Pro basketball commissioner cites need to cut losses estimated at $15 million or more last year; Larry O'Brien trying to steer NBA toward black ink

When Commissioner Lawrence F. O'Brien of the National Basketball Association visited Los Angeles recently to present the Lakers with their championship rings , he also agreed to discuss his league's multiple problems.

Now Mr. O'Brien is a charming man, a former US Postmaster General, political lobbyist and Washington, D.C. power broker who was a special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. As National Chairman of the Democratic Party in 1972 he was also one of the main targets of the Watergate break-ins.

Currently commissioner of a league which reportedly lost between $15 million and $16 million last year and in which the average player salary has risen to $ 218,000 per man, O'Brien could easily be excused for being a little touchy, which he isn't.

Instead Larry sits calmly in the eye of a would-be hurricane, making suggestions here, smoothing sticky situations there, and finalizing a four-year television contract with CBS worth several million dollars to those who pay his salary. In addition, two-year TV agreements have also been signed with the USA and ESPN cable networks.

Still, only six of the NBA's 23 teams reported profits last year. And with the league's 37th season now under way, the owners and players haven't yet worked out a new bargaining agreement to replace the old one that expired last June 1.

While there is only speculation about the possibility of a strike at the moment, who knows what little thing could trigger a player walkout if not handled properly?

''The reason I won't tell you much about what is going on is because I've learned that the best way to handle situations like this is to let the parties involved keep their business discussions to themselves,'' O'Brien said. ''Whenever two sides come out of a meeting and criticize each other in public, it only makes for hard feelings that prolong negotiation. The best way to get a settlement is to keep people talking, because eventually they'll almost always compromise.

''Our owners have come up with an entirely new approach to the way in which player compensation is structured,'' he added. ''We aren't prepared to reveal the details yet, but at stake is the future of the NBA. However, we are not strangers to each other. Most of us have been here before. The human element is on the table. We're not talking about vast numbers of people who have to be satisfied, like the automobile industry, but maybe 276 players. I think everyone involved knows by now that we can't go on losing $15 or $16 million a year and survive.''

If you can believe the rumors that have escaped from these negotiations, it is the owners rather than the players who are asking for concessions. They would like to impose such cost-saving measures as cutting rosters from 12 to 10 players; requiring teams to fly coach instead of first class; and shifting fringe benefit costs to the players.

The players, of course, don't want to give up something they already have, seeing those kinds of concessions as a step backward. And the owners only hurt their own cause whenever someone like Harold Katz of the Philadelphia 76ers gives Moses Malone a six-year contract worth $13 million - all reportedly to be paid up front.

The Malone caper is only the latest instance in a kind of financial madness which has reached the point where the NBA says player salaries now account for nearly 72 percent of each team's gross revenues, on the average. But all the players see (and can you really blame them?) are a bunch of owners who throw money around like confetti at a ''Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'' wedding.

What may prevent a strike is O'Brien's ability to keep the talks going, plus the fact that attorney Larry Fleischer, who heads the NBA Players' Association, has always been willing in the past to spend as much time as possible to settle these things.

Asked about rumors that three NBA franchises might not be able to finish the season because of financial problems, the commissioner replied: ''A few years ago the league used to hear talk like that about the Atlanta Hawks. But the Hawks are solid now and winners. All Atlanta really needed was some time.

''Last season I kept reading how the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz wanted to merge. Well, the Denver-Utah merger was never presented to this office at any time if indeed it ever existed. Now Denver has a new owner and is moving ahead.

''We currently have a unique situation in Dallas, where the Mavericks, who started in our league two years ago as an expansion franchise, have made money both years. The Mavericks, without spending unreasonable amounts of money, have also protected their future by stockpiling several high draft picks.''

While it probably would be impossible to get owners to agree on a salary limit per team, and maybe illegal as well, the Alice in Wonderland contracts (like that given Malone) obviously have to go if the NBA is ever to balance its books.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.