Long before Bowie Kuhn, Pete Rozelle and Lawrence O'Brien became familiar names in households besides their own, shortly before Little League became nationally popular but about the time Bill Walton became a tot, I was athletic compensation.
Yep. Bartered like cheap jewelry. Told to play for the other side or else. And nowhere to appeal. Kermit Washington felt no drearier upon being shipped from San Diego to Portland a few months ago, for I was 11 at the time and my new team was all girls.
That was one week.
The next week I was a free agent, able within economic limits of an elementary school in the early '50s to sell my services to the highest bidder -- the fifth-grade softball team of the eighth-grade softball team. I was what Freddie Patek must have resembled as a kid, but the eighth-graders needed a shortstop badly -- and offered bubble gum and an ice cream cone, double dip.
Phooey on loyalty.
Sometime later, I was drafted, politely told that I either play for the team in my area or none at all. Another was not too far away -- and had uniforms. But that was out of the question. Also, I was traded. There were lots of trades -- and finally the inevitable injury that forces every athlete to give up games and grow up.
If that seems an especially chaotic and unrealistic sporting existence, it was not. Or no more so than any young athletic junkie endures. Most times, playground and pasture analogies are the best way to explain megabucks professional sports.
At the moment, they help illustrate why the proper action by Nba Commissioner O,Brien in the Bill Walton case would have been no action. Or action with a string attached. What he should have ruled, after Walton jumped from Portland to San Diego, was retroactive compensation.
Every day that becomes more obvious.
When lawyer's mouths are stuffed with resin bags and the language properly decoded, the structure of the sports adults are paid to play is nearly the same as all of us played as youngsters.
You and somebody else ran your fists up a bat before a choose-up-sides game at recess. That was a draft. Sometimes the center-fielder for one team decided he either would play with his cronies on the other team or quit the game. So a trade was arranged, tiny Hank Peters dealing with tiny Harry Dalton.
Sometimes a new kid came along, joined one team and made it immediately superior to the other. Clearly, some compensation was in order, a reordering of the sides. But in the games I played, this rarely took place without a fight.
The lesson one learns early about sports is that few players want to play fair. They will play within the rules, but fuss loud and long to keep their vastly dominant team intact. This partly explains why a college football coach, given the chance, would sign Jim Brown, Franco Harris and Jim Taylor.
I remember playing on basketball teams that won games by 50 and 60 points. I also remember players on the other team finding other amusements the next day. All too often, we would choose not to play at all rather than redistribute the players and risk being on a loser.
Fortunately, there were commissioners on hand back then. Except that we called them teachers. Or parents. They were wise enough and strong-willed enough to recognize the line between consistent success and an unfair advantage and force change.
Which brings us to O'Brien and Walton. No situation in no other sport has been quite so vexing as when the most valuable basketball player on earth -- when healthy -- became a free agent.
Baseball has managed to exist quite nicely with free agentry; NFL owners have managed to avoid it, for the most part, by refusing to bid for the free agents. O'Brien has caused some fierce arguments with his compensation decisions over the years, although none quite so intense as the one involving Walton.
Next season, O'Brien will not be a factor because the NBA owners and players have agreed there no longer will be compensation for free agents, only the right of a player's former team to match the best offer he receives somewhere else.
If, say, Elvin Hayes became a free agent, the Bullets' only choice would be to match the best offer Hayes generated from another team -- or lose him to that other team with nothing in return.
O'Brien was in an impossible position when Walton signed with San Diego during the NBA playoffs. He ould have been spared a decision if the owners of the Trail Blazers and Clippers had acted reasonably and determined fair compensation on their own.
They resorted to playground-like tantrums. Portland wanted the moon and stars for Walton; San Diego wanted to give up some sweat socks. Politics, the art of compromise, must have seemed idyllic to O'Brien at that time.
In truth, no one could have judged Walton's worth, because no one could judge Watson's health. Pressed for a decision, O'Brien had several alternatives. The wisest, hindsight suggests, would have been the one neutral authorities use on the playground.
When an imbalance clearly exists before a child's game, thoughtful adults order player changes and add: "We'll adjust this when the game is over.We'll see how it works out."
Thus, retroactive compensation.
O'Brien clearly should have said to Portland: "I will give you Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, two first-round draft choices and $350,000. But, when the season is over, we'll judge Walton's impact on San Diego and maybe adjust some things."
A federal judge, Robert L. Carter, suggested as much when he ruled one of O'Brien's earlier judgments excessive, the one that forced the Knicks to send Lonnie Shelton, a first-round draft choice and $450,000 to Seattle for signing Marvin Webster. The NBA is appealing.
Another appeal, by the NBA Players Association, has been filed in protest of O'Brien's ruling on the Walton compensation. With that earlier precedent in mind, it figures to be successful because injuries have kept Walton from seeing a second of regular-season action. He may not play at all this season.
That appeal also could be ruled on too soon, because Walton, 27 Wednesday, is young enough to recover and regain his preeminent position in basketball. Players cannot be transferred to and from teams on a monthly basis.
Still, O'Brien should have kept his options alive. He could have looked ahead by looking backward.