ABA players are in the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Some homeless people live under the bridge. Some people die alone without the money for the tombstone. Others can’t even afford to go to church with dentures or new suits.
Smith considered himself lucky compared to his previous teammates. At least he had health insurance from Ford. But Smith’s wife, Helen, said that $ 2,000 a month would have been a disaster for her family.
“It would have changed my life,” she said. “Because we were alive. We had all the payments, but we couldn’t do any more.”
When the ABA disbanded and merged with the NBA in 1976, four of the 11 teams were absorbed by the NBA. Pacers, Nuggets, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs. Athletes who couldn’t find a long-term spot in the NBA had no pension, no salary, and no health insurance.
NBA players have been using the pension system since 1965. Athletes who have been in the league for more than three years have access to monthly payments and other benefits such as lifelong medical insurance and a college tuition refund program. ..
Many ABA players never reached the NBA after the merger. Some people did, but they only played for a year or two. Without these three years of service, it doesn’t matter how much they contributed to ABA. They are left without that payment.
Smith is one of those who did their best in the league and didn’t get anything.
“I’m very angry with the NBA,” Tarter said. “There’s a guy here who should have enjoyed his pension, but instead … another guy is gone.”
After IndyStar published the story in February 2021 The majority of ABA players struggling are blackThe NBA responded.
“We’re discussing this issue with the Dropping Dimes Foundation,” said NBA spokesman Tim Frank, confirming that these discussions will continue on Wednesday.
According to Tarter, the NBA will spend $ 400 a month on each season of play, up to $ 35 million, to fund what the Dropping Dimes are looking for in an ABA pension. He said this is one-third of the amount the NBA donates to charities each year from the fines the league collects.
There are still 138 ABA players alive who say Dropping Dimes should receive a pension.
Michael Husan, producer and director of Good Vibes Media, is working on the documentary “The Waiting Game,” which records the struggles of former ABA players and the fight for pensions.
Many players told him, Hussein said, “I don’t want to believe it, but in a way they feel like they’re waiting for us to pass.”
“It was difficult for him to ask for help.”
Life will be great for Smith, a 6-7 forward born in Hazard, Kentucky. He played soccer and basketball at Hazard High and was a basketball all-star in Kentucky in 1962.
He became the first black player to start at the University of Louisville and won the national title in 1966 after transferring to Kentucky Wessrian.
In the last 15 seconds of the game, the score was drawn 51-51 and Smith made a national championship game victory basket. Smith was selected by two National Collegiate Athletic Associations in his college career and was twice named the best player in the South of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He was a member of the NCAA Championship All Tournament Team in 1967.
Later that year, he was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals on the 28th pick of the 1967 NBA Draft, but chose to go with the other professional basketball league, ABA.
He signed to play with Muskies in Minnesota. In his professional debut, he scored 24 points and 14 rebounds against Colonel Kentucky. From 1967 to 1971, Smith played against Muskellunge, Colonel Kentucky, and the Utter Stars at the ABA. He won the Stars Championship in 1971.
However, the following season, on an expedition with the stars, Smith suffered anxiety attacks. Helen said doctors initially thought it was a heart attack. He decided to quit basketball.
It was sad for Smith, who dreamed of a long career in professional basketball, but he embraced it a lot. He went to night shift in Ford and took care of his family, including Helen, his son Sammy, and his daughter Felicia.
“He was a really humble and wonderful person,” Tarter said. “And it was really hard for him to ask for help.”
Smith didn’t like to ask for help. And until the day he died, he told anyone who would hear the NBA should step up.
“This is not a gift. He won it.”
Smith, who is quiet in nature, wasn’t quiet about what he thought was appropriate for the NBA. He often met Tarter at Steak N Shake during happy hour to discuss what he could do to help ABA players struggling.
Even when his life was over, Smith was doing everything he could. So he wanted the picture to have some meaning in his hospital bed a few weeks before his death.
Smith was healthy in most cases. Twenty years ago, he had a stent inserted in his heart, and Helen said he lived well with it.
On March 31, he fell after being sedated by a dentist’s appointment and broke his femur. After surgery and complications, Smith was sent to a nursing home.
His potassium levels dropped and he was sent back to the hospital. While there, the doctor told Helen that Smith had a stroke.
On May 16th, Smith returned home in hospice.
“At that time, I knew they had just given up on him,” Helen said. “I haven’t dealt with his death for no reason.”
The death certificate states that Smith died of congestive heart failure. Sammy, the son of Helen and Smith, was by his side when he died on the night of May 18.
Helen could think of how big this was and how she felt about the man who met him in the early 1960s.
“Did you hate me?” She said. “He was a gentleman. He was just kind. He was quiet and a little shy, but he didn’t compromise. He said exactly what he wanted to say. “
Smith will see the NBA, even if he’s waiting for his pension and is frank about what he believes is worthy of an ABA player. He died in the conference finals.
“It was heartbreaking to find out that he was a big fan of the NBA and the players,” Tarter said. “He didn’t have a grudge and did nothing to them.”
But seeing advertising, promotions, and global television rights and seeing Smith in vain was painful, Tarter said.
“He died without any recognition, respect, or pension,” he said.
Smith’s $ 2,000 a month “would have had a huge impact on his family,” Hussein said. “This is the money he earned. It’s not a gift. He earned it.”
This article was originally published in The Indianapolis Star: ABA’s great Sam Smith dies waiting for a pension from the NBA