Roundtable: NBA Legends Frazier, Drexler and Gervin Tuesday's roundtable looks at the National Basketball Association, then and now. Guests: NBA legends Walt Frazier, Clyde Drexler and George Gervin.

Roundtable: NBA Legends Frazier, Drexler and Gervin

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

As the NBA playoffs take center stage in the world of sports, we thought it'd be special to have a basketball edition of our roundtable. I'm joined now by three legends of the game who are part of the 2005 NBA Legends Tour which is a goodwill effort making its way across the country during the playoff season. Joining us from Indianapolis are Hall of Famers Walt "Clyde" Frazier and George "Iceman" Gervin, and joining us from Houston is the legendary Clyde Drexler, Clyde "The Glide."

Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Mr. GEORGE "ICEMAN" GERVIN (Former NBA Star): Delighted to be here.

Mr. WALT "CLYDE" FRAZIER (Former NBA Star): Ed, I asked Clyde was he named after me. He goes, `No.'

Mr. CLYDE "THE GLIDE" DREXLER (Former NBA Star): Hey, I could be your son. Look out.

GORDON: Oh, see, and this is part of what happens on the court. The trash-talking has started 45 seconds into this.

George Gervin, let me start with you, only because I'm from Detroit as well, and I got to go to my fellow Detroiter.

Mr. GERVIN: All right.

GORDON: Talk to me about the state of the NBA today. I know you guys get that question all the time. How do you see it?

Mr. GERVIN: Well, I see the game as went to another level, especially with sponsorship. I think the NBA is probably, you know, at its all-time great. You know, we're overseas now. The game has gone global. You know, we're bringing international players into the league. So sponsorshipwise and the state of the NBA I think is at an all-time high.

GORDON: Walt Frazier, you are a longtime Knick analyst and you have been involved with the game for some time and have been given credit for pioneering what we now know as the celebrity athlete. As you look at the game and it grossing more money than ever before, being looked at as an entertainment element and entity more than ever before, do you like what you see?

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah, man, I'm very proud to have been considered one of the pioneers in the evolution of the game and where it is today, so as you say, as a Knick broadcaster I go to all the arenas, and there are no arenas that I played in. There are all new arenas now, 18,000, 20,000 arenas. The NBA game today is an international game, so you have people all over the world that are buying the products and the game just continues to prosper.

GORDON: Clyde Drexler, it's obviously a better game in the sense of the economics of it, not only for players but for teams in general. What don't you like about today's game?

Mr. DREXLER: There's not a whole lot that I don't like. I love what's happening as--when we played the game, the game was great, but now the game is even better in terms of marketing, sponsorship, signage. Every team has a new arena, which means that every owner's put more into the team. Teams are worth a whole lot more money. When we played, teams were worth between $5 million to $12 million on up to $75 million. Now there's some teams worth $450 million, so there's quite a difference in a short period of time, and so it's creating wealth for the owners, it's creating wealth for the league and certainly for the players. And it's a good thing because...

Mr. FRAZIER: But not for...

Mr. DREXLER: What?

Mr. FRAZIER: I was going to say, but not for former players.

Mr. DREXLER: Well, see, we--that's something we got to work on, right, Walt?

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah, that's right.

Mr. DREXLER: Especially when it comes to the pension. The pension issue is one that has to be raised in the next collective bargaining agreement.

GORDON: You'd like to see that, because I think a lot of people don't realize it wasn't until a certain time that big money was made in the NBA, where you could really sustain yourself and live your life out. Ice, talk about some of the fellows who came before that time and some of the hard times that have fallen and befallen them.

Mr. GERVIN: There's a lot of guys that, you know, the stars of the, you know, old NBA and is not financially stable, you know, which is a shame. You know, we have an NBA retired association and I think they're doing, you know, a decent job to, you know, help find programs and solutions to help these guys that, you know, didn't make all this big-time money. But it's tough, I mean, to see the guys making all the money today, and you know, not doing enough for the guys, the foundation of the NBA. You know, sometimes, you know, we worry about that, and we as a, you know, veteran group got to keep pushing to, you know, continue to have a pension plan for, you know, the ex-NBA guys.

GORDON: Walt Frazier, what about that? As the elder statesman, if you will, and you guys talk to--I saw many of you at the All-Star Game this year--you guys talk to the current player. There has been criticism, outside of a handful of guys, that they don't know the history of the NBA. They don't appreciate the people that came before them and laid the groundwork and built what they walked into, and now these guys are financially set for life, not only as individuals but their family and generations to come. How much of that is true?

Mr. FRAZIER: Well, there's an adage that says in order to understand the present, you have to know about the past, and you just mentioned that these players have no history of the game. They don't know the former players. Many of today's players start with Dr. J and they go forward. You know, they know me vaguely, Russell, Chamberlain, other guys like that who were the true pioneers of the game, so unfortunately I don't think they feel a need to give back to those guys that have made it possible to do what they're doing today. Actually, these guys do not know about the NBA, like if you played in Baltimore you better be the first guy at the bank with your check, man. It might bounce, you know, so they know nothing about those...

Mr. DREXLER: What about the Clippers?

Mr. FRAZIER: Right. So they know nothing about those days or when one or two teams were making money, 3,000 fans in the arena. So it's just something that if you don't know the history, then you're just, you know, ignorant to the facts of what's going on and you can't really help what the scenario is.

GORDON: Clyde Drexler, how to you move that history forward? I remember talking with Spencer Haywood one time, and his bitterness in terms of his fight to win the ability to bring in free agency and early draft and the like. How much is it upon the older players to make sure that these stories are told?

Mr. DREXLER: It's really upon the older players and the upper brass in the NBA as well as every NBA franchise to make sure that these guys have a sense of history, and the history--what it means is that what got you to this point and the reason you should be thankful. The Spencer Haywood rule, which created free agency for every player, Spencer went through a living nightmare to make that happen, and give him--he doesn't get enough credit for--especially by today's players. But certainly my era, we knew all about what Spencer went through to create that rule, because everyone should have the right to move around freely unless you're under contract. But that right was not there, and people had to fight for that right, just like the right to vote.

But everything in this league has been a fight and a struggle, and we've come a long way together, both as managers, owners and players. And to see the game go--become so prosperous around the world--as Ice said, it's a global game; there's people all over the country and every place that love the NBA--but the pioneers of the game should always be taken care of. And the best way for the young players to do that is go through a history lesson and make sure that the guys who were pioneers--the reason why these guys are making so much money is because others came before them.

And they should prosper. It's like--Clyde, you said it when you said, you know, these guys don't really understand what it means for the older players to be not taken care of in their pension, and these guys have no sympathy towards that. Well, what happens is, they only know their reality, and if their reality is that they come into 20,000-seat arenas that are brand-new, luxury suites everywhere, sold out, they're getting paid millions of dollars before they've even proven themselves, that's their reality. You can't--it's like your son or your daughter. They're not going to go through what we went through. They only know their reality. We can tell them until we're blue in the face, but it may not hit home.

GORDON: Let me take you guys through some of the headlines of the course of this season. Most recently we heard from Jeff Van Gundy, who was slapped with a $100,000 fine in suggesting that referees cater to particular teams, cater to particular stars in order to move those teams along. The suggestion is that there may be some cahoots with the NBA and the networks and money is generated by more popular players staying around and the like. A, Walt Frazier, were you surprised to hear this from a coach?

Mr. FRAZIER: Well, flabbergasted, and especially one that has been in New York and understands the nuances of what he said. So you can't question the integrity of the game, man, like that, and we know that the superstars get certain advantages on the court, I mean, especially when you're a rookie. I used to go up against West and Robertson. I mean, they'd literally trip over their own foot, they'd call a foul on me. So that's the way it is. You have to go through that in the league, and you understand that. The same thing when you play on the road. You're not going to get the calls that you get at home. But for him to come out and say that it's a blatant fact that they're doing that, you know, is just pretty preposterous.

GORDON: And Clyde Drexler, he's taking a huge stance against David Stern, many see as perhaps the sternest and best commissioner of all professional sports, in saying that, `Hey, this is not just me speaking, this is a referee that told me that.' And in defiance, he says he's not going to tell who that referee is, like a journalist not giving up his source.

Mr. DREXLER: It's very irresponsible, it's very unpredictable coming from Van Gundy, who should know. He's a seasoned veteran. He's been around the league for a long time. That is a cowardly statement. It insinuates that an official has basically told other secrets within his organization. But he won't tell who that person is, so why even make the statement?

First of all, he didn't make that statement when he was two games up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREXLER: And second of all, there've always been guys that question the integrity of the officials. But everyone knows that that's a hard job, they do the best that they can. I think that David Stern and his staff are to be praised for the way that they handled all of these incidents because every team sends in video, commentary, letters constantly on what they think is wrong with the game, right? And these guys do an excellent job of filtering through all of that BS to try to make sure that the integrity is never compromised.

And so when someone comes out and says that, it's really a slap in the face. And as you saw, Mr. Stern, he was fighting mad, and $100,000 is only the beginning of it, I believe.

GORDON: Yeah. George Gervin, let's go back to our hometown and something that's been talked about ad nauseam this year, and that's the fight at Auburn Hills. I'm wondering how you viewed it in this sense. I've seen hockey players go into stands with sticks. My brother was telling me that he remembers in the '50s and '60s, early '60s, baseball players going after fans in stands with baseball bats. Was too much made of this, and was race a portion of it?

Mr. GERVIN: I can't say race was a portion of it. You know, I could really say that, you know, there's a certain line that a ballplayer can't cross, you know, and--just like a fan. So for the guys to run up in the stands, you know, to really check a guy, you know, I mean, is really uncalled for, you know. I mean, you let the security and the police handle that, you know. And it was a shame that it happened. I always said that, you know, he ran up in the stands when Detroit was playing up in the Cobo Hall, he might not have came back down. So...

GORDON: No, he would not have come back down. You are absolutely right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERVIN: He really came back down. So, I mean, you know, he made a unforgivable, you know, decision to up there. And I think David Stern made the right choice by, you know, making him stay out the rest of the season. You know, that's something that you can't have in this game. So, you know, our guys, they got to stay committed to the game, let security handle these situations, and you come and play basketball and do the best you can on the floor, and, you know, get up and get on out of there.

GORDON: Walt Frazier, race always a touchy issue. We heard Indiana center star Jermaine O'Neal raise the question of whether there was--these are my words, not his--`a plantation mentality to the NBA,' and in particular talking about trying to raise the age limit and denying some of these young African-American men an opportunity to make a living. Wondering what you thought of those comments?

Mr. FRAZIER: Whether it's racial or not, I couldn't really say that because there are going to be some white guys, also, that are going to be good players trying to come in, and they won't be able to get in either if the rule is instated. But I think the problem the league will have here is you can't open the floodgates and now try to close them. So I think there are going to be numerous lawsuits if they try to institute an age limit around 20 years of age, when you've started early on allowing guys to come in at 18 or 19, which I was not an advocate of--I've never been an advocate of bringing in high school players, because for every Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, there were 10 or 15 other players that applied for that draft. What became of them? They can't go back to college. They have no education. So overall, it's been very devastating to a lot of players.

GORDON: So for every LeBron James, we see a Kwame Brown who has difficulties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Is that what you're saying?

Mr. FRAZIER: I tell you what, guys. I tell you what, it's always going to be a problem, but the biggest thing that we can do to prevent that is to hire general managers who will make good decisions. We can help ourselves by making better decisions. I mean, when guys go into the draft, that doesn't mean anything. If enough of them don't get picked because they're not ready, I guarantee you that will send a strong message to the rest of the group. And there's a committee that goes through and talks to every general manager in the league and determines whether these young players will be drafted. If they go through that selection committee process and these guys say, `We don't think you're going to have a chance to be in the first two rounds,' and those guys come out anyway, it's on them. But we have that all in place, and these guys continue to make bad decisions, and general managers continue to make bad decisions.

Kwame Brown is a great, great example. Here's a guy who was drafted number one in the entire draft. But, you know, he's been a very below-average player who's been given the time to come along slowly, but just hasn't had the right attitude. That doesn't mean he won't have a great career in the future, it just means that the first three or four years have been very tough on him.

There've been a lot of guys who slipped through the cracks as well, but that's why we need a developmental league. Every NBA team needs a farm system so that these young guys that don't get drafted--as Clyde said, they don't have any education, they can't go back to college. Now, they can go to the developmental league like a farm system for every NBA team where they can develop and maybe become better players in two, three, four years down the road. Those are the things that need to be in place to make all of this make sense.

Mr. DREXLER: I laugh when I hear racism today by these players. You see, they don't now the history of the game. When I came into the league, the league was 60-40 white. And I bet you most of these players in the league today do not know that. And if you were black, man, you were playing; you weren't sitting on the bench. You know, so save...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAZIER: Hold on, hold on. Let me elaborate on that, Clyde. So if you were black, you had to be a player; you couldn't be, like, the 12th man or 11th man?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREXLER: Very rarely. Unless you were, like, the microwave; you could come in and put up force in a hurry.

Mr. FRAZIER: No, not the sixth man; the 12th and the 11th and the 10th man.

Mr. DREXLER: No, no. You weren't going to be the sixth man; the 12th man. Nope.

GORDON: Walt Frazier, George Gervin, and Clyde Drexler--hey, fellows, I thank you very much for being with us today. Appreciate it.

Mr. DREXLER: It's a pleasure. Any time, Ed.

Mr. GERVIN: All right. Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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