The highest-paid player in the NBA wasn't home. In fact, he was in Seattle. His mother took a message. It was surprising, she was told, that given the recent past, she didn't now have someone answer the phone for her.

"No indeed," Barbara Colar said by telephone from Sorrento, La. "Nothing like that. I answer my telephone. I can do that myself."

If you haven't heard, John "Hot Rod" Williams, Cleveland Cavaliers forward, got a raise this summer.

Last season, he earned around $600,000 as a sixth man who, because of injuries to his mates, became a starter for most of the year. This upcoming season, Cleveland will pay him $5 million.

The Cavaliers are the big winner after Williams decided Monday night not to accept a trade to Seattle for Xavier McDaniel and Nate McMillan. He had this opportunity as part of his historic seven-year, $26.5 million contract, which makes Williams the second-highest-paid individual in any team sport. He will make more money in the next 12 months in salary than Michael Jordan, more than Wayne Gretzky, more than Darryl Strawberry, more than anyone except Jose Canseco.

This was not the Cavaliers' idea. But the Miami Heat forced their hand by signing Williams, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet last month. Cleveland had the right to match the offer and keep Williams's services, and on Sept. 6, Cleveland did.

Wayne Embry, Williams's boss as general manager of the Cavaliers, was sitting down when he heard the numbers.

"I've grown to understand it," he said. "I anticipated that Miami was going to tender an offer sheet. I had spoken with Billy {Cunningham, the Heat's co-owner} after they extended the offer. . . . It was structured in a way that he felt we wouldn't match."

It's the ultimate in being in the right place at the right time. Williams, who was not available to comment, is just the latest beneficiary of the NBA's lucrative free agent system. No one, not his teammates, not his general manager, not the Gund brothers, who own the Cavaliers, seems to hold any of it against him.

"There's no way I would have said to you a year ago that I thought we would be making this much money," said Williams's agent, Chicago-based Mark Bartelstein.

No one did. 'Ridiculous'

The NBA hasn't had a whiff of labor trouble since the late Larry Fleisher and the owners' Labor Relations Committee worked out the collective bargaining agreement of 1988. The core of the deal gave the players 53 percent of gross revenues. Despite the salary cap, established in 1985 to bring teams closer together in what they spent for players, the 53 percent rule brought unparalleled riches to the players.

Miami needed a veteran to complement its young nucleus, and without any established superstars to command high salaries, it had the money.

That doesn't make it all right with everyone else. League rules frown on publicly criticizing another team's work, but no one is very happy with the potential financial pitfalls of paying anyone other than the one-name wonders -- Jordan, Bird, Magic -- this kind of money.

"Now sometimes you can get too excessive," Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin said of the Williams deal. "I don't know if we reached that or if we're going to reach that. This particular contract, in my mind, is ridiculous. That kind of money for that kind of player doesn't make any sense. And I would tell my fellow owners that in a meeting. The front-loading is part of it. The entire salary structure as dictated by the salary cap makes some sense, but somehow there's got to be some sense in it other than the cap -- what the worth of a player is in the whole structure of things."

When Magic Johnson signed for 25 years and $25 million in the early '80s, a lot of people thought the Los Angeles Lakers were insane. Now, every general manager in the league would love to make that deal for his superstar player.

Lakers General Manager Jerry West said recently: "The thing is that he {Williams} gets $9 million in one year, which is a hell of a lot of money." (The way Williams's contract is set up, he is paid the first and second years of the deal in the first 12 months.)

"But he's a great player," West continued. "He can play three positions. The players bargained for 53 percent. Why should it shock anybody anymore?"

"All it means is we've got to respond to that," Bullets General Manager John Nash said. "There aren't many players who would fit in the caliber of John Williams. His contract falls more in line than Jon Koncak's. I'd rather have his contract than Koncak's in terms of return on your dollar."

Only in the last couple of years has the underside of it all begun to show. In matching Williams's offer, and redoing the contracts of guard Mark Price, center Brad Daugherty and forward Larry Nance, the Cavaliers are near $3 million over the league salary cap of $11.8 million this season. (Teams are allowed to exceed the cap in order to re-sign their own free agents.)

Terry Porter got $13.5 million over five years last season to play point guard for Portland, but had a great year and outstanding playoffs. No one complained. Atlanta's Koncak had no such luck. Last season, he did exactly what he had done in the first four years of his NBA career -- a handful of points and rebounds -- and was booed at home, because he was the recipient of a six-year, $13.2 million contract. And the lingering resentment over the deal still troubles the Hawks' chemistry.

General managers are terrified about the internal damage a big contract can do. Since the Lakers signed Sam Perkins for $18 million for six years, James Worthy has made overtures about having his contract redone.

In Dallas, the Mavericks headed off potential trouble with their acquisitions of Fat Lever and Rodney McCray and redid the contracts of both Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper, their starting back court. Blackman made $1.1 million last year and had seven years remaining on his contract; Harper made $850,000 and had eight years left. Utah's Karl Malone has made a career out of redoing his contracts and just restructured his deal again.

Said Pollin: "Once you get a player that is, in my opinion, completely overpaid, then you start shaking up the whole structure of salaries. . . . It's a negative for everybody, including the players in the long run. Because if things aren't on an even keel, {make} economic sense, it isn't any good for anybody."

Williams's deal came on top of Cleveland's opening the vault to import Danny Ferry from Il Messaggero of Italy. Price, whose five-year, $5 million contract of two years ago sent shudders through the league -- Atlanta General Manager Stan Kasten called it "one dumb contract" -- was middle of the pack until the Cavaliers quickly redid his contract. And Daugherty's. And Nance's.

The true domino effect.

Said New York Knicks General Manager Al Bianchi: "The obvious perception is, 'Is this guy worth the money?' But we don't look at it like that anymore. The league was in an uproar when Koncak was signed, and when Price signed, and when Patrick {Ewing} signed. . . . If someone's out there and someone wants to pay it, you can't blame the agents and the players. Whatever the problems are and the predicaments are, we've created it."

The fear of owners is, what's to keep players from asking for more when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 1993, or looking to do away with the cap altogether?

"I thought it was really the savior of the NBA," Pollin said of the cap. "I still believe it's obviously a very positive element for the NBA. . . . The success has really been shared by the players, which was my idea at the beginning."

Said West: "There's something wrong with our system. I don't care how much the great players get. I know that, when you pay people who haven't played, people who won't play and people who haven't proved themselves, you wonder how much more the system can bear." Irony of Ironies

Hot Rod Williams came into the league with the stigma of the Tulane point-shaving scandal fresh in the public consciousness. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial that helped bring down the Green Wave basketball program. And he was acquitted of all charges.

Williams's four years in the league have been rock-steady, and he's one of the few talents capable of playing all three front-court positions. Last season was Williams's best; he started most of the season after injuries to Nance and Daugherty, posting career highs in scoring average (16.8) and rebounds (8.1). And Williams was the team's only consistent player against Philadelphia in the playoffs, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds in the five-game series. Charles Barkley pronounced him death to guard and shoot over.

Williams and Bartelstein had spent most of the season negotiating with the Cavaliers. The irony of the new deal is that the Cavaliers could have signed him for less -- about $16 million less. Cleveland's original offer was three years, $4.2 million. Williams and Bartelstein balked. In January, they asked for five years and $10.5 million, and the Cavaliers backed off.

In March, Cleveland came back with five years, $10.5 million. Williams said no. The Cavaliers got up to $12 million, but by then Williams was going to arbitration to try to get unrestricted free agency.

He wanted the year he didn't play for Cleveland -- while he was on trial for the point shaving -- to count on his contract, which would make him an unrestricted free agent instead of restricted. But the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Cavaliers. Soon after, enter Miami.

Offer sheets to restricted free agents are almost always matched. The first year of Williams's deal pays him $1 million, with a $4 million signing bonus. Years two, three and four pay him $4 million. He earns $3.5 million in years five and six, $2.5 million in the seventh year.

In addition, he has veto power on trades for one year -- thus the Seattle deal got nixed. If a trade is consummated during the year with his approval, Cleveland will have to pay a penalty of 15 percent of the value of the whole deal. They've already given him the $4 million signing bonus, so the Cavaliers would have to shell out another $3.9 million -- or 15 percent of the remaining $22.6 million. In other words, his payoff for agreeing to a trade this season would be more than the salaries of 99.9 percent of the players in the NBA.

"You give those dollars to pay the players," Embry said. "That's just how the market works. I wasn't shocked. {Cunningham} said, 'You're in a situation where you have to spend money.' I said, 'You really haven't accomplished your goal because we're going to match.'

"You look at the pros and cons, the return on your investment. One thing is certain: If you let a player go that has some value, you're not going to have a return on your investment."

Thus, Cleveland paid the money. But how long will the superstars wait until demanding new deals? Ewing has a clause in his contract that makes him a free agent as soon as four players make more than he does. Williams already does; Houston's Akeem Olajuwon will soon, and the likelihood is that others will by 1992. The thought is frightening: How much would Ewing get in an open market?

Eventually, this must end. The four expansion teams each paid $32.5 million to get in the league; their money has been doled out. Television money will now level off; each team will receive an average of $8 million in the next four years from NBC and cable's TNT.

"Next year," said Portland Trail Blazers President Bucky Buckwalter, "we're not going to have that big a jump in the salary cap. I think it levels off now. . . . It's going to be a pinch. Cable {television} in New York and L.A. picks up a lot of slack, but in the smaller markets it's going to be a problem."

There are, presumably, fewer problems in Sorrento, La.

"John is a good boy," Barbara Colar said. "It doesn't surprise me because he always said that one day he was going to make something out of himself. I just said I was glad for him."