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Will Prosperity Spoil the NBA? : League meeting: The question of how to divide increased revenue looms over collective bargaining.


PALM DESERT — The NFL has put in a salary cap. Baseball owners are dying for one.

The NBA, which has had one for 10 years, has a different challenge: hanging onto it.

League owners meeting here this weekend amid unprecedented prosperity face but one major issue: negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires after this season.

What do their players have in mind?

"Well, we'd like to eliminate the system as is," said Charles Grantham, executive director of the Players Assn., laughing.

So much for detente. Cordial labor relations have been the rule in the NBA, where the union became such a power after its formation in the 1960s that owners who were scrambling to survive weren't tempted to break it, as baseball and football owners tried with their unions. NBA players have never struck or been locked out. Relations with the league were such that the union was once headed by Simon Gourdine, who had come over from the league office.

However, the '90s aren't the '80s. Affluence has replaced crisis in the NBA and there is a larger pie to divide.

"There were a certain set of conditions during the last decade that really aren't present now," Grantham said. "You look at the growth of the league internationally, the Dream Team--all these thing obviously point to the fact that the teams are in far better shape financially. . . .

"While clearly our players' salaries have continued to grow, (they are) not growing at the same pace that the value of the franchise has for many of these owners. There was a time when these clubs were worth somewhere between $10, 12, 14 million and now today you're looking at expansion for $125 million (the expected entry fee for the new Toronto team).

"The cap's grown from $3.9 to $15 million. That's a disproportionate rate of growth. If in fact we're going to be partners, our share should grow as quickly as their share."

Grantham says the players will start with the basics, eliminating the salary cap and draft.

Owners are expected to resist.

"More than resist," Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik says.

"We don't feel we can operate as a business without the cap. I think it is something we absolutely need to function at any reasonable way.

"There's lots of different ways you can do the cap, and we've adjusted it many times over the years, but we think the cap or something like it is absolutely necessary in this business."

NBA players are not thought to be spoiling for a fight. The union president, Isiah Thomas, has his own popularity problems and the real force, Michael Jordan, reportedly likes things the way they are.

However, the players have some levers.

The league would like to renegotiate the licensing agreement, which Grantham says has been a league windfall of about $75 million.

Grantham says the players can simply sit back until the agreement runs out in 1997, then make their own marketing deal.

And the recent decision affirming Portland's contract with Chris Dudley might mean that the league has to come to the players for relief.

Dudley, turning down a $21-million offer from the New Jersey Nets, accepted an $11-million contract that makes him a free agent again in a year, enabling the Trail Blazers to pay him anything they want then.

The league argued that the contract violated the spirit of the salary cap.

A special master found for the Trail Blazers and Dudley, and an arbitrator, ruling on such contracts generally, backed up that decision Thursday. The league is expected to appeal in court.

"I'm not sure there's anything we can do but put it on our list of things to get back in the next collective bargaining agreement so we could button up the loophole," Granik said.

The players have their own grievances. Grantham points to the $60 million they received to settle a special master's hearing into allegations that the teams were under-reporting revenues.

"The mood?" Grantham said. "Well, it's chilled a little bit as a result of that settlement, there's no question about it, if you're in business with a partner and you think your partner is not on the up and up with you."

There is room to maneuver. The league could adjust the 53% of revenues that determine the cap or include other sources of revenue. The union might not really press for revolution, but it does have a whole season to talk about it.

NBA Notes

Other items to be discussed this weekend include re-weighting the lottery to make sure Orlando doesn't win the top pick every year. . . . Russ Granik says a rookie salary cap is only "something we have to look at." Speculation that one would be part of the next agreement spurred such college stars as Shawn Bradley, Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Rodney Rogers to declare for last spring's draft.

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