Lockout Lookout

For the first time ever, NBA season in jeopardy

On a recent September evening at Madison Square Garden, it might have been the height of basketball season. An impressive lineup of NBA stars had assumed their positions on the court. The giant video screen flashed overhead, carefully programmed to punctuate every development in the game. And the prosperous white men in suits had even turned up to stake their claims to prime courtside real estate.

On the opposite side of the court, spectators in wheelchairs filled the first few rows, prized perches normally occupied by distinguished season-ticket holders like Woody Allen and Spike Lee. It was a reminder, along with the hundreds of empty seats dotting the arena, that this was no regular NBA game.

The occasion was the fifth annual New York All-Star Basketball Classic, a showcase contest whose roster included hometown favorites John Starks, Stephon Marbury, and Chris Mullin, playing alongside flashy young stars like Kevin Garnett and Jerry Stackhouse. Proceeds from ticket sales would benefit Wheelchair Charities, Inc., a nonprofit organization that raises money for paraplegic and quadriplegic patients at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island. A typical off-season event, it was an opportunity for the league and its players to demonstrate their community involvement.

But with a three-month-old lockout posing a genuine threat to the upcoming NBA season for the first time in the league's 52-year history, these familiar sights and sounds seemed an unfair tease. (At press time, the NBA had postponed training camps indefinitely and canceled the first week of preseason games. And though the NBA just offered the union a new proposal last Friday, by most accounts, the regular season is unlikely to begin on schedule in November.)

The standoff between the NBA and its players comes down to a dispute over how to divvy up the spoils from one of the most lucrative commercial ventures in the history of American sports. Since 1984, when David Stern was named commissioner, the league has quadrupled its annual revenues, in part on the strength of marketing and media ventures that have lifted pro basketball to unprecedented worldwide popularity. The NBA's extraordinary success relies heavily on a power dynamic that over the last decade has allowed the league to manipulate the images of its basketball players with the goal of maximizing their commercial value. For their part, players have realized that their appeal is what's making basketball sell so well and have for the first time begun to show signs of chafing under the NBA's tight strictures. In addition to trying to rein in player salary costs, the NBA has also made player conduct an issue in the current negotiations. In the wake of Latrell Sprewell's attack on P.J. Carlesimo and controversies over marijuana use among players, the league has proposed new contract clauses aimed at regulating player behavior on and off the court.

In a sense, the fight over money and morality is simply providing a stage for the league and the players to act out a power struggle.

Jim McIlvaine, a center for the Seattle Supersonics, is on the players' union negotiating committee and secretary-treasurer of the executive committee. In a recent interview, he characterized the labor dispute this way: "People ask me all the time what the real sticking point in negotiations is. They say, 'Is it the money or is it the marijuana thing?' I tell them, 'You know, it really all comes down to control. The owners want more of it and the players want more independence.' "

From the NBA perspective, the biggest issue is the proportion of revenues going to player salaries. According to the league, player payroll ate up 57 percent of the '97-98 NBA income. League officials say 15 of the 29 teams are not making a profit, blaming skyrocketing salaries. A contract provision known as the Larry Bird exception is partly why players can demand so much money. It permits teams to exceed the league-wide salary cap that otherwise limits each team's total annual payroll to $26.9 million in order to re-sign certain players who are near the end of their contracts. In 1997, the Bird exception meant that the Chicago Bulls could pay Michael Jordan a reported $33 million. The Minnesota Timberwolves took advantage of the same loophole before the start of last season to sign Kevin Garnett to the biggest NBA multiyear contract yet, a six-year deal worth a reported $126 million. The players have steadfastly refused to discuss the elimination of the Bird exception, a move they say would unfairly deprive them of their ability to earn their market value.

On a bench after the benefit game, Stephon Marbury hunkers down for the press barrage. After two years at point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 21-year-old has combined prolific basketball skills and unyielding determination to negotiate the path from a playground in Coney Island to the NBA. The public, he says, has misconstrued the NBA players' position as "greedy." The dispute is not over player demands for higher salaries, he says, but their right to negotiate based on their value to a team. (An end to the Bird exception would effectively impose a ceiling on players' salary increases, regardless of their on-court contributions or their ability to fill arenas with paying customers.)

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