That seems quite possible. Otherwise, how high is up for superstar salaries? Bob Woolf, the Boston-based agent for Celtics Larry Bird and Robert Parish, said that he wouldn't be surprised to see a $10 million-per-year player within a couple of seasons. Do you think that figure hasn't crossed the mind of ProServ's David Falk, the high-powered representative of Jordan and Ewing, among others? Indeed, the Williams signing has already triggered a clause in Ewing's contract that says he becomes a restricted free agent if four NBA players are paid more than he is during a single season. That will become a reality in '91-92, when Williams—who will make a measly $4 million—joins Magic Johnson, Jordan and Akeem Olajuwon in surpassing Ewing's $3 million salary (it drops in '91 because the contract is structured that way). How much will it cost the Knicks to stand Pat? Will Ewing be the first $10 million-a-year man?
In any case, the Williams deal is likely to cause what Falk calls a "polarization" of salaries: "I think it's the stars that create the great market in which everybody shares, and those stars will hold a disproportionate share of the money."
He's absolutely right. Embry knows that to win a championship he needs role players such as Williams, but he also knows that role players don't pay the bills. "What we'll see is superstar players getting up to a third or a fourth of the salary cap," said Embry. "Then there will be another level. The ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th players will make the minimum."
Megasalaries like Williams's, finally, should have a profound effect on labor negotiations in 1993, when the current NBA Players Association agreement expires. Having seen the benefits of free agency, the players may want more freedom of movement. Last week Charles Grantham, head of the Players Association, floated this trial balloon: "Maybe the salary cap won't always be there. This [free-agent] movement is putting pressure on the whole concept of a cap."
As Grantham knows, the league is about as likely to scrap the cap as it is to outlaw Jordan's dunks. Indeed, the NBA believes that the existence of the cap, as well as the system that guarantees the players 53% of gross revenues, is the very reason that contracts like Williams's won't destroy the league. The thinking goes like this: The cap keeps teams in relative line with each other; the cap is adjusted upward as league revenues rise; and the players are always guaranteed their 53%. And revenues will keep rising because of the growth of the game internationally (TV rights and merchandising are lucrative areas for targeting) and the possible advent of pay TV.
Says Gary Bettman, the NBA's general counsel: "We are optimistic that the upward trend will continue. Television ratings have been good, and we hope they'll get stronger. We see help in other areas. NBA players will be able to play in the '92 Olympics, and I'm not just talking about Americans on the U.S. team. The league has a strong international focus, things like the McDonald's Open [in Barcelona next month], regular-season games in Tokyo [Phoenix and Utah will play there in November], telecasts in 77 countries."
Others are not as optimistic as Bettman. "The bottom could fall out a lot sooner than people think if this sort of salary growth continues," says Embry. Robert Baade, a noted sports economist in Chicago, says, "How many times can a team pay $26 million for a player like Hot Rod Williams? The Williams contract probably means more holdouts down the road, more renegotiations. Players have more options than ever before. You have more teams bidding, you have the European [teams] involved as well.
"I wonder, in all of this, what would happen if this tremendous growth of the NBA tails off? Would the players agree to give back a percentage of the gross?"
The players probably aren't thinking much about that, Professor. As Lewis Schaffel, managing general partner of the Heat, said last week: "I'm not saying this situation will go on forever. But it's a great time to be a 6-foot-8 10-year-old or maybe a 15-year-old who's on his way to being seven feet tall." It's an even better time to be Hot Rod Williams.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]