After spending a summer as part of pro basketball's first large crop of free agents, Bullets forward Bob Dandridge says that the term is highly misleading.
"We are hardly free," he said. "I just say now that we are agents. There is no freedom involved."
After spending a summer waiting for what they hoped would be strong free-agent compensation rulings from NBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien, club officials are disenchanted with the entire free-agent situation.
"I don't think anyone still can figure out how the rulings on compensation were determined," said Bullet general manager Bob Ferry.
But both players and management agree on one point: basketball's first fling with the era of free agents was a bust.
Compared to the wheeling and dealing that took place in football and baseball when players were able to cast off their contract shackles, the NBA made it through the summer with hardly a ripple in its already extravagent salary structure.
Those players who envisioned mass movement of athletes between teams were stunned by the lack of bidding among the clubs. And those owners and general managers who were praying that O'Brien would be the next strong man of pro sports say they were solely disappointed.
"If a player asked m e for advice about becoming a feree agent now," "I'd advise against it, if his main reasons for leaving were money or a longer contract. He's not goint to get it being a free agent.
"Why? Because the owners have the power again. And they aren't going to let the players forget it."
Of the 55 players who became free agents after the conclusion of the 1976-77 season, only 12 signed with new clubs. At least 21, like Sidney Wicks, Randy Smith, John Havlicek and Wes Unseld, signed with their old team? The rest either retired or are presently on the NBA's unemployment list.
Of those free agents who did move to a new team, the biggest names were Jamaal Wilkes (from Golden State to Los Angeles) and Dandridge (from Milwaukee to Washington). But those players who probably would have put the new free-agent rules to their stiffest test, such as Bob McAdoo and Pete Maravich, decided to stay with their current clubs.
"We still don't have compensation ruling on a major superstar," said Ferry. "That's what everyone would like to see."
Depending on which side you talk to, you get different explanations as to why this summer didn't see the all-out bidding war that was envisioned when the clubs and players signed the so-called Robertson Agreement 1 1/2 years ago.
It was that much-heralded out-of-court agreement that ended the players' antitrust suit against the league and paved the way for a merger with the ABA.
Players association attorney Larry Fleisher, who helped negotiate the agreement, said the clubs made an "obvious attempt not to get into a bidding war and not upset the salary structure. And they had what I feel is an illegal fear of what they would have to pay for compensation.
"By the time the season began, I was more encouraged. Things opened up a bit and I think next year ther will be more movement. That's important, because at the heart of the Robertson agreement is the stipulation that players would have more freedom of movement."
League officials say that it was the lack of quality among the available free agents - not any unified attempt to resist a bidding war - that caused the lack of summer activity.
"A lot of free agents were complaining about a conspiracy," said Detroit general manager Bob Kauffman. "But in many cases, their conceit didn't match their ability."
"I'm sure a lot of teams also decided that they didn't need someone else's problems.
The compensation hassle ultimately became the beggest roadblock. Washington and Milwaukee were able to work out compensation for Dandridge, as were New York and Cleveland for Jim Cleamons. But O'Brien already has been forced to decide compensation in three cases and he has two more pending.
Officials throughout the league wanted O'Brien to make those teams signing free agents pay heavily for their decision, in terms of heavy compensation. If his rulings followed a strong line, they felt it would discourage growth in the number of free agents in future years.
O'Brien, however, came out with what most teams feel were weak decisions, "I would say in both the Wilkes and Robinson cases, the compensation ordered was light," said Kauffman.
To compensate Golden State for the loss of Wilkes to Los Angeles, O'Brien ordered the Lakers to turn over $250,000 within 60 days and a first-round draft choice for next year (either theirs or the one they have coming from New Orleans, whichever is higher).
To compensate Atlanta for the loss of Truck Robinson to New Orleans, O'Brien ordered the Jazz to send Ron Behagen and $175,000 to the Hawks.
Both Golden State and Atlanta were appalled by the decisions, Golden State wanted at least one player off the L.A. roster while Atlanta said its major demand was money. Each complained that O'Brien had not fulfilled a requirement of the Robertson Agreement compensation should make the team losing the player "whole again" for the loss.
But O'Brien says his critics are ignoring the guidelines set up by the strict terms of the Robertson Agreement, under which his actions are still subject to court approval.
"Any general manager who thinks these compensation rulings are light might eventually be answering to the court," O'Brien said from his New York office.
"The Robertson Agreement specifies that the compensation I map out to be as equitable as possible.We go through a long complicated procedure, filled with written statements from both teams, replies and hearings I also consult experts in the field to get their opinions.
"I'm not moaning and groaning about it. I'm trying to do the best job I can. And I'm not making decisions strictly on the basis of trying not to be overruled by the courts. I decide what I think is fair and let the chips fall where they may."
By the time compensation cases reached O'Brien, team demands bordered on the absurd.
For example, Golden State at first told Los Angeles it either wanted Kareem Abdual Jabbar as compensation for Wilkes or the return of Wilkes, so the Warriors could give him the same contract that he had signed with the Lakers. Or they'd settle for $1.25 million.
Later, in its written statement to the NBA, the Warriors modified their demands: two first-round draft choices in 1978, $750,000 and two players from a pool of Earl Tatum, Kermit Washington and Ken Carr.
L.A., in turn, felt a first-round draft choce, ranging from the 11th to 13th player picked, would be adequate compensation.
O'Brien finally ruled that while Wilkes "is an exceptional player," he was not an indispensable superstar. He couldn't find a player comparable to Wilkes on the L.A. roster, so he felt the combination of a high first-round draft choice and money "would give them a chance to make themselves whole as quickly as possible."
O'Brien logic already has proved at least partially correct. The Warriors quickly used the $250,000 to help sign E. C. Coleman, a free-agent forward from New Orleans.
New Orleans argued that since it was already financially strapped, it should give up players and draft choices to compensate Atlanta for Robinson. Atlanta either wanted Robinson returned or $2 million.
O'Brien rejected the Jazz' contention that cash compensation would amount to punitive action. And he said Atlanta placed a value on Robinson far above his current ability. So he settled on Behagen and $175,000.
"No one should take any of these compensation rulings as precedents," said O'Brien. "I've found every case is completely different and should be considered as such."
Starting with the 1980-81 season, O'Brien will no longer have to determine compensation. From that point on, clubs and players will be bound by the "first-refusal" rule. Free agents can negotiate contracts with new clubs, but their old club then has the right to match the terms of the new contract. If it does, the player must stay with his old team.
"I can't see how that is going to be much better than now," said Dandridge. "In my case, I wanted to get out of Milwaukee. Under first refusal, the Bucks could have stopped me."
"If we had come first, before baseball and football things might have been different. But we wound up paying the penalty for their mistakes. The whole free-agent theory just never worked for us."