SBJ/19980629/This Weeks Issue

Next NBA hurdle: No play, good pay

The labor war between NBA owners and players is about to enter a new phase – where dollars, not words are the ammunition – and sooner than most observers probably had expected.

At issue are advance payments on 1998-99 salaries that sources say are due in July to approximately 15 NBA players. Another 20 to 30 players are said to be owed paychecks in August and September. For most players, salary payments start with the regular season, usually in the first week of November.

Boston Celtics guard Kenny Anderson, who is scheduled to make about $6 million next season, is due the bulk of his salary this summer, according to a source close to the National Basketball Players Association. David Falk, Anderson’s agent, declined to comment on the situation.

NBA owners, according to the sources close to the collective bargaining talks, are expected to withhold the payments. The players association will argue the players have guaranteed contracts and should be paid.

Because the issue will arise after the collective-bargaining agreement expires, it isn’t clear whether the matter will go before an arbitrator or a court. Whatever the legal venue, outside experts say the players have a strong case – at least where advance payments are concerned.

“If a player who is willing to play is due an advance payment under a guaranteed contract, but faces the possibility of being precluded from working, I think the player has strong argument that he’s still due that payment,” said labor arbitrator Stephen Hayford, associate professor of dispute resolution and business law at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

Said Stephen Tallent, chair-elect of the labor and employment section of the American Bar Association: ”If it’s an offseason payment that’s not tied to work, how could you refuse to pay it on the grounds there might still be a lockout in September?”

Both Hayford and Tallent, however, said a decision against the owners in this matter would not necessarily make teams responsible for all player salaries during a lockout.

“All other players get paid when they work,” said Hayford. “An advance payment is a separate agreement.”

One source familiar with NBA contracts said the top 10 players on most teams have guaranteed contracts. Only a few NBA players, the source said, have wording in their contracts that guarantees payment during a lockout, which almost certainly will occur after the league’s collective-bargaining agreement expires on Wednesday.

Representatives for the NBA and the players association met last Monday in New York. The meeting lasted less than an hour and was completely nonproductive, according to sources close to the talks.

Owners continue to insist upon a hard salary cap in which no player’s salary could exceed 30 percent of his team’s total payroll. The owners also want rookies to sign five-year contracts with teams holding the right to first refusal on the sixth year.

Players remain opposed to a hard salary cap. They have proposed allowing individual clubs and their rookies to decide whether to enter into three- or five-year contracts.

As the Wednesday deadline approaches, decertification is now a “very serious option” for the players, according to sources close to the union. Close to 90 percent of players have signed a petition giving the union’s executive committee the power to decertify the union.

“At some point, there will be a decision as to whether collective bargaining is in the best interest of the players,” said a source close to the union.

Decertification would free individual players to pursue antitrust grievances against the owners on their own.

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