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Friday, August 04, 2006

Len Elmore: Athlete, Attorney and Advocate for Social Change

Len Elmore had a solid 10-year ABA/NBA career, but he never lost sight of his goal of becoming an attorney and urging athletes to develop self-reliance and community responsibility. He is currently the President of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) and in a recent interview he shared with me his goals for the organization:

"Increase our membership and in doing so there are a number of things that we have to do: make our benefits more visible, get guys to understand that this is a way that they can stay close to the game after retirement--but most importantly our involvement and our mission statement focuses on helping our own, which includes the guys who have not been as fortunate as some of us have been, helping them get on their feet and helping their kids to get an education, as well as helping others by contributing resources, manpower and influence to other organizations that help us carry out our mission, which is to spread good will through the game of basketball. Another thing is to increase the revenue and contributions to the organization, which will allow us to do these wonderful things. We would like to continue to grow the Dave DeBusschere Scholarship Fund. We’d like to be able to continue to keep the trust with the Legends Foundation, which provides emergency funds for needy players—guys who are certainly down and out. (We’d like to continue to) be able to fund organizations that use the game of basketball (to help others)--Playing for Peace, which is a terrific, global organization, or Bobby Jones’ group, 2XSalt, or some other organizations that are doing wonderful things in the community, particularly with kids."

Here is my HoopsHype article about Elmore, followed by some "DVD Extras" that do not appear in the article (10/7/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The 1974 Maryland Terrapins went 23-5 and featured future pros Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and 1976 No. 1 draft pick John Lucas. Elmore recalls well the joys--and ultimate frustration--of that season. "All year we were among the top three or four teams in the nation. Unfortunately, the road to the NCAA Tournament and the NCAA Championship went through Greensboro and the ACC Tournament. All year North Carolina State was the No. 1 team. We played them twice and lost to them by razor-thin margins and the same thing happened in the ACC Tournament. The unfortunate part about it is that only one team could represent the conference (in the NCAA Tournament)." North Carolina State defeated Maryland 103-100 in overtime and went on to win the national championship. In 1975, the NCAA finally expanded the tournament and for the first time allowed bids to be issued to teams that did not win their conference championship.

The NBA's Washington Bullets and the ABA's Indiana Pacers drafted Elmore in 1974. Two reasons made going to Indiana an easy choice: "Money and security."

"I think that the Bullets at the time underestimated the Pacers' offer," Elmore says. "I know that the Bullets would have loved to have me, as a local product, but in the end they only offered a three-year contract with two years guaranteed. The Pacers offered a six-year guaranteed contract. The Pacers were a stable group even though they were in the ABA." Elmore averaged 6.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 1.2 bpg in his rookie season and boosted his production to 10.6 ppg and 8.1 rpg in the playoffs. The Pacers lost to the Kentucky Colonels in the 1975 ABA Finals.

The following year he improved his numbers in all three categories, averaging 14.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 2.3 bpg in the final season before the ABA-NBA merger. "It was a good experience, a good building block experience for me and I went into my third season with a lot of confidence," Elmore recalls. "The problem is that I tore ligaments in my right knee in the preseason and missed all but six games."

Elmore believes that if he had signed the shorter deal with Washington, he may never have gotten an opportunity to return to action. His guaranteed contract provided an incentive to keep him around while he built his strength back, but teams did not like to rely heavily on players who had suffered knee injuries. "What happened, regardless of how strongly you came back, in those days you were essentially viewed as damaged goods and so you got some playing time and you got a chance to get involved but you never really got a chance to get back to where you thought that you could be." Elmore played for seven more seasons, but never again averaged double figures in scoring or rebounding.

From the time that Elmore was in the seventh grade, he knew that he wanted to be a lawyer. "Growing up in the '60s, the tumultuous '60s as I call it, with so many things going on--civil rights struggles, the war in Vietnam--so many seminal events that have shaped our lives today, I thought that the law was a vehicle by which you could have an impact as far as social change is concerned. I am a child of the TV era when you watched things like 'Perry Mason' or 'The Defenders,' shows like that in which the lawyers always seemed to the good guys and would help those who could not help themselves or speak for those who didn't have a voice for themselves. That's what I wanted to be in those socially conscious times. I never really lost that, although I kind of got sidetracked a little bit by sports. I never lost that zeal to become an attorney."

Elmore is proud of his accomplishments as a player agent: "The most enjoyable part was being able to teach and have those teachings resonate with my clients regarding the mantra that I used, which was 'develop self-reliance and community responsibility'--to be able to have guys listen and develop ways in which they could develop those two virtues. The self-reliance part had a lot to do with how they managed their financial affairs and how they took an interest in understanding that. The community responsibility part had a lot to do with their participation in the community and giving back. I was proudest of Walt Williams when he started a scholarship fund for needy students at the University of Maryland. I was proud of Sam Cassell when he promoted a health fair in his neighborhood in Baltimore City, with health trailers driving into the neighborhood housing projects. You could not ask for more from a standpoint of being the ideal citizen, which is what I wanted my guys to be. I'm very proud of the fact that many of them took that road; I'm just using Sam and Walt as examples."

Unfortunately, not all players or agents share Elmore's lofty ideals. "The frustrating part was the client acquisition part," Elmore explains. "Here you are trying to play within the rules and all of a sudden, because you've had some success, your competitors up the ante and many times have done unethical and unscrupulous things that many of those same competitors who still exist today continue to do...Ultimately, what got me out of the business is that I couldn't compete with the unethical and unscrupulous nature of the game. Fortunately, I had television, which provided me with an excellent bully pulpit to continue to preach the virtues of self-reliance and community responsibility as the keys to success not only during your playing career but that when your playing career is over would help to continue to push you forward so that a lot of these young guys could become captains of industry and fine businessmen but also quality members of the community."

Elmore is currently the President of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). "I joined as a rank and file member about five or six years ago," Elmore recalls. "Actually, before that, I was a member under the old name, XNBA. There were times when we would call Providence, Rhode Island--where the offices were--and just get a recording. We could never get a response from anyone, so I stopped my membership for a while. It wasn't until later on that I decided to join again and this time get involved. I went to meetings and started participating."

A lot of people don't realize the desperate straits that have befallen many of the NBA's earliest players. They are known as the pre-1965ers, because they retired before 1965, the year that the NBA established a pension plan. "That's another reason that we want to continue to build revenues, because we do want to try to contribute to funds to help these guys," Elmore says. "I mean, they were the pioneers of the NBA. Unfortunately, they retired at a time that was prior to the formation of the union and collective bargaining and the defined benefit program that resulted. So they are not eligible for the pension as we know it. They have a non-qualified plan that money is contributed to periodically and then distributed. There are only 80-plus guys remaining who are pre-1965 players. Many of them are in need. Many of them are in their elderly years, their golden years, and certainly could use the pension or the benefits. We're advocates for an increase overall of the defined benefits program, which would help our guys who retired post-1965 and receive pensions. We want to have those pensions increased. We are what is called third-party beneficiaries; we don't really have a standing with regard to how the monies are distributed or invested."

In other words, the pre-1965ers only receive whatever funds the NBA and the Players Association are willing to donate to them. The question that the NBA and the Players Association should be forced to answer is this: If it is not possible for the pre-1965ers to be included in the defined benefits that started post-1965, isn't there a way that David Stern from the NBA and Billy Hunter from the Players Association can make some kind of announcement that they are forming some separate, non-profit organization and endowing it with, say, $5 million--half from the league and half from the players--and that the $5 million will be invested in some conservative way and split evenly among those 80 players or among whichever ones really need medical care and so forth? That would probably go a long way toward alleviating their suffering, it wouldn't be that expensive relative to the NBA's total revenues and it would be great public relations--the NBA is always promoting "NBA Cares" and they could do a whole publicity blitz about how the league and its players care about the sport's pioneers.

"I think that ideas like that have been continually kicked around but as for why it hasn't occurred is something that you have to ask the union and the NBA," Elmore says. "At this point, our advocacy includes the pre-1965ers, but we've got a broader universe that also includes guys who retired after 1965. We're doing the best that we can to do our part, but that's a question that needs to be asked of the league as well as the union."

While the NBRPA has no formal say in how the NBA and the Players Association divide the league's revenues, Elmore stresses that his organization has not forgotten about the pre-1965ers. "We're looking for ways to raise funds," Elmore says. "We're hoping to do a gala event at the All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas and a portion of those proceeds would go to the pre-1965ers. We have a number of initiatives that we would like to continue to fund, including the Dave DeBusschere Scholarship Fund, which not only helps the offspring of our members but also helps a number of our members who want to go back to college but can’t afford it."


As the above article details, Elmore's 1974 Maryland team was denied an NCAA berth when the Terrapins lost to eventual NCAA Champion North Carolina State 103-100 in overtime in the ACC Championship Game. Talking about that game prompted Elmore to offer his opinion about the players who have had the most impact in college basketball history:

"It was a tremendous game (versus N.C. State), a tremendous series (N.C. State won the two regular season matchups by close margins). I think that David Thompson always made the difference, whether he was scoring or whether just his mere presence made other guys better. I consider David Thompson one of the three greatest players in the history of college basketball. He always made a difference." Asked who the other players on that list would be, Elmore replies, "I should have said top four," mentioning Thompson in the 1970s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) in the late 1960s, Oscar Robertson in the early 1960s and Bill Russell in the 1950s. Elmore notes that his selections are "based on impact," not purely on statistics.

One of Elmore's Indiana teammates was Roger Brown, the subject of one of my earlier HoopsHype pieces (Roger Brown: Ankle Breaker and Shot Maker). Elmore says, "Roger was one of those guys who always had fun with the game. That is what happens when you are a veteran toward the end of your career--you start to recognize what this game truly means and how much you should cherish the experience because it is not coming back. Roger was pretty much loose and happy go lucky. He certainly would be focused during the course of the game but he never took it so seriously that it was out of context. That was important for a rookie like me and also for Billy Knight, who was my teammate. We were a close knit team during my rookie year and a lot of that had to do with the veterans on the team. Roger was kind of the leader of that. He also had a calming effect to a great extent on our star George McGinnis, always joking with him and keeping him loose. As a player, you still saw flashes of the prime Roger Brown, with that killer crossover. Before Dwyane Wade or anybody else, it was Roger Brown who started breaking ankles with that crossover. He just had an uncanny knack for getting to the basket. Even at his advanced age in his mid-thirties he still found a way to beat people off the bounce and create opportunities. He didn't play a lot of minutes but Slick--our coach Bob Leonard--found ways to insert him when he could be effective and sometimes even carry the team for a period of time coming off the bench. He was a very generous person with his time. He was kind. He was a father at that time; he had a little girl, Gail, who was very young then. He was a doting dad--just a guy who the community totally embraced and it is unfortunate that he was taken from us so early because there were a lot of things that he could add to the careers of young players today."

Elmore saw both the ABA and the NBA incarnations of Julius Erving, but his ties to Dr. J actually go back to when Elmore was a junior in high school and Erving was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts: "We played against each other at the Jack Donohue Camp in Saugerties (a Catskills resort in New York). The funny thing about that was here I was a center and Doc was the tallest guy on the counselors' team. The tip went up and he won the jump ball. We started going up and down the court. As a center, I'm used to playing guys who are playing in the pivot and here is this guy who I'm supposed to guard who is running like a guard, who is running on the fast break, rebounding and pushing it up and it was an amazing eye-opener to see what a guy with his size and athleticism was capable of doing. Certainly, in the pros we know how great he was."

Elmore's 1981 Milwaukee Bucks lost a hard fought seven game series to Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. Elmore did not play much that season, but he had a good view of the Doctor operating in that postseason battle: "The thing that just knocked me out again was how focused Julius was throughout those seven games. Defensively, they were always a gambling bunch with he and Bobby Jones on the wings; they created some turnovers and got the best of us. But we still had to be proud of the guy who essentially changed the game a little bit, became the human highlight and brought people's focus back (to the NBA). They talk about Michael, they talk about Larry--and that's true--but always looming there in the early and mid '80s is Julius and what he brought to the table. I think that in many instances he does not get enough credit for helping to revitalize the NBA."

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