Nba: Lockout Talk Premature

Posted: September 27, 1994

A lockout of NBA players by the league's owners on or about Thanksgiving?

In a pro sports world living uncomfortably with a major league baseball strike and the threat of a lockout in the NHL, what's one more dark, foreboding rumor in one more sport?

Sorry, but even though no one professes to know the exact source, the dreaded specter of a lockout has begun to surface in pro basketball as well. And that's in a league that has never experienced a work stoppage, that three times has begun seasons without a collective-bargaining agreement with its players.

The last NBA agreement expired last June, directly after Houston defeated New York for the championship.

"I was in Chicago 2 1/2 weeks ago for a meeting of our competition committee," league deputy commissioner Russ Granik recalled, "and a reporter said, 'Can you tell me you would absolutely never have a lockout?' I couldn't say that, but that was all I said.

"Right now, a lockout is not anything we're even talking about. In my mind, it's not even worth discussing at this point. We have six weeks to go before the season starts (Nov. 4), and we want to make a deal with the players."

This is what the players want: elimination of the salary cap, the draft and any restrictions on free agency.

This is what the owners want: retention of the draft and some restrictions on free agency, a hard cap that would eliminate controversial "one-year out" clauses in contracts and balloon payments, plus a cap on salaries for rookies.

The owners have continually requested bargaining meetings. The players, through executive director Charles Grantham, have refused, preferring to wait for a decision from a three-judge panel in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. That decision, on an appeal of an earlier decision by Judge Kevin Duffy, might not come for four to six weeks.

Duffy ruled the draft, cap and restrictions on free agency do not violate antitrust laws.

"We've been trying to convince the players to come back to the table sooner," Granik said. "It's disappointing that we have not talked, but that's a new strategy on the part of the union. In the past, we would always be talking."

And if they were, how tough would it be to make a deal?

"If both sides really wanted to do it, we could have a deal in two days," Granik said.

"All the principals have been at this a long time, so there aren't a lot of secrets. We want to make a deal, and I have to assume that the players will eventually want to make a deal. So far, they've wanted to litigate, not negotiate. I'm not saying that argumentatively."

Grantham has carefully pointed out that the league initially sued the players.

"It wouldn't say much for us if, as we're awaiting a decision on our appeal, we were also negotiating," Grantham said. "Plus, it's not as if the league wants the status quo. With the things they want, we're going backward.

"A rumor floated about a lockout is intended to scare the players to some degree, to intimidate them to get back to the table. Please understand that we're in court because we were brought there."

In any case, Granik said that he had "no question" that training camps would open as scheduled and that the preseason schedule of games would not be in jeopardy.

The Sixers report to their Lancaster training-camp headquarters Oct. 6, beginning workouts the following day.

The league's Board of Governors will meet next week in New York. The board's labor committee, of which Sixers owner Harold Katz is a member, has met several times via telephone conference call.

"We're not contemplating anything beyond the next few weeks," Granik said. "We haven't discussed anything, not even internally, beyond being hopeful of making a deal. I don't know where we'll be a month from now, but it doesn't make sense to even try to predict that."

That stance was echoed by Katz, who spent part of yesterday watching some of the Sixers and selected free-agent hopefuls work out at St. Joseph's University.

"Nothing we've done to this point would insinuate (a lockout), other than that we want conversation with the players and we haven't had that," Katz said.

"I don't want (a work stoppage) to happen under any circumstance. Obviously, what we want is to sit down and talk (with the players). They don't want to, and that's not the right attitude. But that's been their stance from Day 1. Anything that involves any restrictions (on them), they will not discuss."

Grantham said he has heard whispers of a possible lockout, but that he

hasn't heard them directly from an owner or a league executive. He also said the players intend to report to work on time.

What everyone has heard is a decision by Duffy saying that the draft, the cap and restrictions on free agency do not violate antitrust laws because the agreement between the owners and the players was controlled by federal labor law and its policies.

The league has been operating under the rules of the previous agreement.

By contrast, the proposal of a cap is a major reason the baseball players are on strike. The NHL owners are attempting to institute a cap and the NFL is operating, somewhat contentiously, this season for the first time with a cap.

The NBA's cap went into effect in 1983 as several teams faced the likelihood of closing their doors. The formula provides the players with 53 percent of the league's gross-defined income, although it does not include some major areas of league income, such as licensing fees.

The current cap is $15.175 million per team, and is expected to climb to somewhere between $15.9 million and $16.2 million.

"There are any number of items to discuss, including pensions, per diem, licensing, travel, scheduling," Granik said. "The one thing they won't talk about is what they get paid. All we're saying is, we need to talk about something that makes business sense."

Grantham has argued that, in other industries, the pay issue comes under the definition of budgeting. Granik says it would more properly be termed a wage scale.

"That would be 10 times more restrictive," Granik said. "Our system allows for individual bargaining. In the last 11 years, the cap was held up as a model of negotiating. Now, it's become a dirty word, and it's not. We've told the union that if licensing is an issue, tear up our licensing agreement, which has three years left to run and strike a new one. Yes, we have problems to patch up, that's true, but as our cap becomes threadbare it can be necessary to stitch it up a little."

Accomplishing that would require negotiations between the owners and the players.

"In the past, we've always had a sense of where our deal was," Granik said. "Here, we've had no discussions, and that's unsettling."

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