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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In Japan’s rapidly growing men’s pro basketball scene, the 21-team bj-league (and still expanding), the current 12-team NBL (also increasing in size for 2014-15) and the nine-team National Basketball Development League (NBDL) are competing for attention and revenue. The NBL and NBDL (revamped JBL2) have longtime backing from the Japan Basketball Association, the national governing body, while the bj-league is basically on the outside, formed as a breakaway league from the JBL for the 2005-06 season.
Though planned reforms are scheduled to initiate a full-fledged pro league and restructured lower-tier leagues for 2016-17 under the JBA’s direction, Palmer insists it would be a big mistake to not have the JBPA involved in helping craft new policies during this period of transition.
“I think the challenge is having the management and owners understand that by working with the players rather than being confrontational with them there’s a real benefit, that they can gain a lot, not just in terms of ideas, not just in terms of professionalizing the league, but also structurally,” he said.
Noting the Japan men’s national team’s streak of failing to qualify for the Olympic basketball tournament since the 1976 Montreal Games, Palmer feels there’s much at stake for players, management and owners to turn the tide. He said, “I think it’s in the best interests of Japanese basketball that the league works with the players, recognizes them as a partner and that would be my message, and then work together to improve Japanese basketball, so you can end the streak of not being in the Olympics. . . .
“There’s no reason with 128 million people why Japan cannot have a good (men’s) basketball team in Asia and in the world. You look at the Japanese women and they are quite good, so I think there’s motivation there for everybody.”
Similarly, Okada believes the JBPA’s collective voice can be an instrumental tool in making progress for the sport here.
He said, “I hope (the league) takes advantage of how we actually feel on the court. If we are asked for opinions, we have no problem conducting questionnaires among the players, and I would like the league to take advantage of us more to utilize those things, for running the league and reflecting on the rules.”
The JBPA’s goals go beyond rules and working conditions, but recognizing that as a cohesive group it can spearhead efforts to contribute to society in meaningful ways. A basketball charity event, for instance, is being planned for Tohoku after the current NBL season ends, according to Okada. “We would like to make it something that the fans could come and join,” he added.
“We are hoping to have players from all the (NBL) teams.”
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Since his work for SP.IN began in 2005, Palmer’s union involvement has expanded greatly — first in German basketball, then throughout the European continent (he was the general secretary of UBE, the federation of European basketball player associations, from 2006-11 and general secretary of the European Elite Athletes Association, which represents an estimated 25,000 professional athletes, from 2007-12). Now his work reaches a global scale in several sports and sports-related issues, including meetings with the trade unions and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee “to begin building a platform for the preparation of the Olympics to make sure that unions are involved in the preparation for the Olympics.”
These varied experiences have taught Palmer that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for labor harmony and improving working conditions in the sporting arena. And he delivered this message to Okada and his JBPA colleagues.
“They need to develop an approach that respects the particular situation here in Japan and respects their own issues for the players,” Palmer stated.
He added: “I think there are many different approaches, and out of the 100 unions that we have in our group, we have 100 different approaches towards what the best way is.”
UNI Sport PRO established a global alliance of basketball player unions and coordinated a meeting at the NBA Players Association headquarters in New York, with union representatives from Australia, Argentina, France, Israel, Italy and Spain in attendance. “We are looking to help encourage players to organize and create associations,” Palmer stated.
So why did the well-educated, well-traveled Palmer gravitate to union work?
“I did do some coaching (for an 18-and-under German youth team) just after I stopped playing, and I discovered I was not going to be a good coach because I always pulled for the underdog,” he revealed. “I always wanted the guy at the end of the bench to get some time or make sure he had a fair chance. And you don’t win many games if you are always giving the underdogs a chance to play.
“That’s my job now. I try to stand up for the people that are in trouble, and I really enjoy that. I stand up to make sure that people are treated fairly.”
Indeed, the JBPA is in its infancy, but it has a dedicated, determined advocate in Palmer, with global clout under the UNI umbrella. Strength in numbers.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.