Ex-NBA center: Any serious league should have dialogue with its players


Returning to the city where his pro basketball career was launched in 1990, Walter Palmer maintains deep convictions that a players union is a vital element for any league craving for legitimacy.

Furthermore, his staunch support of sports unions brought him to Tokyo in mid-April to meet with the fledgling Japan Basketball Players Association, which represents the National Basketball League (the JBL’s successor).

Palmer, the second Dartmouth College alum to play in the NBA (Rudy “Roughhouse Rudy” LaRusso, Lakers and Warriors forward, 1959-69 was the first), speaks with authority and expertise. He was a co-founder and driving force behind the formation of SP.IN (aka the German Basketball Players Association), the first union for German pro basketball, in 2005.

“Any league that’s serious about being professional and serious about progressing, a key step for them is to have a dialogue with their players, an official dialogue with their players and work with them to improve the situation,” the 45-year-old Palmer said in a recent interview in Tokyo, where he was a part of NBA history in 1990 as a rookie center for the Utah Jazz.

“The level of minimum standards under which they play, whether it’s health and safety issues, contractual issues, stability of their contracts, disciplinary issues, all of those things affect performance and affect the professionalism of the league,” he said.

On Nov. 2 and 3, 1990, the 216-cm Palmer participated in the first regular-season NBA games played outside of the United States. He saw action in seven minutes in a season-opening, 119-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. He had two points, three rebounds and swatted a pair of shots.

“I blocked Eddie Johnson’s shot,” he remembered with a chuckle.

The Jazz stormed back to win the rematch, 102-91, and Palmer saw court time for two minutes, with the box score registering zeros in all of the other statistical categories for him.

Palmer’s NBA career was brief — 100 total points scored, 28 games for Utah in 1990-91 and 20 for the Dallas Mavericks in the 1992-93 season — but he found his niche as a solid role player in overseas leagues, starting in the 1991-92 campaign for EnBW Ludwigsburg (Germany). After his final NBA game, he continued his hoops career with stops in Spain, Germany (five different teams), France, Argentina and Italy.

“I was never a star,” he admitted, “but I was happy to have a career, and I played for 13 years all over, so it was great.

“I learned so much from (longtime Jazz coach) Jerry Sloan. It was amazing. He was an amazing coach, absolutely. . . . John Stockton and Karl Malone, to learn the pick-and-roll from those guys, that benefited me for the rest of my career.”

He played for Olimpia Milano in 1995 and recalled, “I really enjoyed the time I spent in Milan. I was only there for half a season. They made one change the next season. They got rid of me and they brought in (four-time NBA All-Star guard) Rolando Blackman and they won the championship.

“So the one change they needed was to change me,” he added with a grin.

Palmer retired in 2003, playing his final season for Phantoms Braunschweig in Germany.

Two years later, Palmer, joined forces with German national team members to establish the union for the Bundesliga Basketball League. It was a rocky road, a laborious process.

“We started with one team, collectively bargaining with one team,” he said, adding, “we had to negotiate with each team, and so we did that.

“It took two or three years. We had some protests. We were quite aggressive in the beginning. . . . We started aggressively pressuring the league to make changes, and it was a very strong reaction against us initially.

“But they undertook, over time, a series of changes and the league has really developed.”

Earlier this month, while meeting with JBPA members and NBL players Yusuke Okada, Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui and Taishi Ito, all of whom play for the Toyota Motors Alvark, Palmer repeated his message about the value of unions as an agent of positive change. Palmer declared the JBPA’s formation in 2013 “a starting point for Okada-san and all of the other (Japanese) players there.”

He also stated bluntly that if Japan’s leagues “want to progress, they need to have dialogue with their players.”

(The bj-league, Japan’s first pro basketball league when it began play in 2005, still doesn’t have an organized players association.)

Based on Japanese labor laws, the JBPA is classified as a general incorporated association, not a labor union, meaning membership doesn’t have rights to stage labor disputes.

Nevertheless, call it an important first step, which may lead to a full-fledged union in the future.

Meanwhile, the JBPA currently represents all Japanese players in the 12-team NBL, and import players are welcome to join, Okada said, adding NBDL and bj-league players could also join in the near future.

“They (the JBPA) really want to play a positive role in developing Japanese basketball, because it’s good for them and also they are really going to give a gift to the players that are coming after them,” stated Palmer, now the department head for UNI Sport PRO, which represents athlete unions worldwide and is a sector of UNI Global Union.

Palmer is based in Nyon, Switzerland, but travels extensively for his work, which includes reform of anti-doping rules, athlete development, health and safety issues, governance in sport, collective bargaining and organizing. For instance, during his recent trip to Asia, he traveled to Hong Kong for the International Rugby Players’ Association assembly and visited Singapore for UNI’s regional assembly.

“We help new player associations get started to make sure the players have a voice in their sport,” noted Palmer, while confirming that the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association (representing the NPB) and the Japan Pro-Footballers Association (for the J.League) are UNI members.


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