No one thought that 10 of the world's most talented and best-paid basketball players could be gathered under one umbrella without some turmoil. But the infighting between agents and USA Basketball, the governing body of the sport, over endorsements and apparel-licensing agreements has gone beyond anyone's worst-case scenario.
As of Sunday, ProServ's David Falk, whose clients include U.S. Olympians Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and John Stockton, had not officially responded to a March 5 letter from Dave Gavitt, the president of USA Basketball, requesting that Falk comply with its licensing rules by March 12 or ask his clients to resign from the team. Last Friday, Falk told USA Today from London that he planned to sit down with Gavitt and work the whole thing out.
Though agents for other players have had difficulties with licensing and sponsorship agreements, compromises have been made with USA Basketball and continue to be made. For example, Schick, as an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, is entitled to use a group photo of the team for endorsement purposes. But since Charles Barkley has a contract with a competing company, Gillette, his representatives asked for modifications in the Schick advertisement to make it seem more an endorsement for the team and less one for Schick.
USA Basketball officials accuse Falk of refusing to compromise on sponsorship issues. There is also a battle going on between USA Basketball and Nike, whose Olympic clients include Jordan, Stockton, Barkley, David Robinson, Chris Mullin and Scottie Pippen. The positions of USA Basketball and the NBA can be considered one and the same since the former is dominated by such NBA types as Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner, and Celtics CEO Gavitt.
At the heart of the dispute is an agreement between the players and the NBA that was signed in 1986. At that time the NBA Players Association gave NBA Properties the rights to market certain products (caricature T-shirts, posters, trading cards, etc.) on behalf of the players. In the case of the Olympics, NBA Properties is acting as the agent for USA Basketball. Falk, however, contends that the marketing rights never belonged to the Players Association in the first place. The issue boiled up before last month's All-Star Game when Jordan-Falk-Nike insisted that Jordan's individual apparel contract with Nike overrode any agreement between the Players Association and the league; consequently, Jordan's likeness did not appear on the caricature T-shirt of the All-Stars. The same scenario will hold in Barcelona: There will be a T-shirt with caricatures of all members of the U.S. team except Jordan. Further, USA Basketball and the NBA have decided to give Nike the victory in the apparel battle—no Olympic sweatshirt, noncaricature T-shirt or any other kind of clothing will include the image of a Nike athlete.
Nike was presumably within its rights to demand that its athletes not wear any apparel except its own, even in such special circumstances as the Olympics; that might be small-minded, but it is legal. And there are legitimate business principles involved in Falk's refusal to compromise; Jordan receives a lot of money from certain companies to endorse their products, and he should not be put into a position in which he appears to be endorsing competing products.
But at some point all the quibbling about products and T-shirts and who can appear on what begins to look selfish and meanspirited.
According to one theory, the Falk-Nike-Jordan team is making matters difficult because Jordan doesn't want to play on the Olympic team. Not so. Whatever his initial doubts, Jordan hat-come to realize that he has much more to gain by being in Barcelona than by feathering a five-iron at Pebble Beach.
New World Order
Let's assume that the aforementioned gamesmanship ends happily and USA Basketball sends the team it selected. In that case, the following news is not likely to make Jordan and Ewing quiver in their sneakers: The political turmoil that a few months ago threatened to turn the Olympic basketball competition into a joke has been resolved, at least to the point that the U.S.'s chief rivals for the gold will field good teams in Barcelona. These rivals won't be called Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, though. Now they're Croatia and Lithuania.
Croatia, whose players once competed under the Yugoslav flag, and Lithuania, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, have been recognized as Olympic nations by the International Olympic Committee. And barring an upset in European qualifying play, these two teams will be competing in the Olympics. And they'll have plenty of familiar faces.
Croatia's team will include Toni Kukoc, widely recognized as the best player in Europe; Drazen Petrovic of the Nets; Dino Radja, the big center who once spurned the Celtics; and Stojko Vrankovic, another big center who is currently occupying the spot on the Celtics roster that would be more adequately filled by Radja. Croatia also has several outstanding young players.
Is that enough to challenge the U.S.'s star-spangled all-stars? Probably not. But it might be enough to give the U.S. a competitive game. Kukoc is currently playing for Benetton Treviso in the Italian League, and the multitalented 6'10" southpaw is still one of the best players in the world. Petrovic, a shooting guard, is one of the NBA's most improved players; and Radja, many believe, could be a starting center in the NBA.
Croatia will not, however, have the services of Laker center Vlade Divac, who is a Serbian and is expected to compete for Yugoslavia. That country's only other well-known Olympic player is likely to be Zarko Paspalj, a 6'9" forward who played—with limited success—for the Spurs during the 1989-90 season. Yugoslavia, which won the silver in Seoul in 1988, does not appear to be a medal threat in Barcelona.
The first meeting of Croatia and Yugoslavia, which will probably take place in the final round of the European Qualification Tournament in Zaragoza, Spain, in early summer, should be interesting. The civil war has driven a wedge between such former teammates as Divac and Petrovic. They talked briefly at midcourt in the Forum when the Nets were in Los Angeles on March 4, but not about politics. "We're still friends, but we don't talk like we used to," says Petrovic. "It's because of the war."
Warrior guard Sarunas Marciulionis has taken over—with typical enthusiasm—the care and feeding of the Lithuanian Olympic team. Lithuania supplied the Soviet Union with much of its gold medal talent in '88. Marciulionis will have help from another familiar name, 7'3" center Arvidas Sabonis, once considered the best player in the world, and help outside from two veteran guards, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Khomicius. Lithuania probably won't be as strong as Croatia, never mind the U.S.
In what is sure to be an emotional encounter, Lithuania will meet the Unified Team, which represents most of the former Soviet republics that have banded together in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), in the European qualifying event.
Alexander Volkov of the Atlanta Hawks, a starter at forward along with Marciulionis and Sabonis on the great Soviet teams of the '80s, faces a far more uncertain situation than the others. He agreed in February to play in Barcelona for the Unified Team but lately has had second thoughts. Except for veteran Valeri Tikhonenko, Volkov says he has no idea who his teammates will be.
What is the most attractive franchise to NBA insiders? That was the question posed this week to coaches and general managers around the league. Respondents were encouraged to consider a wide variety of factors (ownership, players, fans, appeal of the city) and could not vote for their own franchise.
Not unexpectedly, there was a wide range of answers. So wide, in fact, that one Western Conference coach actually chose the Clippers. "They've got a great young team and a huge market they're about to take over," says the Clipper advocate. Another franchise that got a single vote was Seattle. The Western Conference general manager who chose the Sonics says, "It's a great place to live, and their team has so much potential."
The Celtics, Magic, Pistons and Warriors each received two votes, though for vastly different reasons. Tradition was key for the Celtics, money-making potential was mentioned for the Pistons, rejuvenation of the Bay Area was a factor for the Warriors, and family appeal was central for the Magic. Three voters chose Chicago, among them Jazz coach Jerry Sloan "even though I got fired there once [in 1982]. The fans are just so great."
The winners, with five votes each, were the Lakers and Suns. The former is hardly a surprise when you consider the city, the team's intelligent ownership (Jerry Buss) and management (Jerry West), and its track record of success. Perhaps Phoenix is a natural too, considering the appeal of its young and talented team. But as recently as 1987, the Suns' franchise was in disarray because of drug use by some players and accusations, which turned out to be unfounded, of a point-shaving scandal. Jerry Colangelo, president and CEO of the franchise, coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, and players such as Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek deserve much credit for putting the Suns back on course. Every Phoenix voter mentioned a common theme—a classy, family-oriented organization with a future as bright as the Arizona sunshine.