WANNA BE LIKE MIKE... ...OR GO WITH THE UNION? THAT'S THE CHOICE NBA PLAYERS FACE AS THE '95-96 SEASON HANGS IN THE BALANCE

September 03, 1995

Atlanta Hawk forward Grant Long had finally made up his mind.
With the NBA's 425 players scheduled to vote this week and next
on a proposal to decertify the NBA players' association, Long
decided last week to support the union.

Long thought it was safer to keep the union alive and, in the
process, accept a union-backed collective bargaining agreement
that would allow the 1995-96 NBA season to begin on time,
something that might not happen if the players vote to
decertify. The proposed agreement wasn't perfect, but accepting
it didn't seem nearly as risky as decertifying the union and
going to court in hopes of pressuring NBA commissioner David
Stern and the owners to give the players a better deal.

But then Long received a video via overnight express from the
decertification camp, which is led by various agents and stars
Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller. He put it in
his VCR, and there were Jordan, Ewing, Miller and other players
trying to convince him that decertifying the union was the only
logical alternative. The dissidents argued that union executive
director Simon Gourdine and union president Buck Williams had
negotiated two bad deals. The first one, which was abandoned in
the face of intense opposition, included a team luxury tax that,
it was argued, would have put a drag on salaries. In the
dissidents' view the current proposal was only slightly better.

Long watched and listened as Jordan, Ewing and Miller told him
that the best way to get a fair deal was to eliminate the union.
Under antitrust rules, that would allow the players to seek an
injunction against the owners' two-month-old lockout. The teams
would then be forced to open their doors to the players, and
without the leverage of a lockout the league presumably would
negotiate a deal more favorable to the players. "Just the
stature of the players on that video was impressive," Long says.
"What they said made some sense, just like what the union said
made some sense. I was right back where I was to begin with--on
the fence."

That's where the union, the league and the dissidents have been
operating lately, trying to pull players over to their side.
Long's fax machine has been whirring, couriers have brought
correspondence from both sides, and his phone has been ringing
off the hook, as with virtually every other player in the
league. Three general managers have called in the past two weeks
to casually urge him to vote to accept the agreement. In
addition to the videotape, the dissidents have sent out an
eight-page letter stating their case. The union and the league
have offered to pay for transportation for players to and from
voting sites at 47 NLRB offices across the country.

"It's kind of like being recruited all over again," Long says.
"The art of persuasion has taken on a new form."

There is no disputing the fact that the league would not have
ditched its luxury tax proposal without the threat of
decertification and a court battle hanging over its head. The
dissidents deserve credit for that, and perhaps they deserve the
trust of the players as well.

On the other hand, there is no guarantee that if the players
decertify, they will be granted the injunction against the
lockout, although the dissidents' attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, was
part of the legal team representing the the NFL Players
Association when it successfully sought a similar injunction in
its labor showdown with NFL owners. Even if an injunction is
granted in the NBA dispute, antitrust litigation could take
years, and there is the possibility that the league could impose
any system it chooses in the interim. Stern insists that the
league will not open its doors under any circumstances without
an agreement. "What system would we play under?" he asks. "The
old salary cap? The old situation with no cap on rookies? I'm
sorry, but no. The owners have already voted not to open until
there's a new basic agreement. We either play under a system
fair for all, or we don't play. That's final."

Meanwhile, rumors swirl that fringe players have been told in
veiled terms that if they vote to decertify, they might have
difficulty finding work when their contracts expire. "It's
supposed to be a secret ballot, but do you want to bet your next
contract that it will stay secret?" says one player.

Long, 29, has four years left on a contract that will pay him
$1.95 million this season, so he has no immediate worries about
his next deal. But like many players, he's trying to sift
through valid arguments and propaganda from both sides. "I want
to know what's hidden," he says. "I know the way something looks
on paper isn't always the way it looks in the real world."

What's hidden in the proposed deal? Start with the salary cap.
The league and the union stress that the cap will rise from last
season's $15.9 million limit to $23 million in 1995-96. The cap
will gradually increase to $32.5 million in the final year of
the six-year proposal, producing an eventual average salary of
$3 million per player. This isn't as big a concession as it
might seem since there were 10 teams last season with payrolls
of at least $23 million, and the average team salary was $21.5
million, thanks to cap loopholes and exceptions. Overall the
decertification side contends that teams would have less room to
maneuver under the new cap and that free agents would find their
options severely limited.

There is no question that the proposed deal has some aspects
favorable to the rank-and-file. Under the new contract the
players would divide at least $25 million a year in licensing
money instead of the $500,000 they received under the old
agreement. The league and the union also argue that teams would
have more money to sign veterans under the new system because it
calls for a rookie salary cap. A first-year player would be paid
according to a salary scale limiting him to a maximum of 20%
more than the average first-year pay of those taken in the same
draft position over the previous seven years. The huge contracts
signed in recent years by such rookie luminaries as Anfernee
Hardaway, Chris Webber and Grant Hill would be a thing of the
past--and so would the hefty commissions earned by their agents.

But it is equally obvious that for a thriving league in better
financial condition than it was when the last collective
bargaining agreement was implemented, this proposal isn't as
beneficial to the players as it could be. What Long and others
have to decide is whether it's close enough to make decertifying
worth the gamble.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER YATES Jordan may not get Long's vote, but his videotaped pitch to decertify did get his attention. [Grant Long watching Michael Jordan on videotape]

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