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The old man had been sitting quietly at the table for some time, staring straight ahead, when he finally began muttering. For hours the old man had listened as the NBA Board of Governors talked about player salaries; at one point he even joined a panel discussion—"It's Delightful, It's Delicious, It's Depreciation." Now his comments, barely audible at first, became louder with each passing speaker.
He and the other owners sat beneath a crystal teardrop chandelier that hovered over the meeting like a great sorrow. The old man had disliked the owners' meetings since the young Turks had taken over, men who had built fortunes by doing two things well—buying and selling. He seemed especially galled by the fact that three of the league's franchises were now owned by men who had been successful automobile dealers.
"Car salesmen!" he had shouted at his wife a few nights earlier. "I am sitting in my home watching the Carson show on TV—that Sammy Davis Jr., what a funny man. And deep! We could all learn a lot from him—when a member of the Board of Governors suddenly comes galloping across my screen on the back of an elephant. Says his name is Dumbo. The elephant's name he doesn't give, but a nice-looking animal. He is pushing Subarus and wearing a 10-gallon hat. With this man I am supposed to discuss the salvation of professional basketball? Not in a million years! To him I'll go if I want the odometer on my Lincoln rolled back. I would rather follow his elephant in heavy traffic than talk to him about the future of the NBA."
His wife had tried to calm him. "These men who own pro basketball teams are captains of industry," she had said. "Empire builders, buyers, sellers, titans."
"Hooples!" he interposed. "Shriners on an endless fire-engine ride. Spending their money as if blowing dough were a way of flexing their muscles. The cluck in Philadelphia just paid $13.2 million for Moses Malone because he's tired of waiting to win a championship. He's been an owner in the NBA for two years. Maybe you expected him to wait forever?"
Suddenly the old man pointed at the TV. "There is your best and your brightest," he said with a sneer, "lashed to the hump of a camel! Most of the serious writing this man has done in his life has been on windshields with a white shoe-polish applicator!" His wife patted his hand soothingly while the old man glumly meditated on what had happened to his game.
"The New York Knicks—you should excuse me while my heart is breaking; there is a franchise that once stood for something!—are just a cog in the carpet-bagging conglomerate called Gulf + Western. Last month the Knicks signed Bernard King to an offer sheet of $4.5 million for five years, then they lost him when the Golden State Warriors matched the offer. Then they traded a terrific guard for him. Gulf + Western doesn't have an elephant, but somewhere at Madison Square Garden there is a horse's ass giving rides.
"Now you may ask, is Bernard King worth $900,000 a year? And I would answer, were the kings of Israel Toyota salesmen? No and no. The insanity of this business is that the only way you can sign a free agent in today's market is to pay him what he's not worth. If you offered him only as much money as he was really worth, the team that had him in the first place would match your price and keep him."
All of these things had gone through the old man's mind as he sat in the conference room, listening to a litany of the league's financial failures. His sotto voce harangue passed through the teeth he had been grinding together with a sound like the escape of compressed air. Then he closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. Several other owners noticed the old man in repose and assumed that he had fallen asleep. "Hooples," he repeated under his breath. Soon it would be his turn to speak, and he knew that he would be ready.
There was a time when the most challenging aspect of NBA ownership was answering questions like, "What is a Zollner?" and "How come NBA basketballs are brown?" But the start of the league's 37th season this week brings with it more troubling questions, questions about the solvency of several franchises, the growing threat of a players' strike and the effect of the upward spiral of player salaries on the first two problems. This time, however, the trouble isn't merely money, it's a struggle for control of the game. Representatives of the league and the NBA Players Association have been trying to work out their differences since July, and so far the only thing the league has announced is that a new preppy-looking orange ball will replace the old brown model.