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NBA reaches out to its pioneers

February 27, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

They played for such teams as the Providence Steamrollers, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and the pre-NBA Boston Celtics. Many of them put their education or career on hold during World War II.

Yet, when the NBA created its pension in 1965, the plan locked out many players who had helped to build the foundation for the modern-day riches enjoyed by team owners and players.

That longstanding oversight was addressed during the NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, when the league and its players' union announced plans to fund pensions for the handful of pioneering players who are still alive.

"It should have occurred much, much earlier," said John Ezersky, 84, a Bay Area resident who played for the Celtics during the late 1940s and early 1950s but never received a monthly pension check. "But we're in business now. Thank God for that."

The new benefits are part of a broader NBA player retirement plan upgrade that will:

* Boost the maximum yearly pension for a modern-day player to $170,000.

* Raise the monthly payment for pre-1965 players with five or more years of experience from $2,400 to $3,600 for each year of league play.

* Include pre-1965 players with three or four years of service. (Previously, league members from 1965 and after needed only three years of service to vest, while players from before 1965 needed at least five years of service.)

Several players who are poised to begin receiving monthly pension checks credit San Diego resident Bill Tosheff, an Indiana University graduate who played in the NBA for three years during the early 1950s, with spearheading the long battle to gain retirement benefits.

Tosheff spent years reviewing old newspaper clips and other documents to prove that the "pre-65ers" had enough military and NBA experience to qualify.

"I'm glad they finally came to their senses," said Walter Budko, 81, a four-year veteran with the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia Warriors during the late 1940s and early '50s who now lives in a Baltimore retirement home. "At one point I had threatened to sue the NBA, but they had more resources than I did, so I was advised that it just wouldn't pay. But now it seems as if it's all behind us."

The NBA isn't sure how many aging veterans will receive checks, which will include a lump-sum payment retroactive to 2005. League and union officials are reviewing old records, including those of such predecessor leagues as the National Basketball League, to determine which former players qualify.

The deal came too late for some members of a group that Tosheff has been lobbying for since the 1980s. The businessman believed that some athletes had accumulated enough playing time and military service to qualify for checks -- but, for some reason, failed to get pensions.

"We had 85 players when I started this, but we're down to just 38 today," Tosheff said recently. A league spokesman said that the new plan providing pensions to those with three and four years of experience will also include a death benefit for widows.

Ezersky, who drove a cab until about six years ago, plans to use his checks to pay down credit card debt. "This will finally allow me to get everything off of me," he said. "I've been going into debt for about $200 each month because I don't have the money. I've been living on credit cards."

greg.johnson@latimes.com

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