It's a new salary game in the NBA

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Ever since the end of this year's National Basketball Association playoffs, sports writers have been reaching for their calculators to try to keep pace with the NBA's new right-of-first-refusal free-agent system.

It is costing pro basketball owners a mint, pushing a salary structure that is already out of whack into the shape of a Salvador Dali pretzel. Even journeymen players are being paid at the commercial modeling rate of Brooke Shields.

Simply stated, the right-of-first-refusal plan says that a team may hold on to any of its players who have become free agents by matching the contract offered them by another team.

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For example, back in May guard Otis Birdsong of the Kansas City Kings decided to test the free-agent market and reporttedly received an offer from Ted Stepien , owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, of $5 million for five years.

Although Kansas City kept Birdsong by matching Cleveland's offer, the Kings then surprised everyone by trading Otis to the New Jersey Nets for forward Cliff Robinson, a 1981 draft pick, and future considerations.

Cleveland, shut out on Birdsong, reacted by signing free agents James Edwards of Indiana and Scott Wedman of Kansas City to multiyear contracts. Wedman is supposed to have gotten $4 million for five years; Edwards a four-year contract calling for $750,000 a season.

Stepien, to encourage Indiana and Kansas City not to come up with matching offers, gave both the Pacers and Kings future draft picks for their cooperation. Yet except for Birdsong, none of these players even remotely resembles superstars.

The next NBA free agent who is probably going to collect heavily for playing out his option is Mitch Kupchak of the Washington Bullets. Kupchak is a power forward who has become a steady gleam in the eye of Los Angeles Lakers' Owner Jerry Buss.

Jerry, who is looking for a policeman- type who can protect both center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and small forward Jamaal Wilkes, is reportedly willing to pay Mitch in the neighborhood of $700,000 a season over a seven-year period.

Although Kupchak, at 6 ft. 9 in. and 235 pounds could stop a Mack truck with his body, that's a lot of money for 569 rebounds and a 12.5 scoring average.

In fact, there are growing number of NBA owners who are not happy with the way Stepien and Buss are throwing money around. The 25-year, $25 million contract that the Lakers recently gave Magic Johnson still has some NBA owners twanging like guitar strings.

Stepien, interviewed by Sports Illustrated, defended his aggressiveness in the free-agent market by saying that he pleads guilty to nothing more than being the victim of geographical bias, a rather unique observation.

"Was Red Auerbach [general manager of the Boston Celtics] crazy for giving $ 650,000 two years ago to Larry Bird, an untried rookie?" Stepien asks. "Is Jerry Buss crazy for paying Magic Johnson so much money? No, they're coastal geniuses. Me, I'm a Midwest jerk!"

Last week the Philadelphia 76ers were sold for some $12 million to Harold Katz, who owns a string of health and wealth reducing centers throughout the United States. Part of the reason for the sale was dwindling attendances in Philadelphia, despite the fact that the 76ers showcase Dr. J. (Julius Erving) and have one of most colorful teams in the league.

There are also rumors that at least three more NBA franchises (Denver, Indiana, and Detroit) are being shopped around and that several other teams are having severe financial problems.

Yet ticket prices for next season are up at most arenas and especially at the L. A. Forum, where courtside seats this year cost $75 apiece! What this basically means is that basketball fans in the West Coast entertainment industry (Jack Nicholson, Cary Grant, Peter Falk) will once again sit in the same section.

Meanwhile, the NBA has announced that it will open its 1981-82 season on Oct. 30, three weeks later than usual. This has been done so that the league will avoid so much early conflict with pro football, plus the World Series, if there is one. but it also means that the NBA playoffs will now extend into June.

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