There’s at least one person who knows what Brian Flores is enduring, risking your livelihood for the sake of those who will come after.
Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, is suing that team, the NFL, as well as the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, in an unprecedented lawsuit that claims racial discrimination. Flores was fired by the Dolphins and then received what he believes were sham interviews for two other jobs to satisfy the league’s Rooney Rule.
Flores understands he’s risking his career and may never coach in the NFL again. He is a candidate for head coaching jobs with the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints, but neither team has made a decision.
Watching this lawsuit closely is 72-year-old Spencer Haywood, who a little more than 50 years ago sued the NBA for the right to enter the draft before the mandated four-year period following high school. Once upon a time, the NBA did not want what were then called “hardship” cases or early-entry players, and thus prevented players who left college early to enter the draft.
Haywood, who left the University of Detroit following his sophomore season, was relegated to playing in the American Basketball Association (the NBA’s younger and more daring competitor) before suing the NBA to be allowed to play after signing with the Seattle SuperSonics. Team owner Sam Schulman filed for an injunction allowing Haywood, who was named MVP and Rookie of the Year with the ABA’s Denver Rockets in 1969-70, to play for the Sonics.
The NBA, whose lead attorney was a man named David Stern, fought Haywood to the Supreme Court, which, on March 1, 1971, ruled, 7-2, to allow Haywood to play in the NBA immediately.
Haywood said he faced scrutiny from the league, fellow players, and fans during his career, despite many of the NBA’s greatest players capitalizing on the rule change and entering the draft before they would previously have been eligible. Haywood feels suing the NBA left him ostracized, causing a rift with the league that was only resolved in the past few years. He also said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the ordeal.
“This was a real fight like [Flores] is getting ready to face,” Haywood said. “I was thinking the same thing Curt Flood told me, ‘Boy, you in for a long, horrible ride.’ In this time, I think it’s pretty clever because players are more conscious and management is more conscious and we’re in 2022. My case was in 1970. Everybody [in the NBA then] was like, ‘Whatever you do, don’t speak to him. He’s a clubhouse lawyer.’
“I’m looking at Flores and Hue Jackson and a number of former coaches speaking on it. Flores has made a big step here.”
Haywood’s career was at stake. When he left the ABA to sign with the Sonics, the ABA banned him because he breached what Haywood thought was a fraudulent contract. He was ineligible to return to college, so his representatives had arranged an opportunity to play in Belgium if he lost the case.
“For a 22-year-old, you’re [potentially] throwing it all away,” he said. “That’s all everyone spoke to me about, ‘You’re throwing it all away.’ I kept trying to argue the point that it was going to help so many players. And sure enough, out of thousands of players and $35 billion in player revenues for all these years, and it’s been 51 years.”
Haywood said he believes he still has not received the respect he deserves or the credit for his sacrifice, which may be the road Flores will travel in coming years.
“That is the most painful stuff. I mean, they were throwing me out of arenas [during the case], putting me out into the snow, it was a brutal war,” Haywood said. “And then to have that hang over your head all of your career. That’s the price you pay, and I have been through hell for years.”
Flood, who sued Major League Baseball in 1970 for the right for players to become free agents, lost his case and was essentially blackballed from baseball, dying at age 59 in 1997 after battling alcoholism and other health issues. He died never being truly appreciated for his sacrifices.
“My advice to [Flores] is to stand strong, go through the process, and I feel real good about his case,” Haywood said. “I feel good about what he’s doing and we are in this time and space, and it’s the right thing at the right time. When I fought, I was going against the NBA and NCAA, and they said I was destroying basketball as it was. Flores is doing the right thing. Times have changed and I think he’ll be OK.”
Fitch fondly remembered
Bill Fitch, who died this past week at age 89, deserves to be celebrated and appreciated for his contributions to the game, and to this reporter.
Fitch, who coached the Celtics to a championship in 1980-81, was the first professional coach I covered. My first major beat was the 1996-97 Clippers for the Los Angeles Daily News, and Fitch was their 64-year-old coach.
The Clippers have been significant for the past decade-plus, so perhaps many don’t remember that for years they were the NBA’s laughingstock. After making the playoffs in the early 1990s, owner Donald Sterling went cheap and cleaned house. By the mid-1990s, the Clippers were back to being dreadful, and Fitch took over a team that was piling up lottery picks but allowing capable veterans to leave. Fitch was old school, aging, but still wanted to coach in the NBA, and the Clippers were a perfect match, a franchise that did not want to pay a highly sought-after coach, and a coach who still wanted the NBA life.
Fitch never warmed to the newer generation, and he was annoyed by the lack of versatility and work ethic of younger players. Still, he was masterful enough to push the 1996-97 Clippers to the postseason. In a Western Conference that was injury-riddled, Fitch blended young players he actually liked, such as Lorenzen Wright and Malik Sealy, with journeyman guard Darrick Martin and veterans Loy Vaught and Rodney Rogers, to form a 36-win playoff team.
It was a miracle considering the circumstances: a racist, notoriously cheap owner, a dilapidated arena, an apathetic fan base. It was Fitch’s last great feat as a coach, and he was helpful — and grumpy at times — to a young reporter covering the NBA for the first time.
Fitch confronted me about stories he didn’t like but encouraged me. Dealing with a coach older than my father was a learning experience. Fitch became more of a guide than a typical coach. He would teach me the intricacies of the game, explain some of his play-calling, and tell stories of his Celtics days, or even about when he took over the Rockets in the mid-1980s and why that franchise passed on drafting Michael Jordan.
“We drafted Hakeem [Olajuwon], remember?” Fitch would say. Good reason, Coach.
It’s was a remarkable and educational season. Fitch helped orchestrate the Clippers’ brief renaissance. He was hard on the players. Most of them didn’t like him, but he didn’t play favorites, didn’t judge players on their salaries, and still had enough coaching acumen to win five of seven games late in the season, including a victory at Boston, to seal the playoff spot.
Fitch’s Clippers lacked the talent to advance further, and they were swept in the first round by the Jazz. But he had brought respect to a franchise that had very little before he arrived. Fitch was fired after going 17-65 the next season, and Sterling eventually sued Fitch for breach of contract because the then-66-year-old did not try to find another job.
Fast forward to the 2013 NBA Finals, where Fitch was given the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award in San Antonio. This reporter walked up to Fitch and the then-81-year-old, still sharp, remembered those times, shook my hand, and said it was good to see I was still covering the NBA.
Critical time for the WNBA
The WNBA is finishing an exciting free agency period, and the league just received a $75 million boost from various investors, including Globe CEO Linda Henry. The WNBA is in a critical growth stage, trying to become more popular, with more marketing opportunities for its teams and players.
While the league is growing, many star players are unhappy with salary limitations. Free agent center Liz Cambage complained about the $1 million salary paid to new Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon, while the highest salary for a player is the $228,904 each earned by Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Diana Taurasi.
In no other professional sport does the highest-paid coach earn four times what the highest-paid player does. Cambage also has been vocal about WNBA players having to travel on commercial flights, something NBA players haven’t done for three decades.
“There’s nobody that wants to upgrade all of the player experience more than myself,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “As we think about what economic model you need, and some of these leagues who have charter travel have been around 75, 100, 105 years. We just hit our 25th, so going into our 26th, we’re working very hard.
“As you know, I did pay for some charter travel during the playoffs when it made sense last year. This is an expense that is very high. We’d love to do it, but that’s why we’ve got to deploy this capital. We need to have some growth and then hopefully longer term we’ll be able to afford more around this area.”
Engelbert is making sure to make promises she can keep. Coming from the private sector, she’s been meticulous in her examination of the league. Substantial progress could take years, and it’s reached a point where the league’s standout players — many of whom are treated like superstars overseas — want to see rapid improvement.
“You have to be very thoughtful, again, how you grow revenue and how it drops to the bottom line, and then you can afford it,” Engelbert said. “You have to get the women’s valuation model right, the ecosystem, so that we get better media rights fees and better sponsorship dollars and better value for our assets, and then that drives more revenue and then you can afford it.
“It’s just an economic model discussion. I realize the players don’t necessarily view it that way, but that is how you grow a league and get those additional benefits, is to work on transforming the economic model. So, this is the dawn of a new day for the WNBA, with this access to capital to deploy it to grow the league to hopefully be able to afford a little more of that in the future.”
While the players are likely excited about the $75 million boost, Engelbert was unclear whether it will result in an increase in team payrolls and player salaries, or even expanded rosters. Expansion is an emerging topic for a league that likely overexpanded in its early stages. The league has settled on 12 teams, but there are pushes for teams in Oakland and Toronto.
Engelbert won’t make any hasty decisions that could hinder the league’s long-term growth.
“Every time you deploy capital, it generates revenue three to five years out, so obviously we have a collective bargaining agreement now with the players,” she said. “We have additional opportunities for players to earn money beyond just their base salary through bonuses, through prize pools. We put up that half-a-million dollar prize pool last year for the Commissioner’s Cup winner and runner-up. We’ve got other marketing opportunities for players to make significant amounts of money. So, there are other aspects.
“Players who then do marketing on behalf of the league, I think are getting more opportunities for endorsements. So, there’s multiple components. This is how we tried to frame it when we came out of the CBA, for players to earn additional money if they want to market our game.”
While progress for a growing sports league can be painstaking, there appears to be more the WNBA can do to promote its players and brand. Many of the league’s premium players, let alone the middle and lower class, are relegated to playing overseas or pursuing other revenue streams because salaries aren’t sufficient.
“We’ll continue to work on this,” Engelbert said. “But I think this is something where you look at what we’re trying to do to raise the profile of the players, to build them into household names, to build rivalries so more people watch — more people watch, the better media rights fee deals we get. And that will all come ultimately back to player compensation longer term. I know it’s frustrating we can’t move quicker, but as we deploy capital, it takes a couple years. I think hopefully we’ll see the fruits of all of our hard labor at the league level to advance that in the next round of negotiations.”
The most successful of the NBA’s 10-day hardship signees has been Lance Stephenson, who was out of the league for two years before signing four 10-day contracts with the Pacers. Indiana then signed Stephenson for the rest of the season, despite likely being out of the playoff picture … One of the bigger All-Star snubs may have been Spurs guard Dejounte Murray, who is having a sparkling season for a team that is likely headed for the draft lottery. Other snubs were Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, Miami’s Tyler Herro, and Cleveland rookie Evan Mobley … The fact the Celtics have not had a participant in the Rising Stars Game since Jayson Tatum highlights the team’s struggle to draft legitimate prospects. The Celtics traded their first-round pick from 2021 in the Kemba Walker deal, but Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard entered the season as candidates for the second-year team, though neither has received enough playing time to make an impact. This year, the NBA will conduct a four-team tournament instead of the previous Rising Stars format, with semifinals and a final. The Rising Stars Game had become like its All-Star big brother — a free-for-all with no defense — and there is hope this new format will make the game more competitive … Dennis Schröder may be the Celtic most likely to be traded before the Feb. 10 deadline as his minutes have been limited of late, and it’s become apparent the team struggles when he plays with Marcus Smart, especially down the stretch of games. Schröder played 16 minutes in Wednesday’s win over the Hornets, and the Celtics are considering whether those minutes could be better used on Pritchard … Expect the Lakers to make a major move before the trade deadline as a means of trying to jump-start one of the league’s most disappointing teams. They would love to move former All-Star guard Russell Westbrook but would have to find a taker for his contract, which has a $47 million player option for 2022-23. Westbrook is the fourth-highest-paid player in the NBA. No. 3, John Wall, has not played this season as the Rockets try to facilitate a trade.