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NBA Players Pass Labor Agreement With 25-2 Vote

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 14, 1995

CHICAGO, SEPT. 13 -- The NBA took another step toward normal operations this afternoon when player representatives overwhelmingly approved a new, six-year collective bargaining agreement. The deal passed by a 25-2 margin, with only Boston and Sacramento voting against it.

NBA owners will add their stamp of approval on Friday when Commissioner David Stern conducts a conference call. He will lift the 75-day lockout of players on Monday, allowing teams to return to the business of signing players and making trades. Training camps are scheduled to open Oct. 6; the regular season begins Nov. 3.

A day after a tally of league-wide player voting by the National Labor Relations Board showed overwhelming support for the union, the player representatives were required by the National Basketball Players Association constitution to ratify the new agreement.

They needed only about an hour behind closed doors to do just that, and the only pro sports league that has never lost a regular season or postseason game because of a labor dispute apparently will keep its record intact.

"It has been a long, tedious process," said New York Knicks forward Charles Smith, vice president of the NBPA. "We're all smiles today. It's been a long time coming, but we know the season is going to start on time. It's time to get back to playing ball."

Union head Simon Gourdine added a note of caution, saying: "Because there are claims pending, one can never walk away feeling all is assured. But we do feel the healing and mending can begin immediately. We're reaching out to all our players."

Indeed, Sacramento's Mitch Richmond indicated that he will pursue his unfair labor practices charge against the NBA, while also collecting signatures in an attempt to have the current union thrown out of office. And Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney for the 17 players who began the decertification movement that forced the NLRB vote, has until Tuesday to file objections.

Still, their support seems slim. Richmond asked for, and was given, 10 minutes at the beginning of the meeting to address the player representatives with Gourdine out of the room. He repeated earlier statements that the new deal is a bad one and pleaded with player representatives to at least delay a vote on it. When he was done, the measure still passed, 25-2.

"I wanted more guys who feel as I do to come here and speak their mind," Richmond said. "I'm disappointed at that. This deal affects a lot of guys and I'm definitely disappointed at the way it turned out. We are going to discuss it later today and we'll see what happens."

Asked about Richmond's appeal, one player representative said: "He said the same things he has said before. He had nothing new. We respect his right to say it. We just disagree with what he's saying."

Portland forward Buck Williams, the president of the NBAPA, said: "It was critical that Mitch was here. Our job as a union is to listen to our membership. We may not agree with him, but we have to listen to what guys are saying. That's our job."

No one from the decertification movement, which included Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, attended the meeting. Jordan earlier had indicated he would abide by the wishes of the majority.

"The dissident movement helped our cause tremendously in getting a better deal," Williams said. "It's unfortunate we had to air our dirty laundry in public, but they were instrumental in helping the agreement along. It's important to have everyone involved."

The new deal guarantees the players around $5 billion during the six years and will increase the average salary, which was $1.7 million last season, to around $3 million by the end of the agreement.

However, it also includes a rookie wage scale and tightens many of the loopholes in the salary cap. Richmond is one of the players who will be hit hard by the new deal because it eliminates the so-called balloon payments that many underpaid players had tacked on to the end of contracts to increase their salaries. Because Richmond is 30 years old and has four years remaining on a contract that paid him a relatively modest $3 million last season, he may never be paid what other players of comparable talents are making.

But the players who like the deal say it still has merit. The salary cap will rise from last season's $15.9 million to $23 million next season and $32.5 million by 2000. Players will receive a much bigger slice of the licensing pie, and the Larry Bird exemption, which allows teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own players, is still in place (if a player has been with a team for at least three years).

"I hope players look at this deal and see some tangible benefits," Gourdine said. "Once you mend the fences, you'd have to step back and say this is a lot of money coming in. I would hope the players would say that and I think the votes the last two days were an affirmation of the union."

Asked about discord carrying over into the season, Washington Bullets player representative Doug Overton, who said he attempted to poll his teammates before voting, said: "We have to put it behind us. Dikembe Mutombo said it best. He said we're a family and we've had a disagreement. Now we have to put our differences aside and remember we're still a family. He said he had been close to Patrick and Alonzo {Mourning} before this and would still be close. That kind of sums it up."

Both Richmond and the decertification advocates want the NLRB election voided for the same reason: They contend that Stern, by his statements about the season being in jeopardy if the union was decertified, scared players into voting for the union and, in essence, the deal.

"It all comes down to coercing the votes outside the laboratory conditions the NLRB requires," Kessler said.

Daniel Silverman, NLRB regional director in New York, said the NLRB is investigating Richmond's charge. Stern said the matter won't keep him from lifting the lockout. Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.

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© 1995 The Washington Post Company