Simon P. Gourdine, highest ranked black executive in pro sports in the 70’s, Dies at 72

Simon Gourdine in 1975, as the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner.


Published: August 19, 2012

Simon P. Gourdine, who became the highest-ranking black executive in professional sports in the 1970s when he was named the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner and who later served as executive director of the league’s players union, died Thursday in Englewood, N.J. He was 72.

Mr. Gourdine, who lived in the Bronx, died at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center after having back surgery earlier in the day, his family said. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Although he was a groundbreaking basketball executive, Mr. Gourdine (pronounced gore-DEAN) had no athletic background. He was a lawyer, and he went on to hold many posts in New York City government, including commissioner of consumer affairs under Mayor Edward I. Koch, deputy police commissioner and chairman of the city’s Civil Service Commission.

Mr. Gourdine joined the N.B.A. as its legal counsel in 1970 under Commissioner Walter Kennedy. He became a vice president for administration in 1972; was named to the league’s No. 2 post, as deputy commissioner, in 1974; and hoped to become commissioner after Mr. Kennedy stepped down.

When Mr. Kennedy named Mr. Gourdine his deputy, he cited Mr. Gourdine’s legal work for the N.B.A. and his running of the college draft. “And he’s not a yes man,” Mr. Kennedy told The New York Times. “He’s never hesitated to tell me he didn’t totally agree with me.”

But when Mr. Kennedy retired in 1975, Larry O’Brien, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, succeeded him. Mr. O’Brien’s political background was potentially valuable in confronting antitrust suits against the league filed by its competitor, the American Basketball Association, and the players union.

Mr. Gourdine stayed on as deputy commissioner and worked out the framework for settlements of the litigation. He also helped forge collective bargaining agreements with the players union in 1976 and 1979.

He resigned from the N.B.A. at the end of 1981, when his contract was expiring. “There were never any barriers against me,” he said. “It’s just, How long do you want to stay after being passed over?”

Mr. Gourdine returned to pro basketball as the N.B.A. players union counsel in 1990. He then became its executive director in April 1995, replacing Charles Grantham, who resigned in the midst of stalled contract talks.

“I can be accommodating, but if that means I’m easy or overly flexible, I reject that,” Mr. Gourdine told Sports Illustrated at the time in dismissing any suggestion that he would soften player demands in view of his background in N.B.A. management. “I grew up in the middle of the civil rights struggle. A moderate was someone who maybe was too accommodating, who wasn’t pushing hard enough.”

Mr. Gourdine negotiated a tentative long-term collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 1995, and he was awarded a two-year contract as executive director by the union’s executive board late that year. But player representatives rejected the deal, and he was ousted early in 1996. An arbitration panel later awarded him nearly $900,000 in unpaid salary.

Simon Peter Gourdine was born in Jersey City on July 30, 1940, one of seven children. His father was a laborer in a chemical plant. He grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and in the Bronx, graduated from City College in 1962 and received a law degree from Fordham in 1965.

He served as an Army captain in Vietnam, doing investigative work; was an assistant United States attorney in New York; and worked as a lawyer for the Celanese Corporation before going to the N.B.A.

After leaving his post as deputy commissioner, he was named commissioner of consumer affairs by Mayor Koch and remained in the post for two years. He spent another two years as secretary of the Rockefeller Foundation and then became labor relations director for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority before being hired as the N.B.A. union’s lawyer.

Mr. Gourdine became general counsel for the New York City Board of Education after he was ousted by the players union. He was the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for trials from 2002 to 2006, overseeing internal disciplinary hearings, and then served as chairman of the New York City Civil Service Commission until 2008.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia; his sons, David and Peter; his daughter, Laura Gourdine; one grandchild; his sisters Dorothy, Sarah and Grace; and a brother, Henry.

When Mr. Gourdine became the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner, he noted that he came from a working-class family. And although he lived in the affluent Riverdale section of the Bronx, he told The Times, “Most people in Riverdale don’t call it the Bronx, they call it Riverdale, but I call it the Bronx.”

He said that although the majority of the N.B.A. players were black, they were mainly concerned with his approach to their problems, not his race.

“I remember the first time I dealt with a players association committee,” he said. “Oscar Robertson was on it. He was glad to see me, but then it was time to get on with it. Players, black or white, just want you to be fair.”

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