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The biggest fear about the first-right system is that the big-city teams will buy up the best players. Says Buffalo's Paul Snyder, an owner who voted against the agreement, "This almost assures that wealthy teams like New York and Los Angeles will never miss being in the playoffs and getting wealthier." Not so, counters Fleisher: "Do you think Detroit's Bob Lanier would go to L.A. with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar there? Besides, it's not simply a matter of dangling dollars in front of players. The new system is going to require that clubs keep players happy and motivated."
Lanier, who earns considerably more than the NBA average of $109,000 per year, makes no secret that he will be shopping for a new team in a few years. "If owners stuck together, I'd worry about salaries. But they never do," he says. A different view is held by former ABA Commissioner Mike Storen, who thinks owners will exert pressure on one another not to run up the bidding. All of these assessments probably are partially true and, as Fleisher and Storen suggest, the success of first-right will depend largely on the owners, who must retain their new spirit of cooperation among themselves and also develop better management techniques to ensure that their star players will want to stay around.
But what about the 90% of the players who are of average ability? Says Storen, "It won't affect them, except psychologically. I mean, who's going to chase an ordinary player?" The players do not expect helter-skelter switching; the owners are unsure of what will happen. "There will be a bunch of haves, led by New York and L.A.," says the general manager of a team likely to prosper under any system, "and a bunch of have-nots. The best teams will be better than they are now, and the worst ones will be worse. That will wreck the league, because you cannot expect people to buy tickets to see a team on a 28-game losing streak, whether that team's at home or on the road."
Other owners see a less dismal future, although they agree that the times ahead are uncertain. "It's like leaving Manhattan and suddenly moving to Za�re," says Knicks president Mike Burke. "You don't know until you get there what adjustments you'll have to make, although you know there will be plenty of them."
O'Brien, going on the theory that mistakes are for this life and perfection for the next, says that one of the charms of this 10-year agreement is that everyone will sit down again in 1986 and work out the wrinkles. "Anybody who knows sports and law and society and sees what we have done knows this is classic give-and-take," he says. Meanwhile, the business of the NBA will go on, including absorption of some ABA teams—the denial of such intentions by NBA owners notwithstanding.
What did the owners get out of the agreement? "I can't think of anything," says Lanier. That's not quite right. The owners did get a resolution of a dispute (technically, the agreement is an out-of-court settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought in 1970 by former Players Association President Oscar Robertson that was scheduled for trial later this year) that has cost them big bucks. Management figured to lose that case—which would have resulted in the loss of many more dollars and, worse, the imposition of a personnel system approved by a judge. Since the judge would be neither a player nor an owner, chances are his system would be less beneficial to basketball than one arrived at through negotiations among men involved in the sport. And the owners did get a delay in the right of first refusal, enabling them to negotiate long-term contracts with key players before the big change.
While basketball was putting the finishing touches on its new system last week, major league baseball owners again were slapped down in their chaotic battle to maintain an old framework. Andy Messersmith, who won 19 games for Los Angeles last year, and retired Pitcher Dave McNally are contending that baseball's reserve clause, the provision that management says binds a player to a team for life, should be interpreted as a one-year, nonrenewable option.
In December an arbitrator ruled in favor of the players, so the owners fired him and went to court to have his decision overturned. Last week a judge ruled in favor of the players. Since the owners do not have the option of firing the judge, they now are trying to figure out what to do next. Most baseball men are unstirred by the basketball agreement and the spirit of compromise that brought it about. The sport's hard-liners seem to be winning out by calling for an appeal of the latest ruling all the way to the Supreme Court. That is likely to be a futile and very expensive gesture.
Marvin Miller, head of the players union, is gloomy over baseball's labor negotiations and claims that the owners have "gone into shock and hysteria over installing a one-year option that has already been eliminated by basketball."