Mikan's death spotlights league's meager pension

Shaquille O'Neal paid the funeral expenses for basketball's pioneering superstar.
PHOENIX (AP) -- Perhaps in death George Mikan can accomplish what he worked so hard to achieve in the last years of his life -- a boost in the meager pension provided to the pioneer players of the NBA.
When he died on June 1, 18 days shy of his 81st birthday, Mikan was praised throughout the league for his quiet dignity and service to the game.
"George Mikan truly revolutionized the game and was the NBA's first true superstar," NBA commissioner David Stern said at the time. "He had the ability to be a fierce competitor on the court and a gentle giant off the court. We may never see one man impact the game of basketball as he did, and represent it with such warmth and grace."
But words do not translate into dollars.
Strapped for cash after Mikan's long illness, with most of his memorabilia sold, the family accepted Shaquille O'Neal's offer to pay for the funeral.
Little compensation
For his 81/2 seasons in the NBA, when his star power helped keep the fledgling league alive, Mikan received a pension of $1,700 per month. His wife of 58 years will get half that -- $875.
Mikan was one of the "pre-'65ers," those who played in the NBA prior to 1965, the year the players first formed an organized bargaining unit. The old-timers receive $200 -- two days' meal allowance for current players -- for each season they played.
There are about 70 pre-'65ers who receive benefits, according to ex-player Larry Staverman, who serves as coordinator of their loosely knit association. Another 80 or so played three or four years, and receive no pension.
Mikan campaigned quietly but persistently for more, writing letters, making phone calls and giving interviews. He was scheduled to talk with The Associated Press on June 2, the day after he died.
Awareness was goal
"Dad just felt that the pioneers had done enough for the game to be considered in the same group as everybody else," Mikan's son Terry said. "He was determined to at least make everybody aware of what he cared about."
Staverman said the old-timers only want the same that is given to those who played after 1965.
The post-'65ers aren't exactly showered with riches, either. They can choose a lump sum payment or receive $357 per month for each season played, with a minimum of three years served. Their widows receive half that much.
But the post-'65ers' pension kicks in at age 50 for anyone who played at least three seasons. Those who played before 1965 didn't get theirs until they turned 62, and must have played at least five years.
Mel Davis, executive director of the Retired NBA Players Association, believes all the retirees should receive the same amount, and all deserve a big boost.
"Our pension is underfunded significantly," he said. "My view is that we would like, in this collective bargaining, to be brought up to federal guidelines, a 60 percent increase to benefits. I think it behooves the NBA to take care of the pioneers and the legends of the league that made the league what it is today."

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