David Stern is the linebacker who slams the ballcarrier to the
turf and then politely picks him up and pats him on the butt.
He's the pool hustler who cleans out his victim's wallet and
then gives him cab fare home. That's essentially what Stern, the
NBA commissioner, did to the National Basketball Players
Association last week when he gave the desperate union a few
face-saving concessions to forge an agreement, ending the
191-day labor dispute and salvaging an abbreviated season that
will start on Feb. 5. He allowed the union to keep its dignity
but took almost everything else.
After the settlement on Jan. 6, Stern insisted that Billy
Hunter, executive director of the players' association, had
forced him to give up more than he wanted. Stern also implied
that he'd had to explain himself to those owners who wondered
why he hadn't gotten a better deal. He wasn't just being
magnanimous; he was being, as always, shrewd. Stern knows he
needs the cooperation of the union to win back the fans and that
it would serve no useful purpose to give even the slightest
appearance of rubbing it in.
But even if he doesn't want to publicly admit it, Stern won a
landmark victory. He made the NBA the only one of the four major
pro leagues to have a maximum salary. He rendered agents, such
as his nemesis, David Falk, unable to drive bidding wars for
their clients into the stratosphere. He made it possible for
teams to hold on to their draft choices for five years--two
years longer than under the past collective bargaining
agreement--before those players become unrestricted free agents.
There's little wonder that one team president said there was
"dancing on the tables" when Stern laid out the deal to the
The only way the new agreement won't turn out to be a slam-dunk,
hang-from-the-rim, chest-bumping triumph for Stern and his
employers will be if the fans don't come back. But they
will--even if Michael Jordan doesn't. This season will be a
50-game act of contrition in which the NBA will take the
flogging it so richly deserves from the public. The fans are to
be congratulated for their apathy during the lockout; it was
precisely the right emotion. Ranting and raving would only have
contributed to the belief of too many in both labor and
management that the league is indispensable to the public. But
now the wining and dining of the fans begins. The NBA didn't
cancel a postseason, as baseball did. It didn't wipe out an
entire schedule. In the end, less than half a season (and the
inconsequential half, at that) was lost. It's a measure of the
state of sports today that that seems a very forgivable sin.
January 18, 1999
Stern won, then, which was no surprise; he almost always does.
That's why the owners had the good sense for the last six months
to keep their mouths shut and let him work. While the players
were talking too much--first putting their hightops in their
mouths with ludicrous comments that showed how out of touch they
are with the average fan and then hurting the union's cause by
revealing how desperate they were to settle--the owners let Stern
be their voice. It's true that they had a gag order with the
threat of a six-figure fine hanging over their heads, but these
are wealthy, powerful men. The fear of writing a check didn't
keep them quiet. Confidence in Stern did.
The confidence was well-placed. Stern waited patiently while his
greatest ally, time, worked for him. He and the owners clearly
felt that the players would get fidgety and push Hunter and union
president Patrick Ewing to make a deal. The union may have
surprised them by staying unified as long as it did, but
eventually Stern's strategy worked.
The endgame began around Christmas, when it became obvious that
the union's resolve was crumbling. The players were beginning to
grumble about the prospect of losing the season, and some of
their agents were pressuring Hunter to settle. Tensions came to a
head in New York City on Jan. 5 when the players started to
arrive for a meeting the next day at which they would take a
pivotal vote, deciding whether to go against the recommendation
of the union's negotiating committee and accept what the owners
had called their final proposal.
It promised to be a divisive session. Stars Shaquille O'Neal,
Hakeem Olajuwon, Jayson Williams and Anthony Mason were prepared
to demand a secret-ballot vote, and other players seemed ready to
break ranks with the union and go back to work no matter what the
results of the vote were. "I came to play basketball," said
Orlando Magic swingman Nick Anderson. "I was going to play with
five people or with 500 people. No matter what, I was going to
Before his power base crumbled any further, Hunter knew what he
had to do: On the night of Jan. 5 he called Stern and said, "Do
you want to talk?" Stern replied, "I'd love to talk." What he
could have said was "Checkmate."
By early the next morning Stern had closed the deal, rewarding
his owners' faith with an agreement that will save them from
their own profligate tendencies. Under the agreement the maximum
salary in the first year of a new contract will be $14 million,
and only players who have been in the league for at least 10
seasons will be eligible to earn that much. There will be no
more six-year, $126 million deals for 21-year-old players like
the one the Minnesota Timberwolves gave Kevin Garnett 16 months
ago. With a wage scale for players' first four years in the
league and salary ceilings of $9 million for those with six
years of experience or less and $11 million for those with
between seven and nine years in the league, the influence of
agents will also be greatly diminished. A seventh-year player's
new contract, for instance, will pay no more than $11 million in
the first year; it doesn't matter whether his agent is David
Falk or Peter Falk.
This sweet deal for the owners will seem even sweeter in years
to come. In December 33-year-old pitcher Kevin Brown signed a
seven-year, $105 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Given that, how much will a 30-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. or a
25-year-old Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners ask for when
they become free agents in 2000? While baseball owners stare at
the possibility of a $200 million contract, their NBA
counterparts have no such worries. Says Stan Kasten, president
of the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Braves, "I don't even know
the terms of this deal--we don't have it signed yet--but yes, I
can categorically guarantee you it is far better than any deal
that exists in baseball."
Stern did give the union concessions on low-end salaries. The
minimum last season was $242,000 for rookies and $272,250 for
veterans. In the first year of the new deal, rookies will earn
at least $287,500 and there will be a sliding scale for
veterans, depending on their time of service, from at least
$350,000 for a second-year player to at least $1 million for a
veteran of 10 years or more. That's more than a minor victory
for the union, but it was one the owners could afford. Neither
the minimum salaries nor the salary-cap exceptions of between $1
million and $2.25 million that teams will be able to use on a
limited basis will inflate payrolls the way high-end contracts
Ultimately, the biggest sacrifice Stern may have made involved
his image. During the dispute he got his hands dirtier than he
normally does, playing hardball out in the open, and he can no
longer take pride in the NBA's never having lost a game because
of labor strife. But he will recover, and in time so will his
league, if the players take a lesson from the owners and follow
Regardless of what the players think of Stern, the early signs
are that they will do just that. After the settlement was
reached, he made a no-hard-feelings speech to the union
membership. A handful of players walked out before Stern began to
talk, but when he was finished, he exited to a round of applause.
So while Stern's supremacy is undisputed, other NBA matters
remain open to question. To wit:
WHO MADE A HUGE SACRIFICE IN HELPING TO REACH A SETTLEMENT? (THE
ANSWER MAY SURPRISE YOU.)
Shaquille O'Neal can exercise an escape clause in his contract
after this season. If he had done so under the old rules, he
would have been able to command the moon (and the stars--Jupiter
and Pluto, too) from the Los Angeles Lakers because he would
have been their free agent, and they could have re-signed him
for any amount. Not anymore. The most O'Neal can now command
will be a contract with a maximum first-year salary of $11
million and 12.5% raises annually thereafter. That will be less
than his current seven-year, $121 million deal pays him. Yet
Shaq and the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, in concert with
their agent, Leonard Armato, helped compel Billy Hunter to
negotiate a settlement. Clearly, O'Neal was thinking beyond
money. "Shaq may have missed out on becoming the highest-paid
player in the NBA," says Armato, "but he was willing to
sacrifice that for the good of the game and to show the kind of
leadership he feels the players needed." --Jackie MacMullan
WHO SUFFERED MOST IN THE TIMING OF THE DEAL? (THIS ANSWER WON'T
BE A SURPRISE.)
Only the eternally cursed Los Angeles Clippers could draft No. 1
and then see their pick, center Michael Olowokandi, sign with
Kinder Bologna two days before the lockout ended. Olowokandi is
committed to his European League team until Feb. 15, meaning
he'll miss training camp and the first week of the NBA season.
Why must he stay until the 15th, while free-agent center Vlade
Divac, who has been playing with Red Star Belgrade, can come back
by Feb. 1? Because Kinder Bologna, which will pay Olowokandi $1
million for six weeks' work, wants him patrolling the middle on
Feb. 14 when it faces archrival Benetton Treviso.
Olowokandi, a native of Nigeria who grew up in England, went to
Italy for two reasons: The money was too good to pass up, and the
opportunity to compete at a high level was crucial. "Guys like
[No. 2 draft pick] Mike Bibby have been playing for 10 years or
more," says Bill Duffy, Olowokandi's agent. "Michael Olowokandi
has only played 77 games in his life. He needed the experience,
and he needed it now." --J.M.
NOW THAT THE GAMES WILL FINALLY BEGIN, WHERE WILL THE TOP FREE
Perhaps the league's new, less freewheeling economic climate is
what caused an about-face by Scottie Pippen, who went from
vowing never to play for the Chicago Bulls again to saying he
would like to stay in Chicago--provided the Bulls give him a
long-term deal. But is Chicago willing to do that for Pippen, a
33-year-old who only five months ago underwent back surgery? If
it isn't, the Houston Rockets are. They have identified Pippen
and point guard Rod Strickland as their top priorities, which
makes sense because Houston needs players who can bring the ball
up and spread the defense. (Be aware that the Washington Wizards
will do everything they can to re-sign Strickland.)
The Phoenix Suns also like Pippen, but their free-agent plans
have changed considerably because the cap, at $30 million this
season, is well below the $38 million they had anticipated. The
Suns are likely to make their top priority resigning power
forward Antonio McDyess, who is also considering the Rockets.
Under the new agreement McDyess and other free agents can get
more lucrative annual raises (12.5% versus 10%) and longer-term
deals (seven years versus six) if they stay put rather than sign
with new teams. McDyess's possible choice: a contract worth
$92.2 million if he stays or one worth $69.4 million if he leaves.
Forward Tom Gugliotta has daydreamed about the Suns, but he will
also be courted by the Denver Nuggets, whose proximity to elite
training facilities in Boulder may be a selling point to
Gugliotta's wife, Nikki, a top-notch biathlete. Gugliotta might
also try to sign a one-year deal; then, by next season, he will
have played seven years, which would move him from the $9
million-a-year-maximum category to the $11 million max. But as
one G.M. says, "What team in its right mind would go for that?"
WHO HAS A FAT CHANCE OF BEING IN SHAPE WHEN TRAINING CAMP STARTS?
Wouldn't you have loved to have seen the face of Cleveland
Cavaliers coach Mike Fratello when he tuned in to that Dec. 19
charity game in Atlantic City and saw his prize forward, Shawn
Kemp, chugging up the court? Kemp conceded that he needed to
drop 10 pounds; double that and add five, and you're closer to
the truth. Then there's Patrick Ewing, who was so involved in
the negotiations that it was impossible for him to keep up his
usual rigorous training schedule. Word from the great Northwest
is that Portland Trail Blazers forward Brian Grant refuses to
remove his jersey during informal workouts there because he has
undergone some expansion he would rather keep private. Our spies
also inform us that Toronto Raptors center Oliver Miller, who
has often played at 325 pounds, is even heftier than ever, a
scary thought. On the other hand, many of the Indiana Pacers
have been working out together in Indianapolis, and reports are
that slender 6'10" forward Derrick McKey is skinnier than his
usual 225 pounds. --J.M.
WHO MIGHT BE A MARKED MAN ONCE PLAY BEGINS?
Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill was noticeably silent during
the lockout, and many players feel that as one of the league's
young stars, Hill should have spoken out in support of the
union. Karl Malone criticized Hill and San Antonio Spurs forward
Tim Duncan when they didn't take part in the Atlantic City game.
Hill and Duncan's Sprite commercials, which spoofed their
unemployment and encouraged people to call 1-800-TALL-MEN to
hire them for odd jobs, further irritated some of the players.
Hill's agent, Lon Babby, has said that his client wasn't more
outspoken because he felt the union should have a single
voice--Hunter's--but that explanation hasn't satisfied Hill's
colleagues on the court. "I really feel sorry for Grant," the
Detroit Free Press quoted an unidentified player as saying.
"They're going to be out to get him, and the four guys I talked
to really meant it. Players with a lot to lose sacrificed a lot,
and the sentiment is that the league is looking out for those
two more than most. They're going to take some shots."
WHO IS BONZI WELLS, AND WHY IS HE SMILING?
Wells, a forward from Ball State, was taken No. 11 in the 1998
draft by the Pistons. It would stand to reason that because of
the rookie salary scale, Paul Pierce, a forward from Kansas who
was chosen 10th by the Boston Celtics, would be in line to earn
more money than Wells. But under the new agreement, there's a
possible twist. If a team picks up the option on its draft pick
after his fourth year, his salary will increase according to a
tiered system. A player selected No. 1 through 10 is eligible
for a 25% raise, one chosen 11 through 19 a 50% raise, and one
picked 20 through 29 a 75% raise. While the rookie pay scale for
this year has yet to be announced, if the 1998-99 numbers apply,
Pierce would make $4.0 million in his first three seasons and
$1.9 million in his fourth year if the Celtics exercised their
option, for a total of $5.9 million. Wells, meanwhile, would
earn $3.8 million in the first three seasons and then get bumped
up to $2.2 million in his fourth, for a total of $6.0 million.
SHOULD THERE BE A BIG ASTERISK NEXT TO THIS ABBREVIATED SEASON?
The NBA's most vexing question now is what to call this season:
1998-99 or simply '99? By either name the players will take it
just as seriously as any other year. The consensus seems to be
that the games may be ragged early but that the playoffs will
produce a deserving champion. "If anything, the playoffs might
be better than usual because guys won't be worn down from
playing 82 games," says New York Knicks guard Allan Houston.
"Whoever wins the ring is going to earn it."
But will the best teams make the playoffs? With a short training
camp, one out-of-condition star might doom a good team by
slowing its start. The unique circumstances of this season,
including the unbalanced schedule, in which some teams will not
play each other, are bound to affect the results. In the
players' minds there may not be a difference between this year's
champion and any other champ, but in the public's mind there
probably will be.