"This isn't just another three-year go-around about meal money," says Commissioner Larry O'Brien. "The future of the league is at stake. Right now there is a dark cloud hanging over the season." And that cloud rains questions:
If it is true that last season NBA teams suffered losses totaling $15 to $20 million and that no more than seven of the league's 23 franchises showed a profit, is it possible that by moving to one of the NBA's glamor teams, Moses Malone can part that red sea? Or will the dreaded "ripple effect" created by the Malone signing lead to even higher salaries and perhaps result in the less stable franchises going under? "The ripple effect moves with the speed of light," says Kansas City Kings General Manager Joe Axelson.
The NBA says player salaries account for 72% of each team's gross revenues, on the average. Since negotiations began, it has been the owners rather than the players who have been demanding concessions, pointing out that while the average player makes $218,000 a year, the highest in any team sport, the average team loses $700,000. "If anything," says one member of the Board of Governors, "it will be the owners who go on strike." Last week, following a special board meeting in Chicago to discuss the negotiations, O'Brien announced that if the two sides are unable to agree on "an entirely new approach to the way in which player compensation is structured," the league would impose its own cost-saving measures. Those would include cutting the present 12-man rosters to 10, shifting the cost of some fringe benefits to the players, and requiring teams to fly coach unless the players are willing to pay the difference between coach and first class. "All we've heard so far is a one-sided group of demands by the owners that they refuse to get off," says Players Association General Counsel Larry Fleisher. "We have no intention of saving them from themselves, which is what they seem to want. They say they're a sick and dying industry. That's ridiculous. What they're also saying is that there are three teams in trouble, but that they want us to make concessions that would help the whole league."
O'Brien cautioned the players, "This isn't garbage time. I think the owners feel very strongly that this situation has to be resolved before October 29. The ultimate responsibility for the start of the season rests with the players."
Do the owners actually want a strike? "I've heard it," O'Brien admits. One of the owners involved in a big free-agent signing this summer has told friends he hopes the players do strike, because with his payroll he actually figures to lose less money if the players walk than he would if the games are played. "We don't have any owners who want a strike for the sake of a strike," says NBA Executive Vice-President David Stern, "but it's going to be relatively painless for some of them. If you're running at a loss, then a strike could actually prove to be a profitable experience."
Another question is: Can professional basketball in San Diego survive Donald Sterling and his Reign of Error? Sterling is a good example of the kind of ownership problems the league has had in recent years. Eighteen months ago he purchased the Clippers for $13.5 million and pledged to spend "unlimited sums" to turn the team into an immediate contender. With vast real estate holdings and an estimated net worth of close to $300 million, Sterling looked like just the man to do it, too. He started his crusade with a campaign to boost ticket sales that, oddly enough, featured Sterling's grinning face on billboards throughout San Diego County. That was but the first indication of the kind of bizarre year that lay in store for the franchise. On opening night last season before a home crowd, Sterling became so excited by the Clippers' 125-110 victory over Houston that he unbuttoned his shirt to the navel while the game was in progress, and as it ended he pranced across the court and jumped into the arms of Coach Paul Silas. And he kissed him.
By mid-January Sterling had been fined $10,000 by the league for suggesting that the Clippers might purposely lose games in order to get the first pick in the draft and a shot at Virginia's Ralph Sampson. Then things got really strange. Before the season was over, Sterling would fail to make deferred compensation payments to half a dozen former players, among them Silas. He would fail to pay operating expenses (the Hyatt House in Oakland refused to accommodate the Clippers at the end of last season for not paying their bills). And he owed $225,000 to the players' and general managers' pension funds and $300,000 to assorted other creditors. And that's not mentioning the time he took an NBA executive, who was visiting from New York, to an expensive restaurant in San Diego and then had to stick his guest with the check when the waiter informed Sterling that the computer had rejected his credit card.
For some reason, people in San Diego just never warmed up to Don Sterling. "Evidently the fans there think he's a joke," says San Antonio President Angelo Drossos, who is on the NBA's nine-member Advisory-Finance Committee. The committee evidently has reservations about Sterling, too. On Oct. 7 Sterling appointed L.A. attorney Alan Rothenberg, who has had previous involvements with league franchises, to run the team. It didn't help Sterling's credibility that in June he had made an unsuccessful attempt to move the Clippers to Los Angeles, or that his new assistant general manager is Patricia Simmons, a former model and occasional Sterling companion, who has what one San Diego newspaper described as "no known basketball background." But she has a decidedly stunning foreground. When Silas was in China on a Players Association exhibition tour this summer, Simmons moved into his office. When Silas returned, he found his belongings stacked in the hallway.
Sterling isn't the only eccentric NBA owner, just the worst. Last year Cleveland owner Ted Stepien had the league in an uproar because of the immoderate salaries he was paying free agents, and because he was trading away the franchise's future to acquire them. "Goodness, Cleveland doesn't have a first-round pick for years," says San Antonio Spurs Coach Stan Albeck. "Whoever he is, he's a high school freshman right now."
This year's non-model owner seems to be Harold Katz, the diet-center mogul who owns the Philadelphia 76ers. Two months ago Katz signed Malone to his huge contract after the Houston Rockets, Malone's old team, matched the Sixers' offer sheet and traded him to Philadelphia. "We had kept a clipping in which Philadelphia's general manager was quoted as saying, 'This is madness,' speaking about us," says Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, a heavy spender in the free-agent market in his own right. "We circled that quote, attached it to a copy of a story about Moses' contract, and sent it back to them."