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Chris Paul and the NBPA are saving lives

The decision to fund health insurance for retired players is making an impact

It’s not unusual for Chris Paul to be interrupted during warm-ups by a former player who wants to say, “Thank you.”

The Phoenix Suns All-Star and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) president played a major role in helping not only improve but save the lives of countless former NBA players by spearheading the NBPA’s membership to vote to pay for their medical insurance in 2016. The encounters still catch Paul off guard.

“I’m ready for the game. I got my game face on and that happens,” Paul, who will play in his 11th All-Star Game on Sunday, told The Undefeated. “And I get emotional for a quick second, and first and foremost, I tell them, ‘Don’t thank me. It’s the full body of players that had to make this decision.’ But it’s special because you can see how grateful and appreciative the guys are when they say it.

“All the players that paved the way for our game to grow, to get it where it is. This is just a little that we could do.”

Previously, former players were on their own.

Hall of Famer Nate “Tiny” Archibald told The Undefeated that the players union contemplated funding health insurance for former players dating to the 1970s, but to no avail. Archibald credited Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for trying hard to get insurance for the retired players at the time.

“If you come up with a sprained ankle or ACL now, or Achilles tendon, the organization, most of the players signed to no-cut contracts, you’re under contract and you get insurance,” Archibald said. “After you’re finished, that’s when you get knocked in the head. Guys are saying, ‘Oh, man, I just retired. And [the team’s] going to take care of this?’

“No, you’re on your own now.”

Nate “Tiny” Archibald of the Kansas City Kings in a game against the Boston Celtics played in 1976 at the Boston Garden. He said: “After you’re finished, that’s when you get knocked in the head. Guys are saying, ‘Oh, man, I just retired. And [the team’s] going to take care of this?’ No, you’re on your own now.”

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Without an NBPA insurance plan, more than 50 former NBA players have died of complications related to heart disease since 2000, according to Philadelphia-based news site Billy Penn.

On Sept. 21, 2014, former ABA All-Star and NBA star Caldwell Jones died at the age of 64 after suffering a heart attack. Former NBA forward Anthony Mason died on Feb. 28, 2015, weeks after a heart attack at age 48. On March 16, 2015, former NBA center Jack Haley died unexpectedly of heart disease at 51. Former NBA center Darryl Dawkins died on Aug. 27, 2015, at the age of 58 from a heart attack. Three-time NBA MVP and Basketball Hall of Famer Moses Malone died on Sept. 13, 2015, at the age of 60 from hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

“Just think if this insurance product had been around before they met their untimely death, how impactful that would have been,” said former NBA big man Harvey Catchings, who played with Caldwell and Dawkins.

In early 2015, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and NBA commissioner Adam Silver both said that cardiac testing was of the utmost importance to them. The NBPA began a health screening program in December 2015 that included heart testing at the Toyota Center in Houston.

The NBA would go on to have heart testing for retired players all over the country about six times per year, including most notably during All-Star Weekend. Since 2016, the NBPA says more than 500 players have been tested.

But even with the testing, former NBA center Sean Rooks died of heart disease on June 7, 2016, at age 46. Rooks’ death was the extra push for the NBPA to look further into implementing insurance for retired players.

“Part of the NBPA’s effort is to both educate and support former players about the risks they face related to their hearts,” Roberts told The Undefeated in 2016. “The news about Sean underscores how significant an issue this is and fuels our desire to keep folks talking about and listening to the need to prevent this from taking more lives well before their time.”

The NBPA performed a cost analysis and feasibility study for a potential insurance plan for retired players in 2016, according to a source. After receiving the information, Paul brought it to his executive board and membership.

“This is a decision that had to be voted on by the players,” Paul said. “And then in that meeting, guys were asking questions. Rightfully so. ‘How is the money raised? Where does it come from?’ And I remember saying in the meeting, ‘The one thing that we all have in common is that at some point in time we all will be retired players.’ And I think that was the thing that really hit home for me at that time.”

On July 27, 2016, the NBPA made history at its summer meetings in New York City by voting unanimously to fund health insurance for retired players with at least three years of service in the league. It was the first program of its kind in North American professional sports.

Retired players with between three to six years of NBA service and not yet eligible for Medicare were offered an insurance plan with medical, hospital and prescription drug coverage, and modest out-of-pocket costs for deductibles and copays. Those with seven to nine years of service were offered the same coverage with lower out-of-pocket costs. Retired players with at least 10 years of service were offered the same coverage as the seven- to nine-year players along with coverage for their entire family. Retired players with three to nine years of service who were eligible for Medicare were offered a $0 deductible and $0 copay plan along with a low-cost prescription drug plan, while those with 10-plus years could receive this coverage for themselves and their spouse. The medical coverage began on Jan. 1, 2017.

Paul called it the most important thing he has done as president of the NBPA. That’s saying a lot considering he spearheaded NBA players returning to action during a pandemic in the bubble and sparked the idea of players wearing social justice jerseys during the resumed action that raised more than $700,000 for charity.

“I said, ‘Hey, these guys paved the way for us,’ ” Paul said. “And they didn’t have all the resources, all the training, all the training staffs and all that. So those guys played for all that amount of time and now they’ve had to deal with different injuries and things for a lifetime, right? And so when it was first brought up and our executive committee talked about it, it was like, ‘Man, this would be huge. This would be big.’ And I still say it to this day, whenever my tenure is up as president of the union, that will easily be the greatest achievement.”

Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood once told The Undefeated: “I told Chris Paul’s father that I wanted to thank him for what his son did.”

Archibald is also thankful. In December 2016, the former All-Star attended an NBPA-sanctioned heart screening at age 68. An avid jogger, Archibald believed he was healthy. But his test results revealed he had amyloidosis, which is an irreversible protein buildup that prevents the heart from properly pumping blood to the body.

“The doctor said, ‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to make a decision whether you’re going to get a new heart, because your heart’s not going to last.’ He didn’t give me years, but he said, ‘Your heart is not going to last, it’s taking a pounding,’ ” Archibald said.

Archibald had heart transplant surgery on June 22, 2018, at the age of 70. The heart surgery was paid for by the NBPA insurance.

Today, the 72-year-old Archibald is healthy and grateful to the NBPA for what it’s doing for retired players.

“Chris Paul, LeBron [James], KD [Kevin Durant], those guys who were on the [NBPA] board that made the decision,” Archibald said. “They saw [retired] guys limping with canes, wheelchairs. Not normal for them because they’re active and we weren’t. Seeing guys in that type of shape, they felt that this needed to be done. Then the NBA came on board to kind of finalize this whole thing. But I’m grateful that it happened because some of us wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”

Catchings, who played 11 seasons in the NBA and is the father of former WNBA star Tamika Catchings, also attended a heart screening in 2016. Test results revealed a leaky heart valve that led to multiple surgeries and heart replacement surgery on Aug. 28, 2019. All was paid for by the NBPA insurance plan.

Without the NBPA insurance, Catchings does not believe he would have been able to pay for the heart surgery.

“I just went through and had a heart transplant and that’s over a million dollars,” Catchings said. “I did not have to pay a dime. Those are the kinds of surgeries that can bankrupt you if you’re not prepared.”

Before his heart surgery, Catchings encouraged former players to get the heart screening. During one of the screenings at the Toyota Center, Paul, who was then with the Houston Rockets, heard stories and words of appreciation from Catchings and other former NBA players, including Reggie Slater, Otto Moore, Chris Morris and Howard Smith.

“I sat there with them for 30, 45 minutes and I got emotional, like tears,” Paul said. “I will never forget that day and these days, because a lot of the players, they don’t have that money that the guys got now and all that care.”

Catchings helped Paul understand the impact.

“I said, ‘Chris, I don’t know if [the players] are aware of it, but this dramatically changes the trajectory for retired players because none of us can say that we couldn’t afford to go to a doctor with this particular program,’ ” Catchings said. ” ‘And so, I want to thank you guys and I want to thank the NBA, NBPA and also the executive board for making that decision to give us that opportunity to extend our lives.’ ”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.