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SHOPPING DAZE : With Star Players on the Market, NBA Teams to Learn the Cost of Freedom


Now to reconfigure professional basketball as we know it.

The NBA's biggest, brightest class of free agents is going onto a market that will never be the same. In a league in which stars have traditionally been locked up through their careers, such marquee names as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Dennis Rodman, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton are about to be set free.

Another 165 players--54% of the league--can become free agents in a bazaar that will be like a spree on Rodeo Drive or a summer staked out on an ant hill, depending on whether one is bidding for players or trying to keep them.

"I think," said Indiana Pacer President Donnie Walsh, "in certain situations all hell is going to break loose."

Salaries, thought to have gone crazy when Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson got $7 million annually, are about to double. Agent David Falk, whose stable includes the creme de la creme, even took the liberty of announcing a price list in a tribute to hype, not to mention himself, that nevertheless raised blood pressures in front offices throughout the league.

Jordan--$20 to $25 million.

O'Neal--$20 million.

Mourning--$15 million.

Dikembe Mutombo--$14 million.

Juwan Howard--$13 million.

Kenny Anderson--$7 million.

Falk represents all but Shaq and is no disinterested observer. His numbers are astronomical, but if you cut 25% off them, they'd still be sky high, and two or three of the elite may reach them.

Jordan recently volunteered to stay in Chicago for $18 million a year, a bargain in the new context that had Falk scurrying, joking that Jordan had been mistaken, that was the price for Howard.

Anderson turned down $6 million a year from the New Jersey Nets, who then traded him to the Charlotte Hornets--who are expected to let him go. Falk is now reportedly working on a new scheme or scam: Since Howard wants to stay in Washington, the agent is trying to package his rising star with Anderson, his falling star.

Falk is trying the same thing with the Miami Heat, which has to sign Mourning or go back to square one. Falk wants to package Mourning and another client, Rex Chapman, amid skepticism that Heat boss Pat Riley is biting.

"It's extremely important to me," Falk said recently. "I want to get him [Chapman] situated in Miami as soon as possible."

A lot of things are "extremely important" to Falk, who reportedly said he wanted "Derrick Coleman money" for the Nets' new high scorer, Armon Gilliam. Like it or not, this is the Year of the Agent.

"Every time I talk to David, everybody's worth $10 million," Walsh said. "I don't think it's true, but I'm not sure.

"The thing is, David is in a much better position to know than any GM. He knows more than Jerry [West] and I know. He talks to every GM."

Said West: "There are going to be a lot of guys who get overpaid. I don't think there's any question about that. This is a risk-taking business where you have to have players, you have to have talent."

The Lakers are expected to pursue O'Neal, Orlando's 24-year-old star, having stripped themselves to seven players under contract, dealing starting center Vlade Divac for a dramatic roll of the dice.

With Jordan expected to stay in Chicago, O'Neal is the linchpin of the summer. Despite widespread speculation about a "done deal," Laker officials, Magic officials and O'Neal's agent, Leonard Armato, insist they have not been a party to negotiations, agreements or signals.

It's an important point, since Commissioner David Stern has been given unprecedented powers to punish tampering--the right to fine teams $5 million and bar them from signing the player.

If the Lakers don't bag their elephant, they'll turn their attention to other prizes, presumably starting with Howard. At $8.5 million under the cap, they are one of the heaviest hitters, along with the Heat, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks. Assuming Riley intends to keep Tim Hardaway, the Lakers are the heaviest hitter.

Ironically, the new labor agreement, which has been characterized as a walkover by Stern and the owners, threatens to topple the old order. The new deal throws out restricted free agency, striking the contractual bonds on young stars such as O'Neal, Mourning and Howard, whose teams had given them "outs" in long-term deals under the assumption they'd have the right to match any offer.

Surprise! It's a wild new day or month or two or . . .


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