The numbing language of labor war is upon us again, causing eyes
to glaze over as the public's disgust gives way to boredom. The
NBA owners' lockout of the players on July 1 not only caused all
activity to cease--there can be no trades, player signings,
NBA-sanctioned summer leagues or contact between players and
team representatives--but also guaranteed that the only news
traveling through the off-season grapevine will involve gross
revenues, distribution of merchandising income and similarly
This is an article from the July 20, 1998 issue
For the moment the NBA is little more than a list of issues on a
legal pad. Foremost among them is the salary cap, from which the
owners want to eliminate all loopholes, especially the Larry
Bird exception, which allows teams to re-sign their own free
agents for any amount, regardless of their cap space. The rule
has driven contracts for some stars, such as the Washington
Wizards' Juwan Howard and the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning, past
$100 million, and the owners say several of the league's 29
teams will be on the road to financial ruin if such salaries
continue to proliferate. The National Basketball Players
Association argues that the league's revenues are still
growing--exhibit A is the NBA's four-year, $2.6 billion
television contract (with NBC and Turner Sports), which goes
into effect next season--and that players are simply being paid
what the market will bear. Also at issue is the rookie salary
scale, which includes a provision that allows first-round draft
picks to become free agents after three seasons. The owners want
to lengthen that amount of time; the players' association doesn't.
The bottom line is that the players and the owners can't agree
on how to divide the spoils of their $1.7 billion-per-year
operation. The only thing they seem to agree on is that there is
no reason to believe that the dispute will be resolved before
training camps are scheduled to open in October. As usual in
sports work stoppages, it's nearly impossible to root for either
side. The NBA owners control franchises worth hundreds of
millions of dollars, and the players, with an average salary of
$2.6 million, aren't exactly factory workers fighting to make a
But there are far more than two angles from which to view the
lockout. There is the vantage point of a veteran role player
whose career is at a crossroads, or a general manager who can't
implement his master plan, or a fan who can't understand why the
only item in this dispute that isn't considered locked is his
wallet. Look beyond the rhetoric and the financial projections,
and you will find that there are dozens of personal lockout
stories. Here are six of them.
Nazr Mohammed would have a hard time proving that he is a member
of the Philadelphia 76ers. He has a cap and a few T-shirts and
pairs of shorts bearing the team logo, but there are
12-year-olds in Philly with more Sixers gear than that. The only
thing that really connects Mohammed to his new team is the
workout program that the 76ers' sent him after Mohammed was
traded to Philadelphia by the Utah Jazz, which had selected him
with the last pick of the NBA draft's first round. Shortly after
the draft, Mohammed had visited the Sixers' offices. When he
left, Mohammed was on his own.
Well, maybe he's not completely on his own. The 20-year-old
Mohammed, a 6'10", 240-pound center, is prohibited from having
contact with anyone in the Sixers organization during the
lockout, but he does have the help of the coaching and
weight-training staff at Kentucky, where he was a member of last
season's national champions and where he is doing the bulk of
his summer conditioning work. But the main NBA tutoring Mohammed
gets is in campus pickup games with other former Wildcats stars
such as Kenny Walker.
"It's strange, not being able to work with the coaches,"
Mohammed says. "One of the reasons I was excited about going to
Philadelphia was that [Sixers coach] Larry Brown is supposed to
be a great teacher, and now he can't teach me. Right now I'm in
limbo, but I know if I keep lifting, running, getting some shots
up, I'll be ready when the time comes."
When the time comes, however, rookies such as Mohammed could be
at a major disadvantage. Mohammed is missing the chance to play
under the direction of the Sixers staff in NBA-sanctioned summer
leagues, and if the lockout extends into the fall or beyond, he
may have only a shortened preseason camp to adjust to life in
the NBA and compete for a roster spot.
That is regrettable, because Mohammed has proved that he
develops quickly with the right instruction. When he arrived at
Kentucky as a freshman, he was a pillowy-soft 290 pounds, with
23% body fat. But under the direction of Wildcats coach Rick
Pitino and his staff, Mohammed trimmed down to 240 and 12%, and
turned himself into an NBA prospect.
There are those who say Mohammed, who had another year of
college eligibility, would have been wise to stay at Kentucky
for his senior season. Those whispers will grow louder if he's
still working out on his own when the Wildcats' season begins
this fall. But Mohammed has no regrets. "I knew I was probably
going to be in this position, because everyone knew there was a
good chance of a lockout," he says. "I was hoping for the best
but expecting the worst. It might not look like it right now,
but I made the right decision."
Whenever the Sixers are ready to start teaching, Mohammed will
have to be ready to learn--immediately. Even though he can't
communicate with the team, he gets that message.
For six years Tom Gugliotta played where he was told to play,
whether he liked it or not. In 1992 he was drafted by a lousy
team, the Washington Bullets. In his third season he had to pack
up at a moment's notice and move twice in three months because
of trades that sent him first to the Golden State Warriors and
then to the Minnesota Timberwolves, both of which also were
horrible clubs when he joined them. Sure, the paycheck (a
reported $5.5 million last season) was no small consolation, as
Gugliotta is the first to admit. Still, he waited a long time
for this summer, for free agency, for the chance to choose
instead of being chosen. Now all he can do is wait some more.
Gugliotta, 28, is a 6'10" All-Star forward who averaged 20.1
points for Minnesota last year and has fully recovered from the
bone spurs in his right ankle that forced him to miss the final
41 games of last season. His youth, productivity and
professionalism make him arguably the most attractive forward on
the free-agent market. The Detroit Pistons and the Houston
Rockets are expected to be among Minnesota's strongest
competitors for his services, and when the lockout ends, more
teams will no doubt come calling. But for now, Gugliotta's phone
might as well be disconnected.
"It's a little bit frustrating, not knowing when it's all going
to happen," he says. "I want to be excited about being a free
agent, because I know there's a lot of interest and I'm going to
have some options. But you have to put the excitement on hold.
You just have to put everything on hold."
It could have been a breakthrough summer for Gugliotta, not just
because of the riches that await him on the free-agent market
but also because he was a member of the team of NBA stars that
almost certainly would have won a gold medal at the World
Championships in Athens in August. In June, when the lockout was
imminent, every player chosen for the team elected not to
compete. "It's a big disappointment for all the players,"
Gugliotta says. "We had three or four conference calls to talk
about it and maybe figure out a way to make it work. But in the
end we all agreed that it wasn't right to represent the league
and the owners when they were locking us out."
Gugliotta fills his days at his off-season home in Boulder,
Colo., discovering the wonders of his 16-month-old daughter,
Greer, and occasionally trying to keep up with his wife, Nikki,
a competitive cyclist, on bike rides through the mountains. He's
also trying to whittle down his 14 handicap on the golf course,
but he's hoping the owners and the union settle matters before
he can get down to scratch. Every now and then he calls his
Atlanta-based agent, Richard Howell, just to keep in touch.
"What do we talk about?" Gugliotta says. "Not much, really." You
work for six years to get to the place you've dreamed of, and
once you reach the front door--wouldn't you know it?--you're
Chucky Brown has a month of patience left in him, six weeks
tops. That's all he can afford. "The union and the owners have
some time to mess around right now," he says. "But come August
or early September, they need to go out and get something done.
Stop this one-meeting-a-week crap."
Brown, 30, has decisions to make, and not a lot of time to make
them. He's not one of the high-profile free agents, like his
former North Carolina State teammate Gugliotta, who are secure
in the knowledge that as soon as the lockout ends, the vault
will open for them. Brown, a 6'8" forward who last season
averaged 5.0 points and 2.4 rebounds for the Atlanta Hawks while
earning the NBA minimum for veterans, $272,250, is a journeyman
free agent who has never made more than $650,000 in a season--a
pittance by NBA standards. He is the kind of player who squeezes
himself into the small salary-cap spaces left after the stars
have been paid.
He was a free agent when the last lockout ended, in 1995. After
all the first-tier free agents had been signed, he was offered a
two-year, $925,000 deal from the Rockets. Brown accepted. He
knows that he may not be as lucky this time, which is why Europe
has entered his thinking. "The problem is that by August 1, all
the best-paying spots in the European leagues will be gone,"
says Brown's agent, Bill Neff. "If the lockout is still in
effect by then, guys like Chucky will have to make a choice. Do
they go to Europe, where they can maybe get a contract for
around $1 million, or do they pass it up and take their chances
on the NBA?"
There is no question that Brown, who has played for eight NBA
(and two CBA) teams in nine pro seasons, wants to stay in the
U.S. He briefly played for an Italian league team (Panna
Firenze) in 1992-93 and didn't have a great experience. "I
wouldn't want to go back to Europe," he says, "but if I have to,
Other players seem prepared to go as well. Former Sacramento
Kings guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has already signed a contract
with a team in Turkey, and two other free agents, swingman Mario
Elie of the Rockets and center Michael Stewart of the Kings,
have said they would be open to playing in Europe. "The
competition for spots in the European leagues is going to be
much heavier than usual if this lockout lasts into the fall,"
But Brown isn't worried--yet. The twists and turns of his career
have prepared him for this uncertainty. "I'm used to it," he
says. "I believe there will be a spot for me somewhere in the
NBA, and when the call comes I'll just throw my stuff in a bag
and I'll roll."
The next time someone tells you this dispute is only about
multimillionaire owners and multimillionaire players, tell him
about Chucky Brown.
For the better part of two years, Suns general manager Bryan
Colangelo aimed his franchise toward the summer of 1998. He
devised a roster that after the '97-98 season would leave him
with only four players under contract and with as much as $12
million to spend on what was regarded as one of the deepest
free-agent pools in league history. If the Suns signed Chicago
Bulls forward-guard Scottie Pippen and locked up their own young
free-agent forward, Antonio McDyess, they would lay the
foundation for a championship contender.
Instead, Colangelo has been left holding a bag of salary-cap
cash, unable to spend a dime of it. "Let's just say the whole
process is frustrating," he says.
Although Phoenix has never publicly acknowledged its interest in
snagging Pippen--with good reason, since any such talk before
July 1 would have constituted tampering--sources close to the
team have identified him as the Suns' main target. Even if there
had been no lockout and Phoenix had secured Pippen's services,
the Suns probably would have waited to announce the signing
until Aug. 15, when the adjusted numbers for the '98-99 salary
cap were scheduled to kick in. Under the current collective
bargaining agreement, the cap for next season was projected to
be $26 million per team. But Suns officials felt the actual
figure, boosted by the league's new TV contract, would have
risen as high as $31 million. Now, however, Colangelo and other
general managers have no idea how much money they will have to
spend, or when they'll be able to start spending it.
What if Pippen opts to remain a Bull after the lockout ends? And
what if McDyess decides to hold out for $100 million, instead of
the $80 million the Suns have in mind? Colangelo has plans A, B,
C, D and E, but the lockout will shorten the amount of time each
team has to negotiate, and that could be problematic for a club
that has as many possible transactions in mind as Phoenix has.
While he waits for an end to the labor strife, Colangelo talks
daily with coach Danny Ainge about their numerous strategies.
Colangelo has told the rest of his staff (excluding the coaches)
that he expects them in the office each morning, and he has made
arrangements for Suns employees to participate in various civic
projects throughout the city this summer. He'd rather be
rebounding for Jason Kidd as the point guard works on his
perimeter shooting. "There is one good thing in all of this,"
says Colangelo. "I'm finally catching up on my paperwork."
Arn Tellem had planned a busy and lucrative summer. One of the
agent's star NBA clients, McDyess, was set to become a free
agent on July 1 and was poised for a big payday. Tellem had long
ago completed the prep work for Miami Heat guard Brent Barry's
foray into free agency and for the indoctrination of a prize
stable of rookies, including No. 4 pick Antawn Jamison (traded
by the Toronto Raptors to the Warriors), No. 21 Ricky Davis
(Charlotte Hornets), No. 24 Felipe Lopez (traded by the San
Antonio Spurs to the Vancouver Grizzlies) and No. 28 Corey
Benjamin (Bulls). The lockout, however, has frozen the futures
of all those players, leaving Tellem with plenty of negotiating
tactics but nobody to use them on.
Yet the agent does not fret over his most celebrated clients.
His concern centers on the less coveted free agents he
represents, such as Billy Owens (who spent last season with the
Kings) and Malik Sealy (Pistons), both of whom, Tellem claims,
are "at the heart of this labor dispute."
"The primary issue here is the shrinking middle class of NBA
players," Tellem says. "Guys like Billy and Malik are
continually getting squeezed as a result of the rulings from the
last collective bargaining agreement." Tellem points out that
each team used to be allowed exceptions to the salary cap when
players retired or were lost to free agency; a team could fill a
player's spot with a replacement at up to half the departed
player's salary. "When those were eliminated," Tellem says, "it
left the middle class with very few options except to sign on
for less than market value."
Tellem contends that if the owners have their way and a hard cap
is implemented, there could be as many as seven players on each
roster making the minimum salary, with one or two superstars per
team gobbling up the bulk of the payroll. Tellem also objects to
the use of the average NBA salary as a measuring stick. "Look
instead at the median salary," the agent says. "That's the
number that half the players are below and half the players are
above. That has been stuck between $1.4 and $1.5 million for
Tellem has rounded up a team of his clients for a pro summer
league that began last weekend in Long Beach, Calif. He is also
planning his own workout camp in August, to be run by former
Seattle SuperSonics assistant coach Tim Grgurich. For the better
part of a year, Tellem has been instructing his clients to
prepare, financially and otherwise, for a long layoff. "I told
my guys they should be ready to wait--however long it takes," he
says. "I'd much rather have two weeks to operate under an
equitable deal than six months to sign players under a bad deal."
Section 314, row 10, seats 3 through 6 at Chicago's United
Center might be called the cheap seats if there were such things
in the NBA. That's where Leslie Wright and his buddies sit, high
above the floor in the upper deck. The eight friends share four
season tickets, which in 1998-99 will cost $1,260 each, or $28
per seat per game (up from $25 per seat per game last season),
for four preseason and 41 regular-season games. So each of the
friends will get to attend half of the Bulls' home schedule at a
cost of $630. They will, that is, if their full payment of
$5,040 is in the team's offices on or before Wednesday, July 22.
"If it's not there by 5 p.m. that day, we're bounced," says
Wright, a 39-year-old architect. "It's put up the cash or hit
It doesn't matter that Chicago fans don't know whether Michael
Jordan and Pippen will return next season. It doesn't matter
that they don't even know if there will be a next season. One
thing that hasn't been put on hold during the lockout is the
payment schedule for season-ticket holders, many of whom have to
pay the entire cost of their tickets or put down a deposit
despite the work stoppage. In essence they have to buy before
they know the quality of the product--or if and when it will be
delivered. (Their money will be refunded, eventually, for games
that aren't played.)
"It's not fair at all that we have to pay before the lockout
ends, but we're going to do it, we're going to renew," Wright
says. "I almost dropped out a year ago, when nobody knew whether
they were going to break up the team or not, but I couldn't do
it. The bottom line is, I'm a basketball fan."
The owners and the players can only hope that most of the public
is as faithful as Wright, who has been spending money on Bulls
tickets for the last 14 years. "When you've been coming to games
that long, it's not easy to just walk away from it," he says.
But Wright's enthusiasm is eroding in small ways. This is the
first off-season in which he hasn't bought armloads of
merchandise to commemorate a Bulls championship--no sweats, no
caps, no pins. He has also decided that he won't pay if there is
another off-season of uncertainty. "If the situation next year
is anything like this year, I'm out, I'm not coming back," he
says. Loyalty has its limits. Negotiators on both sides might
want to take that thought with them to the bargaining table.
takes," says Tellem.
to spend a dime of it.