Pro basketball's 'landmark' decision and what it means

Labor relations between owners and players in sports can be an extremely touchy and complex matter these days. There are no quick solutions; no store-bought maps that carefully point out all the twists, turns, dangers, and potential detours.

In the past three years major league baseball and professional football have gone through strikes that, because of inflexibility on both sides, proved unavoidable. Baseball's strike lasted 50 days; pro football's 57.

So you would have to say that something remarkable in the way of negotiations happened recently when the National Basketball Association and its players' union agreed on a new four-year contract. The agreement, which came only 48 hours before the players' strike deadline, has been called a landmark decision by NBA Commissioner Lawrence F. O'Brien.

''The reason I used the word landmark is because, even in an agreement as complex as this one, both sides basically got what they wanted,'' O'Brien explained from his New York office. ''The owners, many of whose teams had been losing money, were able to put a cap on salaries. League parity is now possible because teams in large cities won't be able to spend any more on players than those in smaller areas. Yet players who already have big salaries will not only keep them, but still have the right to move - the right to free agency.

''As far as competition is concerned, owners and general managers will now have to be more innovative than ever when putting their teams together,'' O'Brien continued. ''For example, suppose a franchise that is already at its salary cap is able to draft a college star whose talents can probably assure its future for a number of years. If the owner wants that new man enough, then he's going to have to move someone off his present roster to get him, either through a trade or some other means.''

One of the negative things this new arrangement could do is motivate undergraduate players such as Georgetown's Pat Ewing and North Carolina's Michael Jordan to come into the league next year, while the superbucks are still available.

Basically the NBA's new four-year agreement includes provisions for maximum and minimum salary limits; a guaranteed 53 percent share of gross profits for players; plus revenue sharing for financially troubled teams.

While salaries will remain the same next year (the average in the NBA is $246 ,000 per man), a team cap of $3.6 million has been agreed on for 1984-85; $3.8 million for 1985-86; and $4 million for 1986-87.

Rookies who enter the league in 1984-85 will do so at a minimum of $65,000 with guaranteed yearly increases of $5,000 for the next two seasons. They will also automatically become free agents at the end of their first year, meaning they will have the right to negotiate with all 23 NBA teams, including the one that drafted them originally.

Effective immediately, the five NBA teams with the highest payrolls (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, and Seattle) will be frozen at their current salary levels. These teams, all of whose current payrolls exceed $ 3.6 million and may go as high as $5 million, will continue to pay these salaries until existing contracts expire.

Teams that are now under the NBA's 1984-85 minimum of $3.6 million, such as the Indiana Pacers, will be given help in reaching that figure by other teams, although the formula for that purpose has not yet been determined.

For the record, the NBA four-year agreement was reached only after 26 negotiating sessions that were spread over almost 10 months. Some of those discussions lasted only 20 minutes, while others (including meal breaks) sometimes ran as long as eight hours.

Asked how close the players had come to striking, NBA Commissioner O'Brien replied: ''I'd say very close, because things didn't look that good until right before the deadline, although both parties never stopped talking. But there were never any threats by either side, as was reported in some newspapers.

''Larry Fleisher (general counsel of the players' union) was great at keeping negotiations on a high level, and, in fact, has always had a fine rapport with the NBA,'' O'Brien added. ''I had an objective and he had an objective, and Fleisher helped the situation by regularly bringing players into our bargaining sessions. By the same token, I helped things by having at least a scattering of owners at every discussion.''

The NBA's new agreement also gives the owners the option of expanding the 1984-85 playoffs from 12 to 16 teams and even making division winners play a best-of-five series in the opening round of the playoffs.

To get that option, the owners apparently had to agree to maintain a total of 253 player jobs next year, even if in the meantime an NBA franchise or two were to go out of business. What that amounts to is that all existing teams will carry a minimum of 11 players each next season.

While the NBA's new agreement will end escalating salaries for the next four years, it will also provide underfinanced teams a chance to right themselves.

How much impact the NBA's new agreement will have on other pro sports has yet to be felt. But once baseball, football, and ice hockey owners have a chance to study its structure, a modification of the NBA plan may yet touch every team in pro sports.

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