The negotiations between league officials and owners on one hand and players on the other moved slowly in the fall of 1998. It was a most unusual labor dispute: on one side a large number of billionaires, on the other, countless millionaires. Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post said it was a strike between tall millionaires and short millionaires. And Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune wrote that watching the strike was like watching a collision between two limousines. "One guy gets out of the backseat of one limo complaining that he spilled his glass of Chateau Lafite Rothschild wine in the collision. And the guy from the other limo gets out mortified that his gold Rolex was scratched." By 1998, the average player's salary was $2.5 million. David Stern himself made $7 million a year, a sticking point for many of the players and agents. And Patrick Ewing, the head of the union, was making $18.5 million this year as part of a handsome four-year contract, a sticking point with owners. The issues seemed less about how much money was being made at the moment than whether salaries would be kept open-ended in the future. Would there be any ceiling on a team's ability to sign its best players? Could some formula be engineered that justly rewarded very valuable players after a certain period of service and yet did not threaten the very stability and balance of the league? Did the issues at stake affect 80 percent of the players or just a small handful of elite players who might be worthy of giant salaries?
The truth was that with the salaries so large and getting larger, the players were inevitably the losers in a showdown like this. They had lost something crucial from their earlier public struggles with the owners: public support. Few young American sports enthusiasts, after all, had ever rooted for the owners or idolized them, and few American youths had grown up in their teens hoping one day to own a sports franchise. The owners had no popularity to lose. The players did. Out of touch with the world around them, strangers even to the better sportswriters who now covered them, encouraged by agents who had both a vested interest in their success and a fear of being candid with them, players rarely enjoyed the kind of dispensation granted a superstar like Michael Jordan. Theirs was hardly a popular cause even among those normally accustomed to taking labor's side in salary disputes.
The owners wanted to put some significant limits on the Larry Bird exception in order to keep it within the agreed-upon boundaries of the salary cap. They were not, they said, trying to turn back the clock or move the pay scale downward, nor even trying to stop the ability of players to enjoy considerable freedom of movement. Instead, they were, in the period after Kevin Garnett's signing, trying to limit the ever-escalating madness--not just of the players but of themselves. If accepted, their offer would bring the total payroll to $1.2 billion in four years, roughly a 5 percent annual increase. Under the old shared-revenue agreement, the players were supposed to get 52 percent of gross revenues, but the annual increase in salaries had been so steep--roughly 15 or 16 percent a year--that the league now claimed that the figure had reached 57 percent and was still climbing. As Kevin McHale said when he finished up the Kevin Garnett salary negotiations, "We've got our hand on the goose which has been laying the golden egg, and we're already squeezing too hard."
That Michael Jordan was special because he had helped change the economics of the game, and that his big paydays had come quite late in his career, seemed to be concepts beyond the comprehension of many of the players. A player named Jerry Stackhouse was a good example, although there were many others like him. Stackhouse had come out of Carolina after only two years in the Dean Smith program, and he had seemed at first to have the potential for true greatness--he was a slasher, someone whose drives to the basket were hard to stop because of his power and speed. He had entered the league with a handsome new sneaker contract and all the other accoutrements of the modern celebrity athlete. But he was still an unfinished player, and he did not improve greatly in his first three professional seasons. In part because his outside shot remained suspect, defenses could drop off him, and that cut down on his ability to drive to the basket. In addition, his posse--that is, his group of followers--did not seem to get along with Allen Iverson's posse, and in time, in his third season, he was traded to Detroit. But he was also heard to say that he was thinking in terms of a big contract, at least $10 million a year: If Michael Jordan was worth $30 million, he said, he was at least a third as good a player as Michael. Who would ever know if that were true or not.
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam. Copyright© 1999 by The Amateurs Limited; Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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