Taking It Hard To The Nba Hoop

THROUGHOUT THE '90S, NBA basketball has increasingly become a one-on-one game. So it seems appropriate that saving this season--perhaps even the league--came down last week to NBA Commissioner David Stern and players' union chief Billy Hunter going head to head in an all-night negotiating session. But going one on one with Stern at the table is a bit like going one on one with Michael Jordan on the court; the inevitable result is a slam-dunk. When the deal was finally struck in the predawn hours Wednesday, Stern had led the owners, in playoff parlance, to virtually a clean sweep.

Hunter insisted the six-year agreement (with a league option for a seventh) that ended the six-month lockout was a genuine compromise. With a league vote on canceling the season less than 40 hours away, he said, ""We both blinked.'' But Hunter likely mistook a Stern wink. While the NBA players remain the best-paid athletes in the world, the league exacted extraordinary concessions (chart), including a revision of rookie rights that binds young stars to their teams for up to five years and an unprecedented cap on individual salaries. Rick Burton, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, described the latter as ""an amazing bop on the head of capitalism.''

Rifts in the players' ranks allowed Stern to deliver that bop, while he kept his owners quiet and in lock step. In interviews with NEWSWEEK last week, players described the intramural conflicts that, they say, may even lead to on-court retaliations against some NBA superstars like Grant Hill. And when the NBA gets back to basketball, in a shortened (50-game) season that will start Feb. 5, it might have to do so without labor's biggest capitalist, Michael Jordan. He wasn't talking last week, but friends tell NEWSWEEK that Jordan's championship heroics against Utah last June are looking like his last hurrah. That won't help with fans, many of whom viewed the lockout as an incomprehensible and unconscionable dispute between rival gangs of millionaires. Stern conceded the obvious, saying, ""We have some winning back of the fans to do.'' But no one should underestimate the commissioner's resolve and the NBA's marketing savvy--that would be repeating the mistake the players made.

The scale of their defeat was not lost on the players, particularly young stars who saw their career earning potential cut by tens of millions of dollars. One superstar who expected to cash in on free agency groused that the players were concerned only with their next paychecks and ended up selling out present and future rookies. ""Getting this f---ed-up deal proves it,'' he said. The NBA even secured new disciplinary powers, a reaction to last season's Latrell Sprewell fiasco, and mandatory drug testing for all players, including for the first time screening for marijuana.

But Hunter appeared to have few options. He had beckoned his troops to New York last week, asking for a vote of support for union leadership. Instead his rank and file was angry and panicked, convinced that Stern was not bluffing and that the season might really be lost. ""It had gotten to the point of explosion because guys were ready to play,'' said veteran star Kevin Johnson. ""About 60 percent, if not more, of the players were just ready to throw down [fight] Wednesday at our meeting if an agreement hadn't been reached.''

Moreover, many players had come to believe that their interests were taking a back seat to those of agents like David Falk, whose players were at the negotiating-committee helm. They felt the union stance was skewed in favor of a small number of superstars, such as union president Patrick Ewing and negotiating-committee member Alonzo Mourning (both Falk clients), whose eight-figure salaries delivered giant agents' commissions. ""There was so much bulls--- going on within that committee that we finally decided to speak up and say, "Yo, we're going to have a season!' '' said a veteran all-star. ""We told [Hunter], "Go in and get a deal and leave the two angry brothers [Ewing and Mourning] at home'.'' Ewing wouldn't comment on the maneuvering, saying, ""It's time to move on.'' Hunter made a symbolic break with Falk a few weeks ago when the agent stopped in at union headquarters in New York for some strategizing. Sources say staffers steered Falk into a conference room, where he sat for almost two hours before realizing that Hunter wasn't going to meet with him. (Falk did not respond to NEWSWEEK calls for comment.) Falk's No. 1 client, Jordan, who had used his personality and prestige to support the union line, was conspicuously absent in the endgame. Michael was vacationing in the Bahamas last week, Falk said, and hadn't yet made a decision on his future. But players close to Jordan say he has forgone his usual off-season workouts and doesn't appear anxious to remain in the public eye. ""He's chilling, playing golf, island-hopping--just enjoying life,'' said one NBA pal. ""I'd be real surprised to see him suit up.''

Jordan's absence is but one of the problems the NBA faces in its comeback mode. Despite sunny rhetoric from Stern and Hunter about a new partnership, emotional scars could spill onto the court. Relations between players and management are, of course, severely strained, but the player divide could prove a more prickly problem. Veiled threats of rough play have been aimed at stars who sat out the fight. ""All of us had to stand up for things that were unpopular and all of us took a hit,'' said a veteran superstar. ""[Grant Hill] and a couple guys who decided to be quiet and keep themselves clean better expect to get dirty come game time.'' (Hill could not be reached for comment.)

Wooing them back will take more than clever sloganeering. (""It's fantastic'' seems destined for retirement.) Stern has already announced plans for free exhibition games as well as a limited number of $10 seats at all NBA games. Still, in a land of entertainment plenty, many former fans did find substitutes for their NBA fix. ""If the fans stay away, advertisers don't hurry back and TV ratings are lousy, there may have to be some kind of mea culpa process,'' says the University of Oregon's Burton. ""But the American public tends to be very forgiving if you say "I'm sorry' long and loud enough.'' And there is a silver lining in this NBA contretemps. When the season finally begins, the playoffs will be just three months away.