Learn why the National Basketball Retired Players Association and the NBA’s labor union came together to keep their legends alive and well years beyond their playing prime.
Basketball’s best ride off into the sunset, seeing their jerseys hanging high in the stadiums they once filled up and their stories being told on stage in Springfield at the Naismith Memorial.
But what about the thousands of hoopers who hang up their sneakers to less fanfare or other opportunities?
Since 1992, the National Basketball Retired Players Association has done its job to support athletes who’ve given their services to the NBA, ABA, WNBA, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Founded by NBA greats Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, Archie Clark, Dave Cowens, and Oscar Robertson, the non-profit organization has helped to keep the game’s greats alive through equal commitments to storytelling and wellness.
“The NBA as an industry has always been one of the leaders as it relates to healthcare and concern for players,” Johnny Davis, an NBA champion and 10-year veteran, told Boardroom.
Since retiring with the Atlanta Hawks in 1986, Davis has remained tethered to the game through coaching gigs and activities with the NBRPA. Along the way, he’s seen basketball progress but also some of the game’s greats pass.
In 2015, both Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins died from heart issues that could have been detected and likely prevented through more comprehensive health screening. Seizing a solution, cardiac specialist and storied NBA strength coach Joe Rogowski devised a plan.
“This was a concept I brought to the NBPA [National Basketball Players Association] when I first started with [NBPA Executive Director] Michele Roberts,” Rogowski told Boardroom. “That was coming off the passing of Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, and other former players who had cardiac issues. I wanted to put together a program that was cardiac-based but could reach other medical areas.”
Brainstorming with his colleagues at the NBPA, the goal was simple: provided players no longer in the NBA with healthcare screenings that not only prevented easily diagnosed conditions from worsening, but did so in a setting that felt like the training facilities they worked in and around for so long.
“My vision was to set it up so it’s a welcome environment,” Rogowski said. “Not a sterile hospital, but laid-back like an arena or hotel ballroom where they could see some of their former colleagues. We put that together in 2015 and it’s really grown from there.”
Grown is an understatement.
When considering the massive amount of retired hoopers across the country and beyond, Rogowski and his team streamlined a system that got off the ground months after ideation and is already saving lives.
So, how did this pioneering program come to be? Boardroom sat down with the game-changers involved to find out.
Reaching Across the Aisle
From a media perspective, the relationship between retired players and active ones is often painted as a public rivalry.
Those that played in the game’s earlier eras are angled as ornery old men that think the game today is too soft and that athletes are overpaid. Conversely, the top talents of the 2020s get clipped into saying all-timers couldn’t score a basket in the modern NBA.
Those tropes are fun for debate shows and barber shops, but deep down, the cross-generational relationship is much more meaningful.
Following the sad passings of Malone and Dawkins in 2015, those making up the current crop of greats have used their voices, platforms, and negotiating leverage to assist in carving out a healthcare plan for retired players.
After all, today’s talent will someday be in those same shoes.
“The top players in the industry drive it,” Davis said. “LeBron, KD, Chris Paul, CJ McCollum, Dame Lillard, Steph Curry, the people who are willing to be outspoken about different things like Draymond Green. They use their platform and also include former players in terms of what’s needed for them. When you have your star powers saying, ‘We need to take care of our former players and their health,’ that sends a strong message to the owners and commissioners of the league.”
By uniting the NBPA with the NBRPA, Rogowski — a man who’s worked with players on both sides — was able to turn a vision for healthcare screening into a reality.
“This is all paid for by the NBRPA. It’s completely free,” he said. “We’re able to streamline the workflow and diagnostic testing so there’s no excuse that it takes too long to schedule. We get all the preventative screening done ahead of time to treat rather than after the fact.”
Even early on, Rogowski’s plan produced: In 2018, NBA legend Nate “Tiny” Archibald received a heart transplant.
“The players association saved my life,” Archibald told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. And while it’s the heart of modern All-Stars such as LeBron James and Chris Paul that made Archibald’s heart transplant possible, it’s also the insights of humble heroes like Rogowski that make it happen.
“You have to be a bit of a visionary to know what’s possible and connect the dots,” Rogowski said. “I’m not the doctor making the diagnosis, but I know who the right people are to get in front of these players and make it all work from the IT side.”
Since Nov. 2022, the NBRPA has taken the horns to entirely run this impressive program.
Thanks to initial funds from the NBPA and modern advances in medical technology, annual health screenings are available for former pro players such as the one that just took place at All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City. Just last month in Utah, a retired player was found to have a condition that was fortunately spotted quickly. Just as quickly, he was booked for treatment.
“Before he left, everything was taken care of,” Rogowski said. “We’ve had several cases where identified issues led to surgeries. We’ve got them plugged in with the right practitioners in their area and the right medications. Taking that proactive approach has been very, very important.”
As explained, it’s literally been the difference between life and death. Why it matters so much is that it takes into account the work of the retired athletes that made pro sports the profitable industries they are today.
“The players are the product,” Davis said. “The players are the ones who drive the business. To give them great healthcare while they’re playing is one thing, but to now parlay that into taking care of them after the gym shoes have been hung up? That’s what the PA has done and the NBA has embraced that concept.”
Across industries, other leagues and federations are taking steps to take care of their retired athletes in a similar fashion.
Still, it’s the NBA that’s setting the tone.
The New Standard
Professional sports can be dangerous, but what if we told you that they’re more dangerous after the lights go down and the scoreboard goes blank?
On Jan. 2, 2023, the world stood still as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin had to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati before being whisked away from Monday Night Football in an ambulance. Suffering from cardiac arrest due to a hard hit, fans held hands in prayer, players cried openly, and pundits found themselves speechless on live television.
The next morning, one retired athlete turned analyst was not at a loss for words.
“As a former union president, when we are fighting in the CBA for financial opportunities, or for health and safety considerations, don’t call us greedy,” retired NFL cornerback and television analyst Dominique Foxworth said on ESPN. “There is no cap to the amount of risk that the players are taking. There is a salary cap on the amount for players, and so there’s a cap to the amount of risk.”
What the retired Broncos, Falcons, and Ravens defensive back said struck some as untimely.
Truthfully, he couldn’t have said it soon enough.
In 2022 alone, seven different NFL alumni died due to causes unrelated to automobile accidents or gun violence. Many of them were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
To that same accord, three UFC fighters passed away last year, all of whom were in their 30s and 40s, ranging from colon cancer to heart complications.
Oftentimes, it’s athletes who partake in the most dangerous and also lucrative sports that receive the short end of the stick as far as healthcare is concerned once their competitive days are done.
“You have to [play] four seasons essentially to be vested in post-career insurance to be able to get a pension which you can’t take out until 55,” Foxworth said on The Adam Jones Podcast in January. “The post-career healthcare? The max you can get if you play 15 years in the league is five years of healthcare after you’re done playing. It’s not a lot and it’s also not at a great time. When I retired, I was about 29 or 30 years old and I didn’t need it then.”
Foxworth, who became the youngest player to serve as Vice President of the NFL Players Association Executive Committee in 2008, later became President of the NFLPA in 2012. After retiring from football, he attended Harvard to earn his MBA. During that time, he was elected as COO of the NBPA for a tenure that lasted a year.
Because of his experience as an athlete and a labor leader, his proximity to the challenges his peers face is more nuanced than most.
“I was pretty passionate that morning, which a lot of people didn’t like hearing,” Foxworth continued. “I wanted to bring attention to some of the challenges that Damar is going to face and that a lot of that players face.”
Though the NFL claims over 23,000 retired players — five to six times more than that of the NBA though over 6,000 have passed away — it’s possible a similar structure to that of basketball could be achieved for former football players looking to receive more consistent health screenings that won’t run the risk of threatening their bottom lines.
“Once they can’t participate, you don’t just leave them out in the pasture,” Johnny Davis said. “We don’t approach it that way and it’s never been approached that way.”
From a funding standpoint for the NFL, owners and players of the active variety would have to get on board. From a structural standpoint, the NBA has already laid the blueprint for just how a program of this sense can operate and thrive.
“Every year, we do health screenings at our annual conference, at the All-Star Game, and at different NBA cities throughout the year,” Davis said. “It gives you an opportunity to address potential problems. The bar is being set for professional athletes. It behooves each professional league to follow that blueprint because it’s a working one. It speaks to the humanity of the athletes as people, not just getting back for a game. They want to take care of us holistically in every way.”
Make no mistake — the NBRPA is not telling any other league how to administer healthcare to its former players.
They’re simply setting the standard by example.
A Healthier Tomorrow
This April, the efforts of the NBRPA and NBPA will extend to new lengths.
At the women’s Final Four in Dallas, health screenings will be offered to retired WNBA players, with the great Nancy Lieberman leading outreach efforts.
“The bar is getting high because each year something is being added,” Davis said. “They keep great data on the types of injuries and concerns that players have.”
At 67 years of age, Davis has won titles in the era of cupsole sneakers and coached talent at the onset of load management. His resume as a Gold medal winner – for both the Pan American and World Cup teams – and as an additive piece of 12 different NBA franchises as a point guard and assistant coach make his lens on the game unique.
Since retiring as a player in 1986, he’s evolved his outlook on his own health while also looking out for his peers and predecessors.
“As athletes, you think, ‘Nothing will ever happen to me. I can leap tall buildings in a single bound like Superman!'” Davis said. “But the reality is you have to check your launching pad. Your knees, your heart, your mind. You should stay on top of it and that’s always been a difficult pull for men. Hopefully, that’s going to be something in the past, and that from this point going forward, your health and well-being will be a priority, because no matter how much money you make, you can’t buy good health, but you can buy good medical help.”
Since starting the health screening program in 2016, a handful of lives have been both saved and extended.
While several NBA players passed away in 2022, the majority were well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s which points to the progress this program has provided. It speaks to an infrastructure set up in the sport that takes care of its people whether they’re wearing a jersey or far past their playing days.
“All of the teams and the NBA are very approachable when it comes to retired players and taking care of their health,” Rogowski said. “We’re all very thankful for the groundwork they laid for where the league is today.”
From All-Star Weekend to the women’s Final Four and numerous additional outings to come, the NBRPA is making it as simple as possible for former players to get screened for the various health issues that strike retired athletes the most.
In all, the intention is to create a one-stop shop where athletes can converse with friends and make sure their health is up to par.
The hearts and heads behind the program make sure that everyone who goes into screening comes out of it with a holistic understanding of their health status with all follow-up needs addressed and scheduled right on the spot.
“The last thing I wanted was for a guy to go through the screening, leave there, and not have the results,” Rogowski said. “If I find out something is abnormal, I know how hard it is to find those guys after they leave the site. The workflow needs to be streamlined. The results need to be instantaneous so that no player leaves here not knowing they need to follow up on an issue.”
Such standards have helped Davis continue to enjoy his retired days in North Carolina, spreading the gospel of the NBA, NBPA, and NBRPA’s healthcare screenings to all who will listen.
“The human body is like an automobile; you have to take it in for service checks every so often,” he said. “The retired players have embraced it. The help they receive is the best in the country.”
With that in mind, perhaps fellow federations, leagues, and associations will follow the NBA’s model.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as reaching out to those that did it before you or paying respect to those that are doing it today.
“You couple that with the NBPA joining hands with NBRPA to make sure that the players are being taken care of with the best healthcare available,” Davis said. “Now, that same care is being given to them post-retirement — and it’s a seamless transition.”
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