-- Harthorne Wingo shuffles along, fortifying each step with a cane. The former New York Knicks forward, a leaper of great renown, was asked if he watched the first few rounds of the National Basketball Association playoffs on television last month.
"Can't," Wingo said. "They cut the cable off last week. The color [on the TV] went out anyway, so I could live with that."
Wingo, 56, lives in a one-bedroom, walk-up apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. His body, 210 pounds hanging from a 6-foot-8 frame, is hammerlocked by arthritis. He takes a variety of medications for high blood pressure, liver problems and neuropathy in his feet and he needs a right hip replacement. He is behind on his $306-a-month rent, has no health insurance and he has begun to tell creditors calling and hounding him, "Harthorne ain't here. Don't know when he'll be back."
At a time when a star of the NBA Finals, Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers, earns more than $25 million a season and the league has a marketing blitz centered on its former legends, many retired NBA players face the same predicament as Wingo: Having played in an era well before multimillion dollar contracts were common, they are struggling to survive financially.
About 20 percent of the 700 to 900 members of the National Basketball Retired Players Association need "real help," said Mel Davis, the organization's executive director. Among that group are some of game's more-familiar names, Davis said -- though he declined to identify the players, citing privacy considerations.
"I'm trying to help three players with full-blown AIDS right now," Davis said. "I have ballplayers with severe drug problems. I have agents calling me and telling me, 'There's a guy living under a bridge.' A prominent guy. Players need psychological counseling. A lot of people just can't cope with the transition."
Hall of Famer Earl Monroe, the former Baltimore Bullet and Knick, who is now an executive board member for the retired players, needed help a decade ago. Monroe acknowledged in an interview last month that he needed double hip-replacement surgery but didn't have health insurance. He relied on a $5,000 donation from former NBA player Dave Bing, one of the organization's founders, to steady his life again.
The issue of how and whether prosperous professional leagues should compensate retired players from a more austere economic era is not limited to the NBA. In 2002, the NFL increased its pension payments for pre-1977 players by $110 million, 800 of whom were in the league before 1959. Major League Baseball agreed last month to grant $375 lifetime monthly payments to 27 former Negro League players who were excluded from playing in the majors because they were black.
For pro leagues, the issue comes down to one question: Are current players and owners responsible for improving the pensions of players who competed before salaries exploded? NBA players who retired after 1965 receive an annual pension of less than $4,300 for each year they played, up to 10 years. On average, those players spent only six years in the league.
This summer, NBA owners and players will divvy up $2.8 billion -- the richest pot in NBA history -- in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. To increase the pension to the new Internal Revenue maximum, current players would have to divert up to $100 million to the pension fund that would have gone to a 401(k) plan started in 1999.
"Today's players don't care," said Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame guard who starred with the Knicks in the 1960s and '70s. "Those guys aren't likely to give anything back. When I came into the league I knew who George Yardley was. I knew who Guy Rodgers, George Mikan and Bob Pettit were. When it came to former guys, I would have some compassion. When it comes to NBA history with today's players, a lot of them start with Dr. J and go forward. They know me and other players vaguely, but that's it."
When Frazier played in 1974, the league's minimum salary was $30,000. This past season, the least a rookie could make for a full season was $366,931 -- about $16,000 more than what Bing made his entire career. Strides in collective bargaining, the advent of network TV contracts and the astute marketing of icons such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan led to astronomical salary raises the past two decades. Johnson made $600,000 for the 1979-80 season, his rookie year with the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James, the No. 1 pick 25 years later, earned nearly $4 million in salary and tens of millions in endorsements this season.
Derek Fisher, the Los Angeles Lakers veteran guard who is also on the players' union's executive committee, said players are aware of the debt they owe the former players.
"Obviously, the NBA has benefited from all those players' services over the years," Fisher said. "We've benefited as well. That's why we're able to make the money we make. It's a tough issue to work through. There's been a lot of tossing back and forth in terms of which side is supposed to be responsible for it, but we're all responsible in a sense. We're all connected as a league."
Retired players have no standard medical, dental, vision or prescription-plan insurance. Unless they can afford to pay their own high medical premiums, they are afforded 18 months of Cobra insurance after their last NBA game before being cut off. Wingo, who played four years in the NBA in the early- to mid-1970s, was due to get $1,500 a month in pension payments. But Wingo, like many other former players, got into financial trouble well before he was eligible for his pension and took out his money early.
The affable, athletic forward never averaged more than eight points and six rebounds per game, but he became a cult favorite at Madison Square Garden, rising high for theatrical dunks. Chants of "Wing-goh!" could be heard every time he languished on the bench for more than a quarter.
Shortly after it was formed in 1992, the association helped Wingo buck a decade-long cocaine addiction by paying for his rehabilitation. He said he has been clean for several years. But they could not stop him from taking his entire pension at age 45, a sum of $74,000 after taxes that went to a house for his family in North Carolina, a car and "having a good time," he said.
"I didn't know that was it," Wingo said. Players' union executive director Billy Hunter "told me not to borrow against the pension or take it out. But I needed the money. . . . I hear [NBA Commissioner] David Stern is a great man, so hopefully we can get some more help.
"Not all the players are doing well like those on TV."
Said Stern: "We'll continue to do all we can to support and help our retired players. They're part of who we are and will continue to be. We've worked with the union on this matter in the past and had results and we will again."
Added deputy commissioner Russ Granik: "In most jobs, you retire, the pension is fixed and that's the pension you get. In sports, there seems to be a notion among the retirees that even though they're retired their pension should keep changing every time there is a new collective bargaining agreement. But it's an issue that's on the table."
Hunter said he understands "we need to put as much money as possible in the pension plan, because guys need their money."
"The problem is, 90 percent take their pensions at age 45," he added.
"So if you look at the guys who are hurting, it's the guys who are 50-55-60, and now they don't have anything else. So whether you increase the funds or not it's not going to help them, because they already got their money. This is not a bad pension, it's only bad for guys who took it out at 45."
Jack Marin, the former Baltimore Bullet who acts as the retired players' legal counsel, agreed that financial help won't completely remedy the problem, that some players "believe they are restaurateurs or go into businesses they should just stay out of. Economics is a tough world and many fail."
Hunter must be sensitive to the game's former players while also serving the only constituency that pays his salary: the current players. He is worried that if he maximizes the pension to the point that it allows for the full contribution under new IRS guidelines, will there still be money left to have a 401(k) match for Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan and more than 400 others?
"It's got to be something that the players want," Hunter said. "But when you present it to the players, the players aren't inclined to give up their 401(k). It gives them more freedom, rather than waiting for their pensions."
Since its founding in 1992, the National Basketball Retired Players Association has tried to play catch-up to its more-established peers in football, baseball and hockey. A Legends Foundation overseas tour has taken players such as Eddie Johnson and Buck Williams to China. The organization's scholarship fund has donated nearly $1 million to former players and their children.
Davis brings photo albums to the front of the association's modest Park Avenue office, showing pictures of brunches and outings and annual meetings of retired players. James Worthy and Larry Bird, Pat Riley and Stern, smiling back from portraits. Las Vegas and the Caribbean have served as meeting places, though some of the scenes unmask the facade of prosperity.
For some, appearance of vast wealth is almost a depressing weekend fantasy. Last December at an event at a Las Vegas hotel, so many retirees took advantage of free croissants and coffee in the hospitality lounge that the room had to be closed. It was not uncommon to see retired players grabbing muffins and orange juice from the buffet reserved for current players and taking the food back to their rooms.
"Have we made strides? Yes," said Davis, who took over as executive director five years ago and has arranged for surgery and orthopedic services through several hospitals. "But a lot of the players feel we're forgotten, that we don't have any platform in the league. Some of them tell me, 'You don't use us for anything. Any time you want to use a high-profile athlete, you use Magic Johnson or Bill Russell. What about the rest of the guys?' "
Davis wants to implement programs for drug addiction, AIDS, counseling and financial management, but a $1 million annual budget makes his plan more idealistic for now. "I got players calling me. They say, 'Mel, Can Magic's foundation help me? Can Medicaid help me? 'Cause I don't got no money.' And I have to say, 'I don't think so.' "
He added, "I am confident from my relationship with David and Billy that they will understand the retired players' plight and how important the pension will be to them for the rest of their lives."
When Monroe strode to the podium for his enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the fall of 1991, he carried an embarrassing secret to the stage.
Monroe, who won two championships with the Knicks but entered the Hall wearing the jersey of the Bullets, where his court lore began, was severely in debt and had no health insurance. His joints and cartilage throbbed from all the midair improvisation during his youth. Double hip-replacement surgery would have to wait.
"I didn't have surgery for a couple of years before that because I didn't have any insurance," he said. "I didn't know where to turn or what to do."
He said he owed the IRS $5.5 million, money the IRS said had been hidden in tax shelters by his accountant in the 1970s. "I looked at 'em and said, 'I didn't make this much; how did I owe this much?' " A music endeavor had also failed. He was too proud to ask friends for help, and it took him most of the last decade to pay off the debt.
"I went underground," he said. "The last thing I would do is ask somebody to help me."
Monroe said his New Jersey home over the years has served as a shelter for former teammates and NBA players, less famous journeymen who needed a place to sleep for a week, a few months, until Marita Green, his wife, decided enough was enough. "I had to kick them out," she said. A former roommate whom he mentored after he heard the man was living at the YMCA "ended up borrowing my car one day and not bringing it back," Monroe said.
"Countless times, players' wives would show up and say they were on the verge of being evicted," Green said. "Earl would pay their rent."
The retro jersey fashion craze has been a financial boon to a small group of former players. Many, including former Washington center Wes Unseld, get a small percentage of sales, usually about 4 percent. "That's better than no percent," Frazier said.
The association's group licensing agreement with the league expires Sept. 30, and Davis would like to improve the deal. "We feel we have value, that it's now growing," he said. "I've got 40 of the greatest 50 of all time in this organization."
Meanwhile, Wingo filled out his application for help with the Legends Foundation this past week. He documented his plight, showing bills, receipts and lack of income. He said he planned to call Davis and inquire about whom to speak with regarding the production and marketing of his own retro jersey.
"But I think I need $150 to sign up for membership to do that," Wingo said, adding that he did not have that kind of money.