Possibly 4 billion Chinese and 200 million Americans walked their dogs this morning without once thinking of Moses Malone. The rest of us know that Moses often had a good view of Kareem's bald spot, sailing high over the old man's head for another rebound. This was proof that the NBA players didn't go on a playoff strike, as the NBA secretly feared even after announcing an agreement. Yet the NBA pooh-bahs still look under their beds for bogeymen.
They lift the blanket's edge and see in the dark the disturbing, if familiar, face of litigation, its brow knitted and dollar signs blinking in its eyes. There's a rule now that under certain conditions an NBA rookie can be paid no more than $75,000. The rule won't affect a Ralph Sampson because it doesn't apply until next season, but a Patrick Ewing may be forced to play for 1/10th his market value.
"It won't surprise me," the NBA's general counsel, Russell T. Granik, yesterday told a conference of sports-business lawyers at the Sheraton Washington, "if when a player is faced with that $75,000-or-nothing choice--it won't surprise me if his lawyer takes a shot."
This is not to say Granik thinks a Patrick Ewing is likely to have such a decision.
"I believe any player drafted in the top 10--say the team that drafts Ewing is over the salary limit--Ewing will have enough leverage to say, 'I don't care about your $75,000 limit. Either get rid of players to make room for me, or trade me.' I believe that's the way it will work."
The idea that Patrick Ewing would have to work for 1/10th his market value is farfetched. If he signs for the $75,000, he is a free agent the second season. So it behooves his original bosses to lock him into a long-term contract. To get under the NBA's new salary limits, Ewing's team would get rid of players to make room for the big guy's big paycheck.
Farfetched or not, it's something to think about, because farfetched ideas often become nearfetched. So a sportswriter said to Granik, "Why does Ewing have to abide by rules agreed to by people who don't represent him, namely the NBA owners and union? Who gives away his rights to bargain?"
"He does," Granik said.
"He does? He's in school."
"If he wants to play in the NBA, he has to be a member of the union. It's a closed shop."
The analogy was made several times during the conference ("Representing Professional Athletes and Teams") that many businesses operate under similar agreements with unions. The sports connection makes the NBA negotiations more dramatic, but several unions set hours, wages and conditions rules that lock out any prospective employe who won't accept them.
When those rules so unfairly penalize a Patrick Ewing, say, it seems the good old American way to hire a fancy-dan lawyer, invoke the hallowed names of Spencer Haywood and Joe Kapp, and get thee to court. A sportswriter said to Granik, "Do you think there will be such litigation?"
Granik tried to smile. "You never like to predict litigation."
Anyway, it was curious (the lawyer said earlier) to read that his NBA bosses had taken the future by the nape of the neck and shaken some sense into it. "'The wave of the future,' they called it," Granik said.
Because the NBA kept it secret, few people knew that the new contract with the players as announced the first week in April wasn't a contract at all. The deal was unsigned. It wasn't written down. Lawyers are paid big money to translate English into legalese, thereby obscuring meaning for everyone but other lawyers who are paid big money to explain the legalese to clients, and so the NBA's and players' lawyers were under the gun to earn their loot.
"It was never made public," Granik told the lawyers yesterday, "but we went to work the next day for 18 hours because of an unpublished strike deadline of the first playoff game. The players didn't want to go into the playoffs without a deal."
Naturally, the players don't trust the owners. Granik indicated that the league doesn't much trust its owners, general managers and counsels to live by the intent of the new contract. The contract calls for each team to have a salary limit, beginning in 1984-85 at a projected $3.6 million (except for teams already over that, their limit being the current payroll).
"Knowing our teams the way we do," Granik said, "we never underestimate their ability to get around the rules."
He said this with a lawyer's wry admiration for the cunning of other miscreants.
If everyone stays in line, the counselor said, this new deal is a good thing. The league's 23 teams lost only $10 million last year, according to Granik.
"We're now guaranteeing that salaries will be 53 percent of revenue, whereas the number had been 59-60 percent. That 6 percent can be $15-20 million savings."
When teams lost their stars in free-agent auctions, Granik said, the NBA worried about "comparative parity." "Those teams might be .500 if they were lucky. The fans may start to believing they could never win a championship. We wanted to give each team the same number of chips to bid with."
The biggest test of what this all means comes this summer when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar conducts his free-agent negotiations. The Lakers, under the new rules, can sign him for any amount. Another team such as the Knicks, also over the standard salary ceiling, can sign him only by reducing their payroll the amount they then pay Abdul-Jabbar.
Translated, that means Marvin Webster ought to keep a suitcase packed because he and another buddy will be catching the next bus out of the Big Apple.