WASHINGTON -- A crowd of eager basketball fans had already gathered when the gleaming, two-door gold Mercedes made a U-turn and pulled up to the curb just outside the MCI Center.
Out of the luxury import stepped Washington Wizards forward Juwan Howard. Already in possession of a seven-year, $105 million contract, Howard was taking to the street along with other NBA players to plead the case of a players union in pursuit of a bigger slice of the league's financial pie.
Yesterday was supposed to mark the first day of NBA training camps, with players gearing up for the season with two-mile runs and two-a-day practices.
Instead, NBA players were in the midst of a lockout that, with Monday's cancellation of the exhibition season by the league, puts in jeopardy the NBA's claim to being the only major professional sports league to have never lost a regular-season game because of a work stoppage. The league may start canceling regular-season games, scheduled to begin on Nov. 3, as soon as next week.
"As professionals on both sides, we should have all sat down and got this thing done so we don't hurt this game," Howard said during a rally outside the MCI Center attended by nine players, one of 14 such forums by players around the league. "The game is at stake, more than anything. Now it's in jeopardy and we don't want to see that happen, like it did in baseball."
Of course, the issue at hand is money. Specifically owners who, unable to stop themselves from paying out salaries reaching an average of $20 million per year for marquee players, are attempting to implement a hard salary cap. That, in essence, would eliminate the so-called Larry Bird exception -- a clause that allows teams to sign their own veteran free agents at any cost, regardless of the cap (the clause allowed Michael Jordan to make $36 million from the Chicago Bulls last season, even though the salary cap was $25 million).
With the prospect of their unlimited millions drying up (although several players average over $20 million, the league average is $2.6 million), the players are crying foul over a deal that would raise the average player salary to $3.1 million and the minimum salary of a 10-year veteran to $750,000.
"They want the hard cap, and we can't go for the hard cap -- that's the bottom line," said new Wizards guard Mitch Richmond. "I can say to you, and all the players, that it doesn't matter if you're on the minimum scale or making $10 million a year. This deal is not good for you."
The owners locked out the players on July 1, exercising their option to reopen the agreement signed before the 1995-96 season if the amount the league paid players exceeded 51.8 percent of basketball-related income. The league said it paid out 57 percent last year, or nearly a billion dollars.
Since the lockout, the two sides have barely spoken. When the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association meet tomorrow, it will be only the second formal bargaining session since the lockout began. The last meeting occurred on Aug. 6, but ended abruptly when NBA commissioner David Stern and several owners walked out of a meeting.
"It's really frustrating," said Wizards guard Tim Legler. "It's got to be a daily [negotiating] process, 10 hours a day of negotiations. It can't be negotiate, go 10 days, talk again and walk out."
While the hard cap is the main issue, the players say they are offended by new demands submitted by owners recently that require all players to have two random drug tests a year -- with marijuana and performance-enhancing drugs added to the list of banned substances -- and would require players under guaranteed contracts to play in the CBA if they are released by their teams.
"You see stuff like that, making players who get cut go to the CBA to earn their paycheck, it makes you laugh," Legler said. "All stuff like that is going to do is widen the gap. But, in all honesty, this all boils down to one thing -- the Larry Bird cap. Everything is minor to that."
And that one major issue, may just well endanger a season. With the possible retirement of Jordan and the likely breakup of the three-time world champion Chicago Bulls, it's a work stoppage that the league can ill afford.
Yet the NBA, which will receive revenue from a $3 billion television deal, appears it will push forward, possibly hoping the reality of missed paychecks (the players begin getting paid in November) will bend the union.
Richmond says don't bet on it.
"They want to hurt us in the pocket," said Richmond, obtained in May from Sacramento with Otis Thorpe for Chris Webber and scheduled to make $2.5 million in the last year of his contract. "And if we have to take that hurt, we have to. But we're unified, and we won't return to the court unless we have something that's right for the players."
Pub Date: 10/07/98