NEW YORK -- The National Basketball Association goes to great lengths to call itself a league devoted to its fans. The advertisements claim: 'NBA Action: It's FANtastic.'
Commissioner Larry O'Brien believes Thursday's agreement between the NBA and Players Association that averted a threatened union strike for this weekend proves that both sides did have the public in mind when they sat down at the bargaining table.
'This agreement,' O'Brien says, 'insures that the players will continue to receive the benefits they already enjoy while also providing a basis for league-wide stability and competition, as well as planning for the future growth of the sport.'
The four-year deal, which will be voted upon by the rank-and-file by midweek, will take effect next season, although the salary cap portion won't be in place until 1984-85. The players are guaranteed 53 percent of defined gross receipts plus net receipts in the playoffs.
The salary cap will place minimum and maximum restrictions on teams for player salaries, in effect forcing teams previously unwilling to go after big-name players to reverse their positions. At least five teams - Cleveland, Utah, Houston, San Diego and Indiana -- have reportedly had trouble staying afloat.
The primary exception to the cap is that a team may match any offer sheet extended to one of its players who becomes a free agent, even if doing so would put it over the cap.
'By requiring each team to be competitive in bidding for players and in spending money, it greatly enhances the possibility of equality of talent and play,' said union president Bob Lanier. 'The large teams like Los Angeles, New York, et al, would be bidding basically in total dollars at the same level as all the other teams in the league.'
Effective immediately, the five teams which currently have the highest player payrolls -- Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Seattle -- will be frozen at their current salary levels. These teams would maintain the amount paid out until their players' existing contracts expire.
While Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss said placing salary caps in the agreement was essential, Seattle owner Sam Schulman questioned the logic of the move.
'If there hadn't been a salary limitation, the league wouldn't have been here in two or three years,' Buss said.
Schulman, the one dissenting vote at Thursday's Board of Governors meeting, said the NBAPA and its general counsel, Larry Fleisher, robbed the bank.
'What does a cap mean if you're allowed to go over it?' Schulman asked. 'I think Fleisher has gone a long way toward doing exactly what he set out to do. If Jack Sikma becomes a free agent and someone can still give him $2 million, what is accomplished? The agreement does make for fewer teams capable of doing that, but less teams doesn't mean anything. They haven't eliminated the threat. Historically, it's taken only one owner to destroy salary structure, and that possibility still exists.
'Every year one owner goes wild. How in God's name can any owner say there's light at the end of the tunnel with this agreement.'
If the union ratifies, a third professional sports strike will have been averted. Major league baseball players struck for seven weeks in the summer of 1981. A walkout by National Football League players lasted 57 days last fall.