Skip to main content
Original Issue

Held Ball With talks stalled, exhibition games canceled and the start of the season in peril, the NBA lockout has the owners and the players facing hard time

October 6, the day that NBA training camps were scheduled to
open, will come and go without so much as a wind sprint. Knowing
that Greg Ostertag isn't wheezing through an intrasquad
scrimmage won't leave a void in anyone's life, but last week's
cancellation of preseason games through Oct. 16 was significant
because the owners' lockout became tangible after months of
being nothing but an off-season abstraction.

The lost exhibition games--and the likelihood that the rest of
the preseason and at least part of the regular season will be
canceled as well--solidified the notion that this labor dispute
won't be settled for a long time. The silhouette of a basketball
player on the NBA logo should have a question mark in the middle
of it. In the spirit of that uncertainty we note the passing of
what should have been the start of the preseason with five
questions about the league, beginning with the most obvious.

1. When will the lockout end?

It's hard to find anyone on either side of the dispute who
believes the season will begin before December. "It would take a
minor miracle not to miss some games," deputy commissioner Russ
Granik says of the season that was scheduled to start on Nov. 3.
"It's hard not to be pessimistic." That's one of the few
statements out of the league office that Billy Hunter, executive
director of the National Basketball Players Association, agrees
with. "We may end up missing at least two months," he says.

Granik and Hunter are also of the same opinion that whenever
terms of a new collective bargaining agreement are finally
hammered out, there will probably be a period of three weeks to
a month during which teams will be able to sign free agents and
conduct an abbreviated training camp. As for the possibility of
losing the entire season, neither side's representatives want to
speculate publicly, but sources in the owners' and the players'
camps indicate that should the lockout extend deep into January,
the season will be jeopardized.

Even if games are missed, the owners are guaranteed to receive,
on schedule, the first-year payment--about $23 million per
team--from their new four-year, $2.6 billion television
contracts with NBC and Turner Sports. Sources indicate the
players association is amassing a war chest of perhaps as much
as $100 million. The two sides are girding for a long battle.

2. Has progress been made in negotiations?

What negotiations? So far it has been difficult for the two
sides to agree to meet, much less work out a resolution. Until a
one-hour meeting on Sept. 23, there had been only one other
session, on Aug. 6, since the lockout was imposed on July 1.
Each side has made only one formal proposal since May 27. The
players association offer, conveyed at the Aug. 6 session,
retained the so-called Larry Bird exception, under which a team
can re-sign its own free agent for any amount regardless of the
salary cap. It also proposed that teams share the revenue from
local TV deals. (Under the current system, which stipulates that
teams share equally in all national and international television
revenue, there's a considerable disparity in local TV income,
with large-market teams, such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the
New York Knicks, receiving amounts that dwarf those earned by
teams in smaller cities, such as the Utah Jazz and the Vancouver
Grizzlies.) The proposal was considered so unacceptable by the
owners, mainly because they are inflexible about eliminating the
Bird exception, that commissioner David Stern walked away from
the table.

The owners, whose primary goal in this dispute is obtaining "cost
certainty" when it comes to payrolls, made their proposal last
Friday. It included a four-year phase-out of the Bird exception
and a stipulation that the salary of a team's top-paid player
would be no more than 30% of a team's cap figure. In return the
salary cap would rise to about $45 million over the next three
seasons, roughly $18 million above the 1997-98 cap. This wasn't
close to being good enough to satisfy the union, which remained
adamantly opposed to losing the Bird exception.

The two sides are closer on the issue of free agency for
first-round draft picks. In the players association proposal a
player drafted in the first round, who under the current
collective bargaining agreement can become an unrestricted free
agent after his third season, would become a restricted free
agent after four years, with his original team having the right
to match any other team's offer. The owners would prefer to have
those players bound to the teams that drafted them for their
first five seasons. This issue isn't much of an obstacle to a

Neither side has any incentive to negotiate in earnest until the
issue before arbitrator John Feerick regarding guaranteed
contracts is resolved. The players association argues that the
roughly 200 players with guaranteed deals should be paid during
the lockout unless such payment is specifically prohibited in
their contracts. The owners contend that the lockout supersedes
any contract. Feerick has until Oct. 18 to rule, but even a
decision in favor of the players is not likely to trigger a
quick resolution of the lockout because the owners are certain
to appeal in court.

3. Is Michael Jordan coming back?

He wants to, very much, if only the Chicago Bulls will ask him
nicely. David Falk, Jordan's agent, created a stir earlier this
month when he said he believed that if Jordan would allow him to
get involved, he could work out a deal with Bulls chairman Jerry
Reinsdorf that would bring Jordan, free-agent forward Scottie
Pippen and former coach Phil Jackson (the latter two are not
Falk clients) back for another season.

But Jordan has been noncommittal about playing again, and Pippen
continues to tell friends that he doesn't think either he or
Jordan will return to Chicago. Jordan has, however, told some
fellow players, including Charles Barkley, who have been
pronouncing him retired that he doesn't need them as spokesmen.

The prospect of yet another Last Dance seemed more plausible
when Jackson met informally with Bulls director of basketball
operations and coach-in-waiting Tim Floyd at Jackson's suburban
Chicago house. But Jackson, who had packed up his Bulls office
even before the Finals ended, is sitting this dance out. "Phil's
intentions are well-known and unchanged," says Jackson's agent,
Todd Musburger. "He wishes Tim Floyd well, and he had a private
chat with him to convey that message and to compare notes.
Nothing more should be read into it."

Those are the tea leaves. All anyone can do is read them as he
chooses because it appears that not even Jordan knows what he
will do. The good news--or is it the bad news?--is that it looks
like he will have quite a while longer to ponder his future.

4. Who will coach the Los Angeles Clippers?

L.A. owner Donald Sterling has shown interest recently in former
Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks coach Chris Ford, but the
Clippers' organization is so chaotic that the front-runner for
the job changes almost daily. "I don't know what they're doing,"
says one Eastern Conference coach. "I don't think they even know
what they're doing."

One thing Los Angeles is doing is saving money. The Clippers,
who have the only coaching vacancy in the league, quickly ended
their pursuit of former Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl
after they took a look at his price tag--Karl then signed a
four-year, $20 million deal to replace Ford in Milwaukee--and
the prevailing theory is, Sterling doesn't want to put a new
coaching staff on the payroll until the end of the lockout is in

Perhaps it doesn't make sense for L.A. to take a seemingly casual
approach to hiring the man to whom it will entrust the
development of No. 1 draft pick Michael Olowokandi. But if the
Clippers did something that made sense, they wouldn't be the
Clippers, would they?

5. Who will be Comeback Player of the Year?

No comeback, of course, will draw as much attention as that of
Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell, who was suspended
last season for assaulting coach P.J. Carlesimo. The Warriors
are widely rumored to be ready to trade Sprewell to the Miami
Heat for forwards P.J. Brown and Jamal Mashburn when the lockout
ends, but that deal isn't a sure thing. Sprewell and Miami point
guard Tim Hardaway feuded when they were Golden State teammates,
and a source close to Hardaway says that Hardaway isn't nearly
as willing to make peace with Sprewell as he has indicated

The summer's loudest buzz, however, was about Orlando Magic
guard Penny Hardaway, who appears to be back in good health
after battling knee and calf injuries for most of the past two
seasons. Hardaway has been spectacular in informal scrimmages
since he began playing at full speed again in August, and he was
particularly impressive in a charity game sponsored by Seattle's
Gary Payton two weeks ago. "Everything feels good," Penny says.
"I feel healthy and strong again. I know a lot of negative
things were said about me the last couple of years, but I'm not
coming back with the idea that I need to prove anything to
anybody. I'm just coming back with the idea of being the old
Penny Hardaway again."

The Magic considered trading Hardaway at midseason last year and
had been expected to listen to offers for him again when the
lockout ended. However, that was before his encouraging summer
performance. Moreover, free-agent center Ike Austin, who
finished 1997-98 with the Clippers, says the chance to play with
Hardaway is one of the reasons he is seriously considering
signing with Orlando. Hardaway is now almost certain to be back
in a Magic uniform when the season starts. Whenever that is.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEAN-FRANCOIS PODEVIN [Drawing of bolted metal lock with keyhole--T of C]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEAN-FRANCOIS PODEVIN [Drawing of basketball behind bars in jail cell]

Sources in both camps indicate that should the lockout extend
deep into January, the season will be jeopardized.