Simon P. Gourdine, who became the most senior black executive in professional athletics when he was hired as deputy commissioner of the National Basketball Association in 1974, died on Aug. 16. He was 72.
Mr. Gourdine, a longtime Riverdalian, died shortly after undergoing his fifth back surgery at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, N.J. His family said the surgery seemed successful and they were not yet sure what caused his death.
Although Mr. Gourdine was known as a basketball executive pioneer, he delved into many aspects of law.
He served as an assistant United States attorney for the Southern District, commissioner of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, corporate secretary to the Rockefeller Foundation, director of labor relations for the MTA, general counsel to the Board of Education under Chancellor Rudy Crew, deputy commissioner of trials for the New York Police Department and chairman of the city’s Civil Service Commission.
Mr. Gourdine credited his legal degree with allowing him to work in several industries, according to his daughter Laura Gourdine, 31, who said that he seemed “most stimulated by negotiation and had a deep interest in organized labor.”
His career with the NBA began in 1970. By 1974, Mr. Gourdine was named second in command as deputy commissioner and chief operating officer. His ascent impressed President Gerald Ford, who his daughter said called to congratulate Mr. Gourdine on his promotion.
“His secretary at the time buzzed him and said, ‘Mr. Gourdine, you’ve got a phone call.’ And he said, ‘Yes, who is it?’ The president.’ ‘Of what company?’ he asked. ‘Of the United States,’” Laura Gourdine said.
In 1976, Mr. Gourdine helped create the free agency system the league uses today. He retired from the NBA in 1981, but returned to basketball as general counsel for the players union in 1990. He was named executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in 1995 and that year ended a lockout by brokering a $5 billion deal between the athletes and the league. The players voted him out of the position in 1996.