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NBA commissioner David Stern and his army of lawyers reacted quickly. Stern announced he was voiding the contract because it was, in the league's view, a "blatant and transparent attempt" to circumvent the cap. The NBA pointed to a clause in the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league that prohibits "any terms that are designed to serve the purpose of defeating or circumventing" the cap. The NBA took its case all the way to U.S. district court. "If you only have a $790,000 slot, you shouldn't be able to sign a $3 million player," says deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "It's that simple. Portland didn't have room under the cap to sign Dudley for his market value, so it utilized the one-year option as a way of getting around that little problem."
Why does everyone care so deeply about Dudley's case? Because there's more at stake here than whether a mediocre center can successfully fight city hall. Several other players, including Sun forward A.C. Green, Chicago Bull swingman Toni Kukoc, Hawk guard Craig Ehlo and Magic rookie guard Anfernee Hardaway, have also signed contracts with similar one-year option clauses. As everyone waited anxiously for the district court judge's ruling, Granik said, "If these contracts aren't overturned, for the next nine months [until the collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the '93-94 season] we won't have much of a salary cap." That would undoubtedly be fine with the NBA Players Association, which would love to eliminate the cap in the next round of collective bargaining negotiations. That may not happen, but on Oct. 27, U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise ruled that Dudley's contract does not violate the collective bargaining agreement, thus providing the union with important leverage for those talks. "The cap was meant to restrict player movement and salary escalation at a time when revenue was not increasing at the rate it is today," says players association executive director Charles Grantham. "Conditions are different today, and the next agreement will have to reflect that difference."
Dudley knew that the league would take a dim view of his contract, but he admits to being surprised at the vigor with which the NBA battled him. "I went to New York for the special master's hearing, and when I walked in, there must have been 15 or 16 lawyers for the NBA in the room," he said. That must have been daunting for a player who is not even used to getting double-teamed.
Not everyone agrees that the upholding of Dudley's contract will ignite an outbreak of similiar deals. "This isn't something every player is going to do," Grantham says. "Not every player has the leverage to get a team to agree to a one-year option. The NBA's problem is they can't find a way to legislate to their 27 teams that they can't do this."
Dudley points out that the one-year option represents a gamble for the player involved. "I could have signed for more money somewhere else," he said. "But I'm thinking that my market value should be higher after being a starting center for a championship contender than after being a backup for the Nets. But if for whatever reason something goes terribly wrong this year, I've lost myself a lot of money." To which Granik replies, "That's nice-sounding rhetoric, but it doesn't have a thing to do with whether or not this deal circumvents the salary cap."
And the beat goes on. "A lot of this is posturing," says Fegan, Dudley's agent. "The NBA...gave the players the right to negotiate options into their contracts, and now they think they made a mistake. They're looking for leverage to negotiate these kinds of options out of the next agreement."
In the meantime Dudley has been working on becoming the center the Blazers have been looking for. During the preseason, he averaged 4.5 points and 6.0 rebounds but blocked only four shots. From the line: Dudley was—no surprise—a dud, converting only five of his 10 attempts. Obviously, he won't make the fans forget Bill Walton, but he will give Portland more of a defensive presence in the middle than it has had for some time. (Duckworth blocked only 39 shots while averaging 23.8 minutes per game.) Is that enough to make everyone forget the long battle over where he would play and for how much? Is it enough to spare him the slings and arrows of those who can't ignore his soon-to-be outrageous fortune? Probably not, but Dudley can live with a few barbs, especially with the prospect of even greater riches on the horizon. He has always been able to plan well for the future, as he proved back at Yale when he chose the major that's serving him pretty well these days—economics.