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Original Issue

Minor League Might Have Major Role


At first glance the NBDL--or the D-League, as it's known--seems a wonderful idea is operated by the NBA, and commissioner David Stern envisions it as a full-fledged minor league that would help uncover and groom talent as well as provide needed playing time for teenagers stuck on NBA benches. He has even made the D-League an element of his negotiations with union chief Billy Hunter over a new collective bargaining agreement for next season. "One of the things we've proposed is that our development league ultimately be a place where youngsters could be assigned in their early years," Stern said last week.

There are 10 NBDL teams after expansion last month into Albuquerque, Austin, Fort Worth and Tulsa. Stern envisions a 15-team league in which there are two NBA parent clubs for each D-League franchise. While NBA team executives have been prohibited by Stern from discussing the NBDL publicly, some G.M.'s privately say that they will probably bicker over rosters and coaching staffs in the D-League, and that they anticipate complaints about having to oversee a venture unlikely to produce stars. Nor is it likely that a team would entrust the development of its prized draft picks to a farm club it doesn't fully control. "We want to give teams the capacity to do it but not necessarily require them to do it," says Stern. "This is not about putting pressure on NBA teams. It's more about giving them an outlet."

Then there is the question of whether a player with a guaranteed NBA contract can be demoted to the D-League to ride buses and compete alongside players making $12,000. A union source worries that NBA teams could threaten players with a D-League demotion as a form of punishment. "We have a lot of things over which we disagree," says Stern of his negotiations, "but I hope that ultimately the wisdom of having a place for players to spend the time they need will prevail."

One scenario is that the union would agree to an age minimum of 20 for NBA rookies (a Stern priority) provided that the NBDL be open to players 18 and older, thus providing a haven under the NBA aegis for players who can't or don't want to attend college. That would also alter the incongruous rules that now permit 18-year-olds in the NBA but bar them from the NBDL, which imposes a 20-year-old minimum for nondrafted players while claiming to develop young talent.

Why is Stern so interested in a minor league that will have a negligible impact on NBA rosters? Having exhausted his expansion opportunities at the major league level, he sees his next domestic growth opportunity in secondary markets, which he can tap by expanding the NBDL and the WNBA.