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COMMENTARY : Even Though It Plays On, NBA Could Be Headed for Trouble

October 29, 1994|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

The bus pulled out of the Bradley Center about three o'clock Milwaukee time, not so long after it was announced at a news conference in New York that something amazing will happen in a week: A professional sports season, the NBA's in this case, will start on time. The bus carrying the Bucks went out on North 4th Street and then over to Kilbourn and then to I-43, the road that would take the Bucks to an exhibition game Thursday night in Green Bay against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It was another preseason bus that did not have Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson, the Bucks' No. 1 draft choice, on it. They might have postponed trouble for a year in the NBA yesterday, but that bus going up I-43 was a symbol of a league headed straight for trouble.

The Bucks have offered Robinson a nine-year contract worth $60 million. Robinson has swatted that one away, into the seats, like some weak jump shot. His agent, Dr. Charles Tucker, keeps talking about a contract 12 years long, or maybe even 15, with automatic salary increases built in. Tucker never actually mentions the figure $100 million to Mike Dunleavy and John Steinmiller, who run the business side for the Bucks. But the number is always there between them.

Dunleavy is vice president of basketball operations for the Bucks, in addition to being coach. He did some quick figuring the very first time Tucker talked about a contract that could go for 15 years.

"Dr. Tucker, if my math is correct, we'd be talking about a contract worth $105 million," Dunleavy said.

Tucker, according to Dunleavy, smiled. Perhaps he smiled like the Cheshire cat in "Alice in Wonderland." Which is exactly where Mike Dunleavy thought he was at the time.

"Oh, is that what it would be?" Tucker said.

This was before the Bucks played their first exhibition game. The regular season starts next Friday. Robinson still is unsigned. He could have been home in Gary, Ind., shooting hoops Thursday. Or there was some talk he might be shooting around somewhere with Juwan Howard, the No. 1 draft choice of the Bullets, also unsigned. Howard has turned down a contract from the Bullets that would pay him about $37,000 per game for the next 10 years. That contract is pocket change compared to what the Bucks are offering Robinson. If he signs for what Milwaukee is offering, he will be paid $81,300 per game by the Bucks until the year 2003.

David Stern, the NBA commissioner, and Charles Grantham, the executive director for the NBA Players Assn., have agreed to play this season without a new collective-bargaining agreement between the owners and players. The NHL did the same thing last season and never made a deal and now there is no hockey the way there is no baseball. Basketball already has a salary cap in place. Hockey and baseball do not. The basketball players already have gone to court once, trying to have the salary cap declared illegal.

The NBA owners will not only fight in court, but to the death, to not only keep the salary cap, but to put more teeth into it. They do not only want a cap for veteran players, they want one for rookies, so that they are not forced to pay any more players like Jason Kidd of the Mavericks and Grant Hill of the Pistons contracts worth $54 and $45 million, respectively. Anfernee Hardaway of the Magic, a second-year player, has a new $70-million contract, with $45 million guaranteed.

But there was Grantham, negotiating even as he said Thursday's news conference was not a negotiating session, saying this about David Stern: "We hope that (Stern) will realize that a salary cap is not necessary."

And when somebody talked about Glenn Robinson and raised the issue of a rookie cap, Grantham said, "We don't believe a cap within a cap is the answer."

The owners sure do. The owners now see a player who starts negotiating down from $100 million and wonder where next year's No. 1 will start. There is no sport where one player can make more of a difference than basketball. A long time ago, we saw that in Milwaukee when the No. 1 draft choice was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now the Bucks, who only won 20 games last season, are hoping Big Dog Robinson can turn everything around for them the way Abdul-Jabbar did. But the game, at least when money is changing hands, has changed since 1969. There is no other sport where someone's whole career is guaranteed before he walks out of the locker room and proves he can do anything.

So Robinson is in Gary, or wherever he is. A deal worth $81,300 per game into the next century sits on the table. And once again, you wonder where this all ends, if it does not end with the kind of bitter trouble we have now in baseball and hockey. All the NBA bought was a year's worth of time, at a time when $60 million does not buy you the top pick in the draft. It is supposed to be a big joke that the value of the Bucks' franchise is not worth much more than the offer made to Robinson. It is no joke, no matter how much everybody was smiling in New York.

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