Every player in the National Basketball Association can count himself among the so-called 1 percent. For that, all of them, from superstars down to the most obscure scrubs and overpaid busts, owe a moment of silence to Robert L. Carter.
As a young lawyer, Carter, who died earlier this month at 94, helped build the case for court-ordered school desegregation. Later, as a federal judge from New York, he set in motion another revolution when he took on a stalled antitrust lawsuit brought against the NBA by star Oscar Robertson and several other veteran players, including the Celtics’s John Havlicek and the New York Knicks’s Bill Bradley. The players alleged that NBA owners used the college draft, contract clauses, and blacklisting practices to bind players to teams, and conspired with the American Basketball Association to prevent competition for players.
In a 1975 opinion, Carter wrote, “I must confess that it is difficult for me to conceive of any theory or set of circumstances pursuant to which the college draft, blacklisting, boycotts, and refusals to deal could be saved from Sherman [Antitrust] Act condemnation.’’ Facing defeat, the owners settled for a new system that today delivers average salaries of $5 million and a rookie minimum of about $500,000.
In a 2004 interview, Carter lamented that some of the goals of desegregation remained unfulfilled, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education. But freedom has many expressions. In the NBA, where 80 percent of the players are African-American, Carter helped create the conditions for some of the highest-earning black men on the planet.