NBA players will start the season Friday without a labor contract, but also without the strike threat that hovered over the NFL six weeks ago.
"We've never had a situation where we had to strike before and I don't see it happening in the future," said Isiah Thomas of Detroit, an NBA Players Assn. vice president.
"I would say there is little chance of a strike this season," Houston Rockets player representative Robert Reid said. "We have filed suit and want to decide it in court."
The NBA players came within a day of going on strike in April 1983, when a contract agreement was reached with the league's owners that included a salary cap and a guaranteed percentage of gross revenues allotted to players.
A strike deadline set by the union was timed to fall just before the start of the playoffs, and both sides agreed that the leverage gained by the players was pivotal in the ultimate agreement.
If a strike comes, NBA players say they don't want to get into a situation like the NFL players did in which they have to return after gaining little or nothing.
"It's hard to hunt when the owners have all the bullets," Jeff Cook of the Phoenix Suns said. "We've never been in the position that the NFL players put themselves in. They put themselves in a stalemate situation where neither side would give in."
"We can't let it get to the point where we have no leverage," New York Knicks player representative Rory Sparrow said. "In the heat of battle, the union leaders have to make tough decisions. Gene Upshaw (of the NFL) thought the players would sustain the effort."
Sparrow said that in the event of a strike, the NBA union's smaller size would benefit the players because it would be easier to keep the membership informed. The NBA players association has about 280 members, the NFL 1,500.
"The NFL has more players and a lot of difference between the high and low-salaried players," Sparrow said. "I seriously doubt whether we'll strike, but if it gets to that point, I don't foresee anyone crossing the line, even the superstars."
Mike Sanders, player representative for the Phoenix Suns, agreed with Sparrow that communication with the membership is easier for the NBA union.
"Our union's a lot stronger because the NFL has so many people," Sanders said. "That's a big plus for us and we'll hang together better. I think half the NFL players didn't know what they were striking for. That wouldn't happen to us."
NBAPA general counsel Larry Fleisher and Charles Grantham, the executive vice president, recently made a videotape cassette that was distributed to all the players reps. On the tape, they explained all the issues in the contract negotiations.
The players are trying to end the draft, the salary cap and right of first refusal, the system in which a free agent's original team can match any offer made by another team. In addition to collective bargaining sessions with the league, the players have filed suit to settle all three of those issues.
But free agency seems to be foremost on the minds of the players.
"Guys who are on teams that don't give them playing time should be able to get a chance elsewhere," Reid said. "Look at Dale Ellis, he went to Seattle and got a chance after years on the bench in Dallas and look what happened."
Ellis averaged nearly 25 points per game for Seattle and led the SuperSonics to the Western Conference finals last season.
"I came out of a small college in San Antonio (St. Mary's) and everyone wanted the Spurs to draft me. If they had taken me, I would have sat on the bench behind Larry Kenon," Reid said. "Instead, I was taken by Houston and got a chance to play small forward. I was fortunate to be drafted by the right team, but other guys aren't so lucky and they deserve a chance to go where they can play."
Several players said they doubted NBA owners would try to stage games with replacement players if the NBA regulars went on strike.
"We're a lot more visible that NFL players," Houston's Cedric Maxwell said. "You put a helmet and uniform on a black guy who's the same size as Walter Payton and no one can tell it isn't him. But you can't duplicate guys like Magic Johnson or Akeem Olajuwon. The personalities we have are so visible.
And if there are no replacement games, there's nothing for the striking players to defect to."
"We're more of an elite group than the NFL," said Bill Laimbeer, player rep for the Detroit Pistons. "Two or three guys can make a difference on a team. The strike proved that's not true in football."
"The NBA has more chances for spectacular individual play than the NFL," Sparrow said. "But if someone doesn't make a block, a superstar runner can't do anything. I doubt if the owners would even try it."