NBA Salaries Shoot Skyward

Some ask how long pro basketball can offer multiyear contracts in the tens of millions

WHILE player salaries continue to climb dramatically in all major professional sports leagues, it is scary what is happening in the National Basketball Association (NBA), despite a super-strong financial base and worldwide popularity:

* Since the end of last season, Derrick Coleman, a no-time All-Star with the New Jersey Nets, has turned down an eight-year contract worth $69 million as inadequate.

* The Philadelphia 76ers have signed 7 ft., 6 in. rookie center Shawn Bradley, who has logged one season of basketball at Brigham Young University, to an eight-year, $44 million deal. That's pretty good money for a prospect who played only pickup basketball for the past two years while serving out his commitment as a Mormon missionary in Australia.

* Another rookie, 6 ft., 10 in. Chris Webber of Michigan, the first sophomore to be a No. 1 pick in the college draft since Magic Johnson, will get $74 million over several years from the Golden State Warriors.

* The Charlotte (N.C.) Hornets have not only signed forward Larry Johnson to a 12-year, $84 million contract, but guaranteed it against wind, fire, earthquakes, injuries, and almost anything else that can be protected by insurance.

``Johnson is an outstanding talent,'' said General Manager and Hall of Famer Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers in a Monitor interview. ``Larry is not even the best player on the Hornets. Alonzo Mourning is.'' Mr. West, among rival general managers, is not alone in rating Mourning ahead of Johnson.

Where will this financial fox trot end? ``Nobody really knows,'' West replies. ``But when the league's salary cap expires at the end of the current season, the NBA will be facing some of the biggest challenges in its history. Those issues regarding finances are going to have to be resolved if the league, down the road, is to continue to prosper. We've got to find a system that works for everybody.''

West wonders how long team owners can survive giving rookies guaranteed multiyear contracts worth millions of dollars. ``It happens because we are all so competitive,'' West says. ``We all want to win, now. We all want to reward our fans for their loyalty.

``Sometimes, when you think a certain player might make the difference between winning your division or finishing second, you ignore the cost and sign the guy anyway. However, in the future, I think rookies - and probably second-year players as well - will have to be brought under a special salary cap. There are also too many players out there making too much money for what they produce, only teams can't get rid of them because of the guaranteed contracts.''

So far, NBA owners have been able to survive astronomical salaries because of a practically endless chain of money-generating endeavors, including a marketing division that ranks with Disney's. It is also a fact that since 1984, NBA revenues have exploded from around $200 million a season to roughly $1 billion, according to a survey done by Sports Illustrated.

On Nov. 4, a Toronto group was awarded an expansion franchise by the NBA Board of Governors for $125 million. Even though Toronto isn't scheduled to begin league operations until the 1995-96 season, its team-logo-emblazoned merchandise will be on sale nationally long before it signs its first player.

The governors had hardly closed the door on this decision when a similarly endowed group from Vancouver, British Columbia, began knocking for admission. That the average NBA player's salary has increased from $275,000 in 1983 to $1.2 million this season apparently means nothing to these people, whose pockets are deeper than the Marianas Trench.

Asked if the retirements of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson will have a long-range effect on league attendance, West replies: ``The NBA is always going to be bigger than its players. The system will continue to make stars. Attendance will continue to increase. While fans will continue to talk about Jordan, Bird, and Magic, they aren't going to abandon a game they like just because those three aren't around anymore.

``They will continue to support pro basketball, just as they did after [Bob] Cousy, [Elgin] Baylor, [Wilt] Chamberlain, and others retired. Besides, today if a young player becomes the television spokesman for a major sneaker manufacturer, he can become a superstar overnight. We've already seen that with Shaquille O'Neal.

``With Jordan, the Bulls might have won another NBA championship this season. But, win or lose, I don't think Michael will be back. Some players wouldn't have enough to keep them busy outside the game. But Jordan has so many things going for him that when he says he is through as a pro player, I believe him.''

West, looking at the NBA right now, says Pat Riley's New York Knicks (barring injuries) are the best-balanced team in the league.

West also says that twice, maybe three times, when he played for the Lakers and they lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA finals, he felt that Los Angeles was the better team. However, he wouldn't put blame on anybody.

Now, after another good run in the '80s, when either the Celtics or the Lakers or both made it to the NBA championship finals, it is time to rebuild.

Although satellite television, overseas clinics, hot-selling videocassettes, and NBA exhibitions abroad have established the league worldwide, West sees no immediate rush to expand. What might happen in the future, though, is a second postseason series between foreign and NBA champions - especially if television underwrites the cost.

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