Let's say that five or six years ago something bugged you so much that you began knocking your head against a reinforced-concrete wall. Even if you are a very adamant sort, it is likely the realization that the wall is unyielding—not to mention those throbbing pains in your cranium—would catch up with you. Eventually you would feel compelled to cease all that banging.
A process not dissimilar to that has finally worn down the 18 steadfast men who run teams in the NBA. Last week they abruptly stopped butting their brains against the wall of legal adversity erected by their players in 1970. By so doing, they ended a confrontation that threatened to leave management, athletes and fans senseless. The players say they are happy the controversy has ended; the owners are not quite so sure, but they think they are, too. For the fans, who watched helplessly as the torture went on, management's decision offers not only the prospect that the owner-player squabbling of recent seasons is over, but also that the interleague war between the NBA and ABA may soon end, giving fans in Los Angeles a chance to see Julius Erving while spectators in Kentucky at last get to lay eyes on Dave Cowens.
With pro sports running amok in legal complexities, the truce in the NBA, which essentially gives the players just about all the freedom they ever wanted, is an example of the kind of positive action desperately needed in pro baseball, football and, to a lesser extent, hockey. In fact, the most important aspect of the NBA settlement is that it may signal a new spirit of cooperation between owners and athletes, who reluctantly seem to be coming around to the view that they are stuck with each other and might as well make the best of it.
The essentials of the NBA agreement are three. First, the option clause will be eliminated from non-rookie player contracts, beginning with those that expire next season. The option binds a player to a team for one year after the term of his contract has run out. Second, a procedure called "the right of first refusal" goes into effect in 1980. Example: Philadelphia wants Bob McAdoo, whose contract with Buffalo has expired, and he is interested in joining the 76ers. Philadelphia makes an offer to McAdoo, who then must give the Braves a chance to match it. Buffalo can keep him by equaling Philly's offer, but if the Braves do not match it, McAdoo is free to join the 76ers. Third, the compensation agreement, basketball's equivalent of pro football's hotly contested Rozelle Rule, will continue until 1980. This means if a player who has finished out his contract jumps to another team, his old club must be given players or draft choices as compensation by his new team. In practice, this makes it almost impossible for players to switch teams, since clubs fear they may be required to give up more in compensation than the jumping player is worth. Starting in 1980 there will be no more compensation in the NBA.
In one swoop the players have succeeded in doing away with the hated option year and the hated compensation rule. In the process they have freed themselves from the most hated part of being professional athletes. "Our problem has been that the players were bound to the team, but the team was not bound to the players," says Atlanta's Lou Hudson.
The owners also agreed to kick in $4.5 million to be shared by about 500 players as an apology for the old, evil way of doing business, plus another $1 million for the players' legal fees.
To be sure, there are some questions about all this. Make that a few thousand questions. The most important are: Why did the agreement come about so suddenly, and who is responsible for it? Will it work, or does it mean that players will be shuffling constantly from team to team? What will prevent the richer teams, especially the Knicks and Lakers, from buying up all the good players? And what does the agreement mean to other sports?
A principal figure in the deal was NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien, who admits that as recently as a month ago he "would have bet 1,000 to 1" against settlement of the six-year dispute. But even before he took office on June 1, O'Brien sat down to lunch with the general counsel for the players, Larry Fleisher, and kicked the problem around. They immediately found they could talk to one another, thereby undermining one of management's main lines during the long years of dispute: that the players and Fleisher are irresponsible and uncooperative. From that day until the agreement finally was reached, O'Brien doggedly promoted discussions between himself and Fleisher and, subsequently, between owners and players. During the process, O'Brien also disproved another saw about the NBA: that the owners cannot agree among themselves. He persuaded them to hash out their intramural problems in a series of conferences. Without the near-unanimity produced in those meetings, last week's settlement with the players never could have been reached.
Fleisher also was instrumental in putting together the agreement. While many owners do not care to say so publicly, they concede privately that Fleisher is reasonable and, perhaps, even downright convivial. But he claims circumstances, not personalities, brought about the deal. "Let's say the climate, from the owners' point of view, was more conducive to a settlement than to a court battle," Fleisher says. What he means is that owners in all sports have been put over a judicial barrel of late. Court decisions and hints from judges in pending cases repeatedly have been telling owners that making players slaves—albeit highly paid slaves—is not the American way. The message was clear: the owners had to come up with a better system. Fast.
There were countless other individuals who played key roles in reaching the agreement, not the least of them Golden State Guard and Player Representative Jeff Mullins. At a time when the two sides seemed to have reached an impasse, he made the eminently logical suggestion that implementation of the right of first refusal be delayed for three years. Even though the players were pushing for first-right to take effect immediately, Mullins reasoned that getting the players' case through the courts would take three years, anyway. The owners countered with an offer of a five-year delay. The parties compromised at four.