Although Moses Malone has yet to put on a Philadelphia 76ers uniform, the repercussions of his six-year, $13.2 million contract already are being felt throughout the National Basketball Association.
Competitive balance is a concern, of course, but the economic damage to a league already burdened by an exorbitant salary structure now is the biggest worry.
No team in the NBA could afford that contract if it had to rely on gate receipts for most of its revenue. The innovation of cable television, however, has given several teams a distinct advantage. Those teams, Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles, appear to be the powers of the future.
The 76ers have had a cable contract since 1975-76 and last year signed a 10-year contract to have PRISM carry 25 home games.
"It's significant," John Nash, the team's business manager, said when asked what percentage of the 76ers' gross revenue comes from the cable contract. "The revenue we get obviously is a factor."
The Rockets, particularly General Manager Ray Patterson, were incensed with the 76ers for making the enormous offer. Patterson's first inclination was not to deal with Philadelphia, but eventually he had no choice. The few teams that could afford to match the offer never called.
Others were deeply concerned about the financial impact on the league.
"This is catastrophic for the league," Detroit General Manager Jack McCloskey said. "He (76ers owner Harold Katz) can do whatever he wants, and he's done it within the rules, but I don't think it's good for the league."
Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo agreed. "Offer sheets like this just raise everyone's payroll. Some teams simply can't afford to compete on this level."
Don Nelson, Milwaukee's coach and director of player personnel, has one of the teams talented enough to compete with the 76ers. Despite selling more than 90 percent of their tickets the last 10 years, the Bucks don't have the bucks to match such a salary.
"There are only a few teams that could do something like that," he said. "My whole payroll is less than two men (Malone and Julius Erving) on that team. That makes it awfully difficult for us in smaller cities and I think it hurts the league a great deal."
Lee Fentress, Malone's attorney, negotiated the deal and said that had not Philadelphia made a very substanial offer, Malone would never have left Houston.
"Moses never wanted to be a free agent in the first place," Fentress said, explaining the scenario of the record-breaking contract. "He asked me to start negotiations back in 1980, so that it would all be cleared up before his contract expired. He was very happy in Houston."
Malone's change of heart triggered his trade to Philadelphia for Caldwell Jones and Cleveland's first-round draft choice, which could be the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft. "Moses was puzzled by Houston's attitude," Fentress said. "He told me he couldn't understand why the owners couldn't make up their minds whether to re-sign him."
During his six seasons in Houston, Malone led the league in rebounding three times and improved his scoring every year. Last season he averaged 31.2 points a game, second to San Antonio's George Gervin. He was voted the league's most valuable player for the second time.
Negotiations on Malone's new contract began in early November 1980 and, after almost 10 days of discussion, Fentress said he felt "pretty damn close to a deal."
"We talked about cash incentives and length of contract," Fentress said. "They said they couldn't go any higher (a reported $1.9 million) and I went home thinking it would be very easy to make a deal. Moses told me he wanted to clean it all up by the all-star break (early February) and I thought we could."
On Nov. 29, George Maloof, owner of the Rockets, died. His son, Gavin, then 25, took control of the team. He pledged to sign Malone, but negotiations were never resumed. Then there were reports that the Maloof family wanted to sell the team, further complicating things.
Charles Thomas, a local car dealer, assumed control of the Rockets and his approach to the Malone negotiations was to start over. His best offer was considerably lower than Maloof's.
"The Rockets had taken a tough position because they knew that I didn't have any other offers," Fentress said. "They didn't have to go as high as before. I had been in Mexico and I stopped in Houston Aug. 12. That was my last meeting with the Rockets until the Philadelphia offer."
The stunning $13.2 million offer sheet from the 76ers came about very quickly as Harold Katz, the outspoken owner of the team, reversed his financial philosophy 180 degrees in a matter of days.
After the 76ers traded Darryl Dawkins and his $1.3 million contract to New Jersey for a first-round draft choice and a reported $700,000, Katz was quoted as saying the days of paying free agents huge salaries were over and that nobody was going to give Malone the $2 million contract he was seeking.
Five days later, Katz called a press conference to announce that he had signed Malone to a six-year contract worth at least $13.2 million, including incentive bonuses.
"There is good money and bad money, and spending this type of money for Moses Malone is good money," Katz said. "This is a good business deal for Philadelphia. He'll put more people in the seats and that justifies the cost."
The details of the contract, when made public, disturbed Commissioner Larry O'Brien. Five clauses were questioned. Kingman Brewster, a court-appointed special master who hears disputes arising from the settlement of the Oscar Robertson antitrust suit, heard testimony recently in New York and invalidated one of the clauses.
The contract still was under advisement when Katz flew to Houston and talked with Thomas, the Rockets' new owner. Katz didn't want to part with the draft choice acquired from Cleveland, but Houston insisted. He flew back to Philadelphia, then called and said it was a deal.
"We really had no other choice," Coach Del Harris said. Obviously, the Rockets could not afford to match the offer, which included a $1 million signing bonus -- in cash.
Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham is convinced his team will be better, and says it will run more, although Malone didn't play a running game at Houston.
"One area we've been deficient in is rebounding," Cunningham said. "People were concerned when we traded away Darryl that we lost bulk. But Moses adds bulk and intensity on both boards."
Said Patterson, giving Houston's point of view: "It's difficult to improve your club if one player is receiving possibly 55 to 60 percent of your total budget."