Though the quality of play in the Continental Basketball Association has never been higher, there are reminders that in other ways CBA players are light years from their brethren in the NBA. Beyond the interminable bus rides to towns such as Fort Wayne, Ind., and the halftime promotions that offer a "lucky" fan the chance to wrestle a bear, the CBA's most obvious hush-league manifestation is on the bottom line.
Consider that a CBA team's entire payroll is often less than the minimum NBA player's salary of $272,500. Or that 21 CBA teams have folded in the past five years, and only two turned a profit last season. "Traditionally our most basic problem has been generating revenue, not keeping costs down," says CBA commissioner Steve Patterson, the fifth man to hold that job this decade. "We look at other minor leagues and feel there's no reason why we can't be just as successful."
Despite its woes, the nine-team CBA has sent a steady flow of players to the NBA, including 24 this season. What's more, 68 players on opening-day NBA rosters were CBA alums, including stars John Starks and Anthony Mason. The CBA was also the training ground for coaches Phil Jackson and George Karl. But if it's such a vital pipeline to the big time, why is it less stable than Dennis Rodman?
A major reason is a crippling relationship with the NBA. In exchange for roughly $2 million a year in "developmental support"—chump change for a league whose new TV contract is worth $2.7 billion—the NBA can plunder CBA rosters. Thus CBA clubs must try to field competitive teams while remaining wary of players who are likely to be called up by midseason. "You have to sell your games as affordable family entertainment, because you never know how long your best guy will stick around," says Steve Idelman, who owned the Omaha Racers for seven years until the team folded last spring. It's not unusual for a team to use 25 players during the 56-game season.
An obvious solution to this instability is to have the NBA align each of its clubs with a CBA team, but the NBA players' association frowns on any innovation that restricts player movement, and NBA general managers are unlikely to support a plan that limits the pool of CBA players from which they choose. CBA executives also suspect the NBA has a more cunning reason for keeping its feeder league at arm's length: Given that the NBA's manifest destiny is the European market, commissioner David Stern may be happy when talented players forgo the CBA and defect to the other side of the pond. Rod Thorn, NBA vice president of basketball operations, denies this, adding that "the league is happy with the relationship it has with the CBA."
CBA owners recently got a glimpse of what life could be like when they witnessed the first-year success of the WNBA. Backed by the NBA's marketing juggernaut, which included a television contract and $15 million in promotion, the women's league dramatically outdrew the CBA. "I'm a big fan of women's basketball," says Idelman, "but when it came time for the NBA to throw its support behind another league, I always thought the CBA had next."