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At Least the NBA Appears to Be on Track : Basketball: Despite differences, neither the players nor the owners seem inclined to force a strike or a lockout.

October 06, 1994|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So many leagues have already gone out, no one might notice another, but NBA Commissioner David Stern says he'd like to buck the trend, anyway.

At a Board of Governors meeting Wednesday in New York, Stern said the NBA has no intention of locking its players out when the season starts Nov. 4.

Charles Grantham, director of the players' association, replied, "No one wants a strike," and pronounced himself "cautiously optimistic."

NBA players are thought to be dovish on the whole thing. The Chicago Bulls haven't even had a player representative for two seasons, and there have been reports that several other stars want no part of a strike.

Wednesday, an agent identified two of them to The Times as Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal and Charlotte's Alonzo Mourning. O'Neal's Century City-based agent, Leonard Armato, said he'd hate to see his multimillionaire client wearing one of those "Unfair to the Working Man" sandwich boards.

"It's difficult for me to see why a strike would be better than continuing to negotiate or utilizing the court system," Armato said.

However, the union has refused to negotiate, pressing its case in court first. An attempt to strike down the existing structure, complete with the draft and salary cap, was denied by a federal district judge last summer.

The union then appealed. A verdict is expected in the next few weeks.

The NBA owners convened their meeting Wednesday in a crisis atmosphere verging on hysteria.

Last week, union president Buck Williams, reacting to the lockout talk, said if the owners didn't bar the doors, the players might strike.

Monday, the New York Times ran a story headlined "Labor Problems Galore. Collaboration or Coincidence?" In it, baseball union leader Donald Fehr was quoted as saying: "I don't know if it's a grand conspiracy, but my information is they (Stern, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and baseball owners' negotiator Richard Ravitch) have been in regular contact. They've had some meetings in Bettman and Stern's offices."

Tuesday, the New York Daily News reported the NBA had set a Nov. 15 deadline for a lockout, before players received their first paychecks.

Wednesday, Stern denied everything.

"We have never had a strike and never had a lockout," he said. "We know what a strike is. We know what a lockout is. But those particular weapons have never been called into action. We haven't and we don't plan to."

The NBA is insisting on the salary cap and the draft and has additionally asked for a "rookie cap" to limit the contracts of first-year players.

However Stern insists there is only one real issue--how to divide the more than $1 billion in revenues the NBA makes annually--and has directed NBA owners to disclose financial data to the union.

Grantham, in his first negotiation as head of the union, has taken a hard line--perhaps in retaliation. The NBA had a chummy relationship with his predecessor, Larry Fleisher, but soon after Grantham took over, the league was caught hiding luxury-box money from the players.

NBA players, however, are thought to be fat and happy. Agents, who normally reflect the mood of their clients, think the present structure is fine.

Armato notes that the NBA's "soft cap," which lets teams sign their own free agents for any amount, is less restrictive than the NFL's "hard cap," and still represents sport's most generous system. Most agents for NBA players even espouse "give-backs" in the form of a rookie cap.

Wednesday, with the lockout scenario gone for the immediate future, Grantham struck his own conciliatory tone.

"First of all, nobody wants a strike," he said from New York. "You have to start with that assumption. . . .

"We had rumors floating they (NBA owners) were going to lock us out. They decided that clearly that's not what they want to do here--at least initially. Our players are reporting to work on time. We have no intention of having them strike at the start of the season. The issue, however, if it ever comes up, is not a strike that I call. It's a strike that all the players vote on. To find players right now saying they don't want to strike--they have nothing to strike for."

*

As expected, owners ratified offense-boosting rule changes adopted by the competition committee, shortening the three-point line and toughening rules against hand-checking.

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