Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, et al. won't be the only basketball players hoping to sign lucrative contracts in the weeks ahead. The day after the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship, the second season gave way to what is quickly becoming open season for the league's 44 free agents.
Compensation, heretofore the bar to NBA players' moving as they choose from one team to another, has been done away with. Under a new system called Right of First Refusal, a free agent can shop around for the most attractive offer. He then submits that offer in writing to his former club, which can only keep him by matching it. This procedure differs drastically from that of baseball, which is still hassling over the issue of compensation, and football, whose free agents aren't really free because the guidelines for compensation—for example, two first-round draft choices for a player making $200,000 or more—scare off potential bidders.
Already there's evidence that Right of First Refusal will bring about an escalation in pro basketball salaries that will recall the increases resulting from the battle waged for players by the NBA and ABA from 1967 to 1976. The first multimillion dollar offers came not from one of the league's financial superpowers but from Cleveland, which two weeks ago bestowed a five-year contract worth a potential $5 million upon Kansas City King Guard Otis Birdsong, the league's sixth-ranked scorer last season. A few days later the Cavaliers offered Indiana Pacer James Edwards, one of the NBA's least awe-inspiring centers, a four-year, $800,000-per-annum deal. Kansas City and Indiana have a 15-day period from the time the offers were received to match them. They can also simply let the players go their way. Or they can match the offers, and then trade the players, thereby getting something instead of nothing.
According to Kansas City General Manager Jeff Cohen, the third option may be best in Birdsong's case. "Otis' offer is crazy," says Cohen. "He's a good guard, but not a game breaker. Now he's on the same level financially as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone. If that amount is acceptable for a good guard, then Larry Bird will have to get two million a year and Kareem five."
Negotiations between the Kings and Birdsong and his agent, Bob Woolf, began a year ago, with the Kings offering as much as $600,000 a year. But at the end of the playoffs Kansas City withdrew all its previous offers. "We thought that was the fair thing to do," says Cohen. "If Otis was going to test the waters, he should have to take some risk. We didn't want him to run to Cleveland and say, 'I can get $600,000 from K.C., what do you want to give? Even then I thought that no guard was worth what we'd offered him."
Birdsong and Woolf were angered by the Kings' move, however, and swam all that much harder through the waters to find a willing fisherman, Cleveland owner Ted Stepien. Stepien's offer to Birdsong included a base annual salary of at least $800,000, with various incentive clauses that could up the take to $1 million—$50,000 for being named the league's Most Valuable Player; another $50,000 if the Cavaliers, 28-54 last year, make the playoffs; and a more unusual perk, 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ for each person over 5,000 in attendance at each Cavalier game.
Last week many of the general managers attending the NBA's annual meetings in Danvers, Mass. were suggesting that Stepien's offers represented an irresponsible approach to free agency that other clubs wouldn't duplicate. What's more likely is that basketball is now in a situation similar to baseball's, in which the owners talk of controlling salaries but trip over themselves in their rush to give big money to mediocre players. Before the meetings came to an end, the SuperSonics' Sam Schulman, a maverick in the past—he induced Spencer Haywood, who still had college eligibility left, to join the NBA, though such a move was then contrary to the rules—had made whopping offers of approximately $750,000 a year to Forward Alex English of Denver and $400,000 a year to Center Steve Hawes of Atlanta.
All of which makes Cohen, a former Celtics executive, long for the good old days. "I remember once when Larry Siegfried was signing a new contract and giving Red Auerbach a hard time," Cohen said last week. "They finally agreed one day in the training room where Larry was taking a whirlpool. Red came out sweating with his cigar drooping out of his mouth, but he was smiling, 'I gave him what I wanted to,' he said, 'but I had to throw in a case of Coke whenever he wants one.' " From now on, that and a smile won't be nearly enough.
Birdsong could make a bundle off his bonuses.