As chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, Spencer Haywood fought for full health care for retired players, especially those aging greats from the 1970s who missed the NBA’s salary boon and were struggling for medical attention.
That happened in 2016, when the NBA Players Association agreed that current players would contribute to a fund that would provide medical benefits for players with at least three years of service time.
Haywood was horrified this week when federal prosecutors charged 18 former NBA players with defrauding the league’s health care system of more than $4 million with the ringleader being former lottery pick and Celtics player Terrence Williams.
According to the US District Attorney, Williams encouraged players to file false medical claims for procedures such as dental and chiropractic work, saying they paid for services out of pocket. The league’s medical insurance firm would reimburse those players for services. Williams apparently provided paperwork and forms that players could fill out as proof. According to the indictment, Williams received $230,000 in payments from fellow players for orchestrating the fraud system.
The scam had been going on for three years and popular former Celtics such as Tony Allen and Glen “Big Baby” Davis were involved. Former Celtics such as Milt Palacio and Sebastian Telfair, as well as former first-round pick Darius Miles, Ruben Patterson, Shannon Brown, Melvin Ely, Tony Wroten and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
Haywood, 72, was heartbroken, realizing how much work was required to encourage the NBPA to agree to fund a full health care package.
“What I was fighting for is we had no health insurance as retired players,” Haywood said. “Chris Paul and LeBron James and all those guys came up with a plan to come up with insurance for all of us. And what these guys [the alleged scammers] have done is taken advantage of that health insurance we worked so far for. And it’s blackened all of our eyes.”
Haywood mentioned former Celtics great Nate Archibald, who had heart transplant surgery using the insurance plan, and later coached in the Big3. All-time Celtics great Bill Russell, 87, is even covered by the league’s plan. Haywood pushed for health insurance after greats such as Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins died of heart-related issues. The league began conducting heart screens for former and current players at the summer league in Las Vegas several years ago.
“The different players that had to have major stuff done, that they didn’t have [insurance],” Haywood said. “But here we got these guys who have decided from the fraudulent standpoint to say, ‘hey they’ve got this good stuff, let’s take some money.’ It’s just disgusting.”
National Basketball Retired Players Association spokesperson Julio Manteiga released a statement: “We are aware of the news reports surrounding [the] indictment of former players. Although we do not comment on pending legal matters, we continue to lend our support to all within our player community.”
Although the 18 indicted are retired players, they are not members of the Retired Players Association, the unit that pushed for the full health care package. Yet, it’s an embarrassing episode for retired players, especially since they asked for the aid of current players to fund the plan.
Patterson, 46, is the oldest player on the indicted list. Wroten, a former first-round pick whose career fizzled because of personal issues, is the youngest at 28. Players from Haywood’s generation, those who traveled on commercial flights, played on Chuck Taylors without the luxury of current medical technology and all the amenities afforded players over the past 20 years to preserve their bodies, are furious.
“I get stopped now and people asking about it and I’ve talked to some former players asking, ‘what is it going to do to us?’ ” Haywood said. “So it’s up in the air. It’s just sad, man. Some of the names I was saddened to hear, like Glen Davis, I was like wait a minute, I didn’t think he was that kind of a person. He’s made, what, $40 million in salary? What are you doing man?
“It hurts because all of these young guys, instead of working with the players’ union and trying to make it better, they’re trying to take away from it and all of these people’s reputations. Julius Erving is under this program, all of us are. People put it on the line so we can have a great league and on the 75th anniversary [of the NBA], this is what we’ve got?”
Prosecutors said some of the players’ claims were identical, such as root canals on the same set of teeth. In the case of former Houston Rocket Greg Smith, he filed a claim for work done in California while he was playing professionally in Taiwan.
Palacio, an assistant coach on Chauncey Billups’s staff in Portland, was placed on administrative leave. Allen is set to have his number retired this season by the Memphis Grizzlies. C.J. Watson played in the Big3 this year.
“That’s going to put a black eye on all the players who are trying to get workman’s comp,” Haywood said. “They are some players who are really in dire need. We have to remind the young players that those were just some bad apples. It’s not all of us.”
What are we doing?
Unvaccinated players affect the plan
The NBA and the NBPA agreed for now that players do not have to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but unvaccinated players have more stringent conditions on the road at indoor gatherings.
Rand McClain, a noted sports medicine specialist, believes the NBA’s plan requiring all game operations staff, coaches and officials to vaccine, but not players, is essentially useless.
“It shows the power of the players’ union that something so disjointed would occur,” said McClain, who runs the Santa Monica-based Regenerative & Sports Medicine. “Why would you vaccine coaches, game staff and referees but not everybody else? That makes very little sense medically. You don’t have to have a medical degree for that one, right?”
The Nets’ Kyrie Irving has been kept away from the team because of his unknown vaccination status. Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins said he was essentially forced to vaccinate to remain on the roster after San Francisco passed an ordinance mandating vaccination to attend large indoor events.
McClain expressed confusion as to why all NBA players aren’t required to vaccinate and he questions the effectiveness of the NBA’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“The Alpha variant was transmissible and the Delta variant was even more transmissible,” he said. “I don’t understand the rationale behind that. As far as last year, how they handled it, you could definitely see where there would be holes and some of them occurred when players didn’t subscribe to the rules but for the most part the bubble worked well.
“At this point, the number of vaccinated people has gone up considerably, the issue really is, those who are vaccinated are very, very unlikely to die or get seriously ill. So to go beyond that, it’s getting a little out of control, in my opinion. You’re getting such little juice for the squeeze.”
McClain said players have a much higher risk of spreading COVID-19 because of contact with other players and coaches than other employees in the arena.
“Statistically, if you vaccinate coaches, game staff and refs and you have literally reduced some risk of transmission, but by what degree, if everybody else isn’t vaccinated?” he said. “It makes no sense. All it takes is one guy and he’s going to get everybody else infected. There’s no logic there that makes sense to me. They’ve all got to get on one page.
“A coach who is just sitting here compared to guys that are out there breathing on each other, they’re essentially breathing deeply or coughing on each other, those are the guys that should be vaccinated if you’re worried about transmissibility.”
McClain suggested all people in a high-risk category get vaccinated.
“You’re over 65? You have COPD already? Well then you’re probably going to be better off taking the so-called risk of getting vaccinated, which again is a very small risk,” he said. “It’s very, very rare. I’d rather take a chance on that. Each individual has to weigh the pros and cons from the very, very small risk of having a side effect of the vaccine. I would argue the greater risk of side effects is with getting virus.
“As a medical professional if you look at what [the NBA] doing here, they’re not on the same page. They haven’t protected themselves, in other words, by just [mandating] vaccinating that group and not the players.”
Mentors and rivals
Big Ten loaded with NBA experience
Micah Shrewsberry was a longtime Celtics assistant coach under Brad Stevens but he always had the college game in his heart. He left the Celtics after the 2018-19 season to become an assistant to Matt Painter, a close friend of Stevens’s, at Purdue.
Shrewsberry was named head coach at Penn State in March, his first Division 1 head coaching job. He credited his experiences with Painter and Stevens in helping his coaching acumen.
“You go with this plan as an assistant coach, you go through all of these strategy sessions, you write down what you’re going to do as a head coach,” Shrewsberry said. “This is what 30 days is going to look like. This is what 60 days is going to look like. I took the job, and there’s no manual. I’m flipping through the pages. There’s no manual for the transfer portal. There’s no manual for COVID. You’re trying to navigate all of that.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work for some really good coaches, like Division 3 coaches, Division 2, and obviously Brad Stevens and Matt Painter are two of the best. I’ve said it before, I called Coach Painter five straight days, and he picked up every single time, right? To have a guy like that be able to be there for you, to answer questions, to help you along the way, it’s been tremendous.”
Painter immediately becomes a coaching rival for Shrewsberry. The Boilermakers are expected to contend for a Final Four berth this season.
“As good of a person as it gets, to be able to have him in your own league answer questions like that,” Shrewsberry said. “Everything that comes at you at one time is a tough challenge, it’s a tough transition. But I’m learning each and every day. I’m learning with these guys back here what practice looks like. I change practice in the middle of practice based on how they feel.
“The best advice Brad and Coach Painter have given me is just be yourself and you’ll do great.”
Shrewsberry isn’t the only Big Ten coach with NBA experience. Indiana coach Mike Woodson played 11 years in the NBA and coached for nine with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.
“I think it helps a little bit,” Woodson said of his NBA experience. “But, again, I’m in the Big Ten now. There’s an elite group of coaches that have done it. I’m new at this. So I don’t know if it gives me an advantage or not. I spent all my life in the NBA. A lot of the players that you recruit are trying to get to the next level. Now with the NIL and the portal, things changed.”
The Big Ten has a handful of elite and Hall of Fame-caliber coaches such as Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Fran McCaffery at Iowa, Juwan Howard at Michigan and Painter at Purdue. Shrewsberry said those two years working under Painter were invaluable.
“To be in this league, to see these guys, to prepare for them, it’s really helped,” he said. “I have a frame of reference to talk to them about because I’ve seen ‘em, I’ve seen their stats, I’ve studied them. I’ve tried to game plan against them. So it’s helped me. You do have to get up close and personal to see what it really is. Like having the summer to work with these guys, to see what they can do, now we build off of that here in the fall.
“We’re trying to get as cohesive a team as possible right now. We have a lot of new guys from a lot of different areas. Even though we’re experienced, everybody is a freshman because they’re playing for me for the first time. How we do things could be completely different. If you played five years of college basketball, I can be teaching you something in a completely different way.”
Shrewsberry already has offered his son Braeden, a rising junior, a scholarship for the Class of 2023. Braeden was a mainstay around the Celtics during his dad’s time as an assistant coach, shooting baskets with the sons of Stevens and fellow assistant Jamie Young after practice.
He posted this hilarious tweet last month: “After a great meeting with coach Shrews, I’m excited to receive an offer from Penn State University.”
Ben Simmons still has not reported to training camp for the Philadelphia 76ers and the sides are at a standstill as he demands a trade. The team is unwilling to move him without receiving a lucrative package in return. Although Simmons has some trade value, general manager Daryl Morey wants multiple draft picks and an All-Star player in return, so both sides are waiting for the other to flinch. The 76ers have withheld a $8.5 million check that Simmons was scheduled to receive prior to training camp. Simmons’s side expected such a move and he remains adamant that he wants out of Philadelphia. The 76ers will go with point guard Tyrese Maxey and he brings a speed element and more offensive prowess. Holdouts are rare in the NBA. In Houston, John Wall and the Rockets agreed he would stay away from the team until a trade is worked out. But Wall is the NBA’s third-highest paid player at $44 million this season and he has a player option for $47 million next season. Only Steph Curry and James Harden make as much or more. Could the 76ers trade for Wall? They would need to send approximately $10 million in salary along with Simmons to the Rockets, and Houston would have to send first-round picks in return. Houston is content with its rebuilding plan centering around Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., so it has no interest in relinquishing assets. The Sacramento Kings, seeking an All-Star headliner, have long been rumored to have interest in Simmons but the asking price would be De’Aaron Fox, who is similar to Maxey and approaching All-Star status … Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving remains AWOL to the Nets because of his refusal to get vaccinated. The Nets played the Milwaukee Bucks Friday in a preseason game and Irving was not allowed in the building and isn’t allowed to practice in New York. The Nets appear to have no idea what he’s going to do and could start the season without their starting point guard. Irving’s value has declined over the past few years and this situation is one of the reasons some clubs consider him toxic despite his immense skill set.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.