Undergraduate college basketball superstars, such as centers Patrick Ewing of Georgetown and Akeem Abdul Olajuwon of Houston, will not be affected adversely by the new collective bargaining agreement between the National Basketball Association and its players union.
According to sources, an undergraduate superstar who does not opt for the NBA this year will be in a better bargaining position after the 1984 draft than now, because the new agreement provides better bargaining leverage to rookies.
Because there has been some confusion over the agreement that was signed Tuesday regarding the status of prospective NBA players, some agents tried to scare undergraduates into applying for the June 28 draft, according to college officials.
Ray Patterson, president of the Houston Rockets, who have two of the first three picks in the upcoming draft, said of the confusion, "It all depends on which lawyer you talk to and what's he's trying to accomplish."
The new agreement imposes maximum (projected to start at $3.6 million for the 1984-85 season) and minimum (projected $3.2 million annually) team payrolls for the first time in major league sports. That means free agents to be such as Boston's Kevin McHale and Cleveland's World B. Free should get a short-term windfall because there will be more teams competing for their services.
"People are starting to realize that no player is hurt by this agreement," said Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the NBA Players Association. "That's why we're so excited about it. Conceivably, the only people who may be hurt, if at all, are the top superstars, unless they are re-signing with their old teams."
Boston's Larry Bird, whose contract will expire after next season, reportedly was going to seek $50 million over 10 years. But, according to the new agreement, he would have to sign for much less, unless he can get the Celtics to pay him what he wishes.
Under one of the many provisions in the new agreement, a team may spend whatever is necessary to re-sign one of its free agents.
Bob Woolf, Bird's attorney, said this week, "It prevents Larry Bird from getting $4 million or $5 million from somebody out there, but I still think he'll get what Moses Malone received."
As a free agent prior to this season, Malone received a six-year contract worth $13.2 million from the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the highest annual salary ever paid in a team sport.
The new payroll cap is based on 53 percent of leaguewide revenues and is projected to be at least $3.6 million for 1984-85, $3.8 million for 1985-86 and $4 million for 1986-87. The minimum team payroll is projected to start at $3.2 million. Eight teams, including the Washington Bullets ($2 million annual payroll), are now below that figure, according to players association and league sources. The payrolls of five teams--New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Seattle and Philadelphia--were frozen at their current level. The Knicks' payroll reportedly is the highest, at $5.2 million to $6 million.
The contract allows a first-round draft choice to choose to sign and fulfill a one-year contract for $75,000, then become a free agent if he chooses. Currently, if a team offers one of three basic contracts by Sept. 5, the rookie is the property of that team for two years, unless he does not play in any professional league in the U.S. those years.
The new provision for rookies goes into effect for this draft for the five teams whose payroll cap was frozen. But, by trades, retirements and other deals, these teams could put themselves in position to sign a free agent or to pay a first-round draft choice more than $75,000.
The complexity of the 55-page contract is causing concern at some colleges.
"We have two youngsters (Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) who at this time are very confused," said Frank Schlutz, an assistant athletic director at Houston, runner-up in the recent NCAA championship. "One thing that the agents are sending them are letters that say, 'If you don't apply for the NBA draft this year, you'll only be able to sign for $75,000 in the future.'
"We had a security guy guarding the locker-room door this season for the first time. There are people hanging all over Olajuwon. It's really sad the way people are trying to get a piece of him."
Said John Thompson, Georgetown coach, "People are trying to force kids to deal with it from emotional aspects. People are trying to get them to make an irrational decision. There are a lot of reputable people around who misinterpreted this in the beginning. All you hear (from fans and alumni) is '$75,000?' and 'Is Patrick leaving school?' . . . When the hardship thing became popular, guys jumped out without thinking about it. Now they're in the bread line."
Both Ewing and Olajuwon have two more years of college eligibility. They could become eligible for the NBA draft by applying by May 14. Ewing has said he will stay at Georgetown; Olajuwon had said after the NCAA championship game he would remain in school, but was quoted yesterday as saying he would come out if he could play for the Houston Rockets next season.
Juniors Sam Perkins of North Carolina and Melvin Turpin of Kentucky have said recently they intend to stay in school.
"If you work on the simple assumption that a very high draft pick is worth lots of money and that any team will pay an enormous amount for one," said Fleisher, "then a salary cap is meaningless because a team will do what it has to do--make trades, make moves or whatever.
"Now, you add that a player can become a free agent after a year. Nobody in their right mind will let that happen. So now he (the rookie) has the best of two worlds."
What incoming rookies get from the new contract is leverage. The principles of supply and demand would be in force, according to David Falk, a Washington attorney who represents such NBA stars as James Worthy and Adrian Dantley.
"Under the new rules, if you want to protect yourself, you've got to give him more," Falk said.
So, if the players are so happy, why are the owners, too?
The contract likely will "force feed" parity within the league by requiring the historically weak franchises to spend more dollars, and thus become better attractions, Falk said. Falk added that the Bullets should have a better team, facing improved opposition, resulting in increased attendance.
It also will curtail overspending by some owners. "It gives protection to the owners against themselves," Falk said. "There's always been a concern by the owners collectively to protect themselves from themselves, the two or three who are not as responsible fiscally as the others."