NEW YORK -- A battery of attorneys will be representing the Washington Bullets, the National Basketball Association and the NBA Players Association at a grievance hearing today in the NBA's Fifth Avenue office to determine whether the Bullets were justified in withholding $426,000 from forward John Williams' 1990-91 salary for being out of shape.
But, inevitably, all the arguments being heard by arbitrator Daniel Collins, a New York University law professor, could boil down to what Bullets owner Abe Pollin promised Williams just before the player returned to Washington, Nov. 1, 1990, weighing more than 300 pounds.
Under medical suspension, Williams missed the first 49 games last season before the Bullets physicians deemed him fit to play. He played in the final 33 games, averaging 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Williams, 25, a 6-foot-9 forward whose problems began to multiply after he tore a ligament in his right knee, Dec. 4, 1989, held out this summer, missing the entire preseason. Again, he reported grossly overweight on the eve of the season opener, and once more was suspended without pay.
But whether Williams' agent/attorney, Fred Slaughter of Santa Monica, Calif., also has filed a grievance for this season's withheld salary is not known.
Slaughter has not responded to phone messages.
Collins' decision is likely to take a week. That was how long he took last summer to rule in favor of the New York Knicks in their salary dispute with superstar Patrick Ewing.
Cynics suggest the Bullets could simply rest their case if Williams, still reportedly weighing approximately 300, appears at the hearing. But it is not all that simple.
As expected, all the parties involved have different stories to tell.
"I know what I told John when he came to Washington last year," Pollin said Friday, "and it isn't what they're saying."
Slaughter, who filed a grievance March 9, 1991, is expected to say that Pollin agreed not only to rescind all of the player's fines for missing the 1990 training camp, but also to receive "all his back pay" once he was reactivated.
The Bullets' legal staff, headed by David Osnos and Mike Jaffe, is not likely to even argue this issue. Instead, they probably will offer as evidence an agreement Williams signed April 18, 1991, in which he agreed that the refunding of his suspended pay would hinge on his meeting a series of prescribed weights during the summer of 1991.
Slaughter, in turn, would argue that Williams was coerced by Bullets general manager John Nash into signing this agreement without the presence of legal counsel.