Ailing Globetrotters get an assist

Dinner with Chiang Kai-shek. A meeting with the pope. Blackjack in a Havana casino hours before Fidel Castro swept to power.

Jumpin' Johnny Kline remembers other things as well during his days with the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s: There was the time the team played eight games in three days to introduce basketball to Australia. And there were those sandwiches eaten on a cramped, old bus because players weren't allowed in certain restaurants in their own country.

Kline is reminiscing now to bring attention to a new fund to help 27 former Globetrotters struggling with illnesses and finances, and without a pension from their playing days.

"Most people, they say, 'You mean to tell me they haven't done this?' They're shocked," Kline said.

Globetrotters such as Don Barnette, Mel Davis and Carl Green have fallen through the cracks. The Globetrotters' current pension has been in place for the past 15 years and team officials have tried to help former players. But team ownership has changed five times.

Globetrotters chief executive officer Kurt Schneider, hired last May, wants to meet with Kline when the North American tour ends in mid-April.

"We want to sit down with him, listen to his ideas and see if there's something we can do," team spokesman Brett Meister said.

What Kline wants is simple: money as a sign of respect and recognition that these pioneers meant something for popularizing the game and representing the United States as goodwill ambassadors.

"I've had guys tell me, 'I'd be tickled pink if they'd give me $200, $300 a month because it would help so much," Kline said. "They may have Social Security of $700 or $800. And $200 to $300 added onto that means a lot."

Kline, a former star at Wayne University, is a member of the Globetrotters' Legends Circle for a career that spanned 1953 to 1959.

He struggled with drug addiction after his playing days but earned his bachelor's degree, a master's and a doctorate in philosophy of education and has written seven books. Now 75, he lives in this tony Nashville suburb with his daughter, one of eight children.

The stabbing death of ex-teammate Ruben Bolen in San Francisco in 1995 prompted Kline to start the nonprofit Black Legends Professional Basketball Foundation in 1996 to reunite and honor such men.

He asked, and received, money from the NBA and the Globetrotters in the form of ads and tables at his foundation's awards dinners. Pensions have been a different matter.

The NFL started paying pensions in 1993 to those who played before 1959. Major League Baseball allowed 27 players who played in the Negro leagues and MLB to collect pensions and medical benefits in the late 1990s.

A year ago, the NBA and the players' union announced a joint pension plan that increases benefits for players who retired before 1965, including those with as little as three years in the league. But there the line is drawn.

"The NBA understands many individuals and groups have contributed to the growth of our league," league spokesman Tim Frank said. "But we feel a league-sponsored pension is a benefit that is only appropriate to current and former NBA players."

Bill Hoover, a Detroit schoolteacher and assistant coach at Macomb Community College and basketball historian, argues the NBA survived and now thrives in part because of doubleheaders in which the Globetrotters were the attraction.

With help from the Association of Professional Basketball Researchers, he tracked such doubleheaders played between the 1940s and 1960s to as late as the 1969-70 season.

"I know the argument for them is, 'Why give pensions? They weren't in the league.' What I would say is they weren't in the league because you didn't want them. When they got in your league, they thrived," Hoover said.

And the Globetrotters were a very big draw in the 1950s. Kline said three squads played around the country and the world at a time where the game included only five or six of their famed tricks with the focus on basketball.

The pay? Well, Kline earned $400 a month his first season, less than he was making distributing magazines and newspapers for his stepfather. The schedule featured a game almost every night in a six-month schedule.

Then there was the Globetrotters' unpaid work around the rest of the world. They never had trouble getting American visas to unfriendly countries where Kline remembers seeing signs like "Yankee Go Home."

"We've been all over this world with people of influence, heads of state, heads of governments. They welcomed us into their palaces, their homes, their places of government operations. We've really done a lot for this country," Kline said.

He's gotten a handful of city, state and even congressional resolutions honoring black basketball players. Kline said it saddens him that more people don't know has happened to some of the Globetrotters.

"That's why I decided to make this appeal while some of these guys are still living and make them feel good about themselves, about their government, the country they live in, about the game of basketball they gave so much to," Kline said. "Hopefully, this will happen."