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 gifted 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.
In rebuttal, the Bullets would say that Slaughter did not protest when Williams was refunded $100,000 after passing his first weight test in June. It was only after he failed to make 268 pounds in July that Slaughter sent a letter of protest to Nash, labeling the "weight contract" invalid.
Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBPA, appearing in behalf of Williams, is expected to argue that no weight clauses existed in the contract filed with the NBA, but only incentive clauses for losing weight.
But every standard contract contains the clause that players must report to work "in good physical condition." This is what NBA attorneys Gary Bettman and Joe Litvin are expected to stress in their testimony.
Said Nash: "It would be medically irresponsible to let John Williams play at his present weight. Not only would his knee be at risk, but also his heart and other vital organs."
Pollin and Nash have said they would not trade Williams, once considered one of the cornerstones of the rebuilding Bullets. Nash argues that Williams, in his present condition, could not bring anything near his true value in a trade.
A month ago, an angry Nash said, "As far as I'm concerned, I don't care if John Williams ever plays again."
Williams, who signed a six-year contract extension in February 1989 worth $6 million, was told he could not attend team practices or sit on the bench at home games.
The five-year veteran has been offered the use of the team's weight and exercise facilities at Bowie State University. Nash said Williams has appeared only once for conditioning drills under strength coach Dennis Householder.
The Bullets say Williams' inability to play has caused the team "significant harm." His absence has proved especially costly this season to coach Wes Unseld, who also has been without the services of forwards Bernard King and Mark Alarie because of preseason knee surgery.