The date, July 1, has been circled on NBA calendars for months and anticipated with a giddiness usually restricted to four-year-olds unleashed in a room full of toys. It is the day the most talented crop of players in league history will become free agents.
There are 140 in all, running the alphabetical gamut from Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard Jerome Allen to Dallas Mavericks journeyman forward David Wood. Teams will have their pick of Jordans (Michael and Reggie) and Millers (Anthony and Reggie). They will even get to choose between Ervin Johnson and Earvin Johnson (a tip: the latter says he's retired).
In addition 26 players can opt out of their current contracts, including such worthies as Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal and forward Horace Grant, Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard, Indiana Pacers forward Dale Davis and Detroit Pistons guard Allan Houston. Recently, however, July 1 has also taken on an ominous cast: Barring major developments, it could be the start of an NBA lockout, which would freeze player movement. Differing interpretations of the tentative agreement reached last Aug. 8 by NBA owners and the National Basketball Players Association have threatened to throw the league into its third consecutive summer of labor unrest.
That would be bad news for Jordan (Michael, that is) and O'Neal, who have said they want their status resolved quickly. Jordan, who has set a salary minimum of $18 million per season for his negotiations with the Chicago Bulls, is not expected to change teams, especially now that Bulls coach Phil Jackson has re-signed for $2.5 million next season. But O'Neal may be packing his bags. He could dramatically alter the balance of power in the NBA if he leaves Orlando and signs with the Los Angeles Lakers. The All-Star center's agent, Leonard Armato, acknowledged last week that such a shift is possible. (The Lakers, like all teams, cannot publicly express their interest in a player on another club before July 1 without risking penalties for tampering.)
Shockingly, sonic Orlando fans are ready to wish the big fella good riddance. The city is still smarting from the Bulls' humiliating four-game sweep of the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, and the finger has been pointed squarely at Shaq and his errant free throw shooting (36.4%) during the series. On June 2, a week after Chicago's triumph, The Orlando Sentinel published the results of a survey conducted in Magic country by America's Research Group. It asked whether the Magic should fire coach Brian Hill if that were one of O'Neal's conditions for returning. An overwhelming 82% answered no. The survey also inquired if O'Neal was worth his current seven-year, $41 million contract. Only 49% answered yes.
Sources say the results rankled Shaq, who had been stung by earlier assertions in the Orlando media that he was not a good role model because he was having a child with his longtime girlfriend but did not announce immediate plans to marry. That lifestyle choice would barely register on the seismograph in Los Angeles, where O'Neal could blend in as another high-profile celebrity, albeit one who dunks and raps in addition to flashing his mug across the silver screen. (He'll exhibit those last two skills as a rapping genie in Kazaam, scheduled for release on July 17.) "Appealing?" Armato asks aloud after pondering how O'Neal would find the L.A. scene. "Why wouldn't it be?"
Orlando officials counter that they've treated O'Neal royally. Moreover, O'Neal's family has settled in Florida. But his mother, Lucille, a major influence in his life, may not object to relocating to Shaq's newest digs, which happen to be in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Financially, however, the Magic has an advantage over the Lakers. According to NBA rules, a team can spend any amount it wishes to re-sign its own free agents. Despite published reports of a four-year, $54.7 million Magic offer to O'Neal, Orlando general manager John Gabriel insists, "We have not put down a number. We haven't even implied a number."
Observers of the league believe Orlando will tabulate how much the Lakers can clear under their cap, then submit a number that is slightly higher. "There's no blank check being drawn up," insists one Orlando official. Meanwhile, there's little doubt L.A. is angling to open up cap room for O'Neal. Last week the Lakers were shopping center Vlade Divac to the Bucks. Divac's departure would clear $8.3 million over two years.
So which way is Shaq leaning? "Shaquille likes Orlando," says Armato. "He feels a degree of loyalty toward the DeVos family [the Magic's owners]. He likes his teammates. Having said that, it's important for him to be in an environment where he can flourish as a basketball player and a person." In other words, the bidding for Shaq remains wide open.