INDIANAPOLIS — When Sam Smith died in his modest residence on the east facet of Indianapolis, he died a person who not lengthy earlier than had swallowed his pleasure and made a cellphone name to ask for fuel cash. He died a person who needed to make a name to ask for assist with funeral bills for his daughter.
He died a person who was an American Basketball Affiliation participant, a pioneer who blazed the path for what the NBA is as we speak.
However basketball ended for Smith. After successful an ABA championship with the Utah Stars, he received a job as a safety supervisor on the Ford meeting plant in Indianapolis. Years handed. Instances received tougher. Extra years handed.
As Smith’s fiftieth reunion for his Kentucky Wesleyan NCAA Division II championship approached 5 years in the past, he referred to as the Dropping Dimes Basis, which helps struggling ABA gamers and their households.
Smith did not have the cash to get his reunion, he instructed Dropping Dimes CEO and founder Scott Tarter. He wanted a mortgage, and insisted it’s a mortgage, for $250. Dropping Dimes gave him the cash and instructed him it was a present, not a mortgage.
Smith waited, hoping he would not should make one other name to Dropping Dimes. Hoping for the $2,000 a month pension he mentioned he was owed by the NBA for his 5 years enjoying within the ABA, which merged with the NBA in 1976.
Two years later, Smith needed to make one other name. His daughter had died a single mom, leaving her 5-year-old son with autism for Smith and his spouse, Helen, to boost.
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“He referred to as me up in tears,” mentioned Tarter. Smith did not have the cash to pay for his daughter’s funeral.
Dropping Dimes helped and Smith waited some extra, hoping. the pension from the NBA by no means got here.
Weeks earlier than Smith died on the age of 79 on Might 18, mendacity in a hospital mattress subsequent to an ABA basketball, a chilling photograph was taken. It was a photograph Smith wished individuals to see.
“He grabbed my arm and pulled me nearer to him,” mentioned Tarter, who took the photograph. “And he mentioned, ‘I might do something to get the NBA to assist these guys.”
Perhaps the photograph would assist them. Smith knew it was too late for him.
‘It could have been life altering’
These former ABA gamers are of their late 60s, 70s and 80s. Some are homeless, residing beneath bridges. Some die alone with no cash for a headstone. Others cannot even afford dentures or a brand new swimsuit to go to church.
Smith thought of himself fortunate in comparison with his former teammates. At the least he had the medical health insurance from Ford. However $2,000 a month would have been a windfall for the household, mentioned Smith’s spouse, Helen.
“It could have been life-changing,” she mentioned. “As a result of we had been residing. We had been getting every part paid, however we could not do much more.”
When the ABA disbanded in 1976, merging with the NBA, 4 of its 11 groups had been absorbed by the NBA — the Pacers, Nuggets, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs. The gamers who did not discover a long-term spot within the NBA had been left with no pension, salaries shut off and medical health insurance gone.
NBA gamers have had a pension plan since 1965. Any participant with a minimum of three years of service within the league is eligible for a month-to-month cost and entry to different advantages, corresponding to life-long healthcare protection, a college-tuition reimbursement program and extra .
Lots of the ABA gamers by no means received to the NBA after the merger. Some did, however performed solely a 12 months or two. With out these three years of service, it does not matter how a lot they contributed to the ABA, they’re left with out that payout.
Smith is a kind of who gave his all for a league and ended up with nothing.
“I am so mad on the NBA,” mentioned Tarter. “Here’s a man who ought to have been having fun with a pension and as an alternative … one other one is gone.”
In February 2021, after the IndyStar printed a narrative revealing a majority of the ABA gamers who’re struggling are Blackthe NBA responded.
“We’re in discussions with the Dropping Dimes Basis on this subject,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank mentioned on the time. Frank confirmed Wednesday that these discussions proceed.
The amount of cash it might take for the NBA to fund what Dropping Dimes is asking for in ABA pensions, $400 a month for every season of play, is at most $35 million, Tarter mentioned. That quantities to 1 third of what the NBA donates to charity annually from the participant fines the league takes in, he mentioned.
There are 138 ABA gamers nonetheless alive who says Dropping Dimes ought to be getting pensions.
Michael Husain, a producer and director with Good Vibes Media, is engaged on a documentary “The Ready Recreation,” chronicling the struggles of former ABA gamers and their struggle for pensions.
Many gamers have instructed him, Husain mentioned, “I do not wish to imagine it, however in some methods, it seems like they’re simply ready for us to move.”
‘It was exhausting for him to ask for assist’
Life was going to be superb for Smith, a 6-7 ahead born in Hazard, Kentucky. He performed soccer and basketball for Hazard Excessive and was a Kentucky State basketball All-Star in 1962.
He grew to become the primary Black participant to begin for the College of Louisville and after transferring to Kentucky Wesleyan, he gained a nationwide title in 1966.
Within the last 15 seconds of the sport, the rating tied 51-51, Smith made the game-winning basket for the nationwide championship. Smith obtained two All-American alternatives throughout his school profession and was named the All-NCAA South Area Most Excellent Participant two instances. He was a member of the NCAA championship All-Event Workforce in 1967.
Later that 12 months, he was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals with the twenty eighth decide of the 1967 NBA draft, however selected to go together with the opposite professional basketball league, the ABA.
He signed to play with the Minnesota Muskies. In his professional debut, he scored 24 factors and grabbed 14 rebounds towards the Kentucky Colonels. From 1967 to 1971, Smith performed within the ABA with the Muskies, Kentucky Colonels and Utah Stars. He gained a championship with the Stars in 1971.
However the subsequent season, on a highway journey with the Stars, Smith suffered an nervousness assault. Docs at first thought it was a coronary heart assault, mentioned Helen. He determined to give up basketball.
It was unhappy for Smith, who had dreamed of an extended profession in professional basketball, however he took it in stride. He went to work the evening shift at Ford and cared for his household, together with Helen, son Sammy and daughter Felicia.
“He was a very humble and superb man,” mentioned Tarter. “And it was actually exhausting for him to ask for assist.”
Smith hated asking for assist. And till his dying day, he instructed anybody who would hear that the NBA ought to step up.
‘This is not a present. He earned it.’
Quiet by nature, Smith wasn’t quiet about what he thought he deserved from the NBA. He would usually meet Tarter at Steak N Shake for pleased hour (half worth milkshakes) and talk about what may very well be finished to assist struggling ABA gamers.
At the same time as his life was ending, Smith was all-in on doing something he may. That is why he wished that photograph on his hospital mattress weeks earlier than his demise to imply one thing.
Smith had been wholesome, for essentially the most half. Twenty years in the past, he had stents put in his coronary heart, however he was residing simply nice with that, mentioned Helen.
On March 31, he fell after being sedated at a dentist appointment and broke his femur. After surgical procedure and problems, Smith was despatched to a nursing residence.
His potassium ranges dropped and he was despatched again to the hospital. Whereas there, medical doctors instructed Helen that Smith had suffered a stroke.
On Might 16, Smith was despatched residence on hospice
“I knew then that they had simply given up on him,” mentioned Helen. “I have never processed his demise as a result of I’ve no motive for it.”
The demise certificates says Smith died of congestive coronary heart failure. Helen and Smith’s son, Sammy, had been by his facet when he died the evening of Might 18.
All Helen may suppose what an excellent loss this was, how she felt in regards to the man she met him within the early Nineteen Sixties.
“My factor was what’s to not like?” she mentioned. “He was a gentleman. He was simply candy. He was quiet, form of shy, however he was additionally uncompromising. He mentioned precisely what he meant and meant what he mentioned.”
At the same time as he waited for his pension, and was outspoken about what he believed ABA gamers deserved, Smith would watch the NBA. He died throughout the convention finals.
“It broke my coronary heart seeing what an enormous fan he was of the NBA and the gamers,” Tarter mentioned. “He held no grudges and held nothing towards them.”
However to observe the promoting, the promotions, the worldwide tv rights and to see Smith losing away, Tarter mentioned, was heartbreaking.
“He died with none recognition, with none respect, with none pension,” he mentioned.
That $2,000 a month for Smith “would have made an amazing impression on his household,” mentioned Husain. “That is cash he earned. It is not a present. He earned it.”
Comply with IndyStar sports activities reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.
This text initially appeared on Indianapolis Star: Sam Smith, former ABA participant, dies ready on retirement from NBA