For their part, the players have shown little willingness to give up any of the gains they've made through collective bargaining or individual initiative. "The owners have got to keep tabs on themselves," says Players Association President Bob Lanier, the Milwaukee Bucks center. "If they would stop paying these humongous salaries, there wouldn't be a problem." The league is afraid that the players' union is willing to wait and see if teams actually do go under before agreeing to any concessions. "It might improve the league," says Lanier. "We may have to lose some players in the process, but it might make it a more quality league."
Assuming that the league is unable to get the players to agree to a salary-limit formula ("It will never happen," vows Fleisher), the owners will have to settle for hammering away at reducing roster sizes, eliminating mandatory first-class travel, eliminating guaranteed contracts and trying to get a share of the money the players haul in from shoe endorsements, as well as holding the line on the players' demand for a percentage of future cable TV revenues. The owners want to protect the profits they foresee coming from cable and do away with the guaranteed contracts that often result in teams paying players who are no longer even in the league. "I'm a little at a loss to understand how agents who feel their players are superstars and can't miss have to insist on guaranteed contracts," says Red McCombs, the owner of the Denver Nuggets.
McCombs is one of two new owners to join the league since the end of last season; he paid $10 million for the Nuggets. The other is Charlie Thomas, who bought the Houston Rockets for $11 million. Thomas also owns 20 prospering Ford dealerships, not to mention a prize bull named Mr. Suva No. 203. When Thomas was getting started in the car-selling business, he worked as a manager in McCombs' Ford dealership in San Antonio. One of the best salesmen working with Thomas on the lot was a young car hustler named Angelo Drossos.
The meeting was nearly over now, and the men were beginning to shuffle their papers and stir in their seats. Slowly the old man climbed out of his chair, and when he was standing, he poked a hole in the air with his stubby forefinger and spoke. "Boys, I'm an old man," he said, "and I know you are all sharp young fellas with acres of Japanese cars to move and elephants to ride. I won't keep you. Just a few words of advice. Later you'll thank me."
He put his hands on the table and leaned toward his audience with a leer. "Wise up, Hooples! Stop treating the NBA like it was some kind of theme park put here for your amusement. For 20 years I've owned my team, and in that time the Celtics have had 10 owners. An owner comes in for three years, takes his tax write-off, gets his jollies and then gets out. Now some of you think you can have a strike and not have economic chaos with it. Morons! What are the American people supposed to do with the NFL season a shambles and the NBA on strike? There will be a run on the bowling alleys, leagues will be formed, rayon shirts will be bought."
The old man turned and began to walk toward the exit. At the door he stopped and shook his fist at them. "Talk to the players!" the old man roared. "Invite them over for a test drive, let them ride on your camels. Show them you care about the game almost as much as you care about being bigshots in the newspapers. Don't try to undo the problems of a decade in a single negotiation. It's a good game you've got here. Don't louse it up now."