Gourdine, Simon 1940—
Simon Gourdine 1940—
Sports executive, labor negotiator, city government official, attorney
In the summer of 1995, Simon Gourdine undertook the difficult task of negotiating a new contract for National Basketball Association (NBA) players. As executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, he had the unenviable task of acting as mediator between a divided players’ union and the NBA owners a seemingly no-win situation that he handled with calm professionalism.
Gourdine is a true pioneer in professional sports, not for what he has done on the court, but for what he has accomplished in a series of important offices. He was deputy commissioner of the NBA for seven years from 1974 to 1981, and was, at that time, the most powerful black executive in professional sports. His significant expertise was put to use by the Players Association, placing him once again in a position of authority and influence.
Gourdine has said that he identifies with pro basketball players, most of whom are black, because he grew up in similar circumstances. He was born in 1940, in Jersey City, New Jersey, but grew up in the Harlem section of New York City. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1962. As an enterprising student, Gourdine interviewed his hero, black nationalist Malcolm X, for the City College newspaper. Malcolm urged Gourdine to be fair in his coverage of their conversation, and Gourdine tried hard to comply. Gourdine found that he shared many of Malcolm’s concerns about the future of blacks in the United States. “I grew up in the middle of the civil rights struggle,” Gourdine toldSports Illustrated.”A moderate was someone who maybe was too accommodating, who wasn’t pushing hard enough.”
Gourdine worked extremely hard. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he entered the Fordham University School of Law. Upon finishing his law studies in 1965, he entered the U.S. Army and completed a two-year tour of duty. The army promoted him to captain and awarded him the prestigious Army Commendation Medal.
When Gourdine finished his military service, he returned to New York City and briefly took a job with the U.S.
At a Glance…
Born Simon Peter Gourdine, July 30, 1940, in Jersey City, NJ; son of Simon Samuel and Laura Emily (Rembert) Gourdine; married Patricia Campbell, 1964; children: David Laurence, Peter Christopher, Laura Allison. Education: City College of New York, B.A.,1962; Fordham University School of Law, J.D., 1965; attended Harvard University Graduate School of Business, 1979.
Southern District of New York, assistant U.S. attorney, 1967–69; National Basketball Association, New York, NY, assistant to the commissioner, 1970–72, vice president of administration, 1973–74, deputy commissioner, 1974–81; New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, commissioner, 1982–84; The Rockefeller Foundation, New York, NY, secretary, 1984–86; Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York, NY, director of labor relations, 1986–90; National Basketball Players Association, New York, NY, general counsel, 1990–95, executivedirector, 1995–96.Military service; U.S. Army, 1965–67, became captain; received Army Commendation Medal.
Member: Member of board of directors, Police Athletic League, 1974-and Fresh Air Fund, 1985-; member, New York State Banking Board, 1979–90; New York State Bar Association; U.S. District Court Bar Association; U.S. Supreme Court Bar Association.
Addresses: Office -National Basketball Players Association, 1775 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Attorney’s office. In 1970, he was hired by the NBA as assistant to the commissioner. The job was high-profile with many important responsibilities, and Gourdine was the first black hired to such a position in the history of professional sports. “I had to get [the job] on merit because I had no sports connections at all,” Gourdine noted in the Washington Post, “There was a value in my being black, but I certainly wasn’t hired because I was black.” At the same time, Gourdine told the New York Times, he “brought a black perspective to the job” in a time when more and more minority players were being hired by the NBA.
In 1974, Lawrence O’Brien assumed the duties of NBA commissioner. He named Gourdine deputy commissioner, making him the highest ranking black executive in sports. Wrote Steve Marcus in Newsday, “Here was a black with important duties during a volatile time in the league’s history. He helped develop the 1976 collective bargaining agreement that led to free agency and worked on the merger between the ABA (American Basketball Association) and the NBA.” For his part, Gourdine told the Washington Post, “Being black and being in this position hits you at times. It makes you feel good. What I don’t ever forget is that I’ve got to be as good as I can be all of the time…. I owe much to black people, so the record has to be good.”
In 1981 the Los Angeles Times published a controversial article about cocaine use in the NBA. The newspaper story contended that as much as 75 percent of NBA players were using the drug. Commissioner O’Brien was out of the country when the story broke, and Gourdine had to answer the allegations on behalf of the NBA. He quickly suggested that the report was racially motivated. “75 percent happens to be the proportion of blacks in the NBA,” he said in the New York Times, “If someone chose to, they could have concluded that 100 percent of the black players were involved with drugs. Anytime there are social problems like drugs and alcohol, the perception is that it’s black players involved. That concerns me. Sometimes perception becomes reality. You have to go out aggressively and fight those perceptions.”
Gourdine had high hopes that he would be named NBA commissioner at some point, but as the years passed, he began to feel he had hit a glass ceiling as deputy commissioner. In 1981, he stepped down. “This is not a midlife crisis,” he told the New York Times at the time. “Government has always been a great interest of mine. It may be time to take my license out, dust it off and practice law again.” Asked if he felt he would never be named commissioner because he was black, Gourdine responded: “If sports ever has a black commissioner, it will be in basketball.”
Gourdine did not find himself idle after leaving the NBA. In 1982, he became commissioner of New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Two years later, he moved to the Rockefeller Foundation as secretary. He served as director of labor relations for Manhattan’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1986. In addition to his professional duties, Gourdine devoted a good deal of time to charitable causes, including the Police Athletic League and the Fresh Air Fund.
The business side of sports still appealed to Gourdine, however, and he was thrilled when executives from Major League Baseball began courting him as the possible president of the National League. According to Manny Topol of Newsday, Gourdine “was the leading candidate for many months.” In the end, the committee chose another black man, Bill White, for the job. “I am, of course, disappointed,” Gourdine said inNeiusday. “I certainly was in the selection process right to the end. But I understand that there could be only one winner.”
Gourdine’s experience as a top sports executive and labor negotiator brought him another opportunity in 1990. He returned to professional basketball, this time as general counsel for the National Basketball Players Association. His new duties involved negotiating contracts and resolving disputes on behalf of NBA players. NBA commissioner David Stern commented that Gourdine’s appointment would bring the Players Association “an excellent lawyer and a tough advocate.” Stern added, as quoted in the New York Times, “The players are lucky to have someone with Simon’s knowledge of the game, its history, and the players and owners working together for the continued growth of the sport. “In the same newspaper piece, Gourdine said, “I’m quite excited about coming back into pro basketball, even if it’s on the other side.”
In the spring of 1995, during a bitter labor dispute between the NBA players and owners, Gourdine assumed the executive directorship of the Players Association. This proved to be an unenviable task. Gourdine took the top post after disgruntled players forced out negotiator Charles Grantham. When Gourdine appeared more moderate than Grantham, the players accused him of cooperating with his old cohorts in the league offices. While the NBA players endured an 80-day lockout imposed by the owners, Gourdine struggled to forge a new collective bargaining agreement between the two parties. Unfortunately, the deal he negotiated with the league did not satisfy many players, among them high-profile “dissident” stars like Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan. At one point in July of 1995, sentiment was so high against Gourdine that 180 players signed a petition for an election to decertify the Players Association. Gourdine persisted and the decertification attempt failed.
The NBA lockout ended in time for the 1995–96 season, and Gourdine continued to iron out the details of a new six-year contract for the players. At the beginning of 1996, the executive board of the Players Association extended Gourdine’s contract through October of 1997. However, some of Gourdine’s harshest critics forced a vote on the contract. NBA player representatives met at the end of January of 1996 and voted to replace Gourdine.
Boston Globe, July 13, 1995, p. 62.
Newsday (Long Island, NY), November 27, 1988, p.11; February 3, 1989, p. 159.
New York Times, June 27, 1981, p. 15; February 13, 1990, p. 12B.
Rocky Mountain News, January 14, 1996, p. 14B.
Seattle Times, January 21, 1996, p. 4F.
Sports Illustrated, May 8, 1995, p. 76.
Washington Post, July 1, 1979, p. 4E.
— Mark Kram
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