SBJ/September 21 - 27, 1998/No Topic Name

Lockout axes coverage

Days after NBA free agent Christian Laettner underwent surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, scores of other NBA players are scrambling to protect themselves as they substitute pickup games for training camps.

Before last season, Laettner turned down a seven-year, $63 million contract extension from the Atlanta Hawks, instead gambling that free agency could land him an even bigger deal. But the current lockout has put all player signings on hold, turning player-agents into insurance brokers rather than contract negotiators.

"Everybody, particularly free agents, should look at getting temporary disability insurance," said NBA agent Marc Fleisher.

Fleisher said it will cost one of his clients, Houston Rockets rookie Mirsad Turkcan, $3,000 for $3 million worth of coverage. The policy will cover Turkcan until he signs a contract or Dec. 1 — whichever comes first.

Mark Blumencranz, executive vice president of BWD Group Ltd., which specializes in insurance programs for professional sports teams and athletes, said he has fielded calls from close to a dozen NBA agents since Laettner went down earlier this month.

The owners' lockout threatens to cancel the NBA season, but it's not stopping players from working out on their own and playing in pickup games.

Groups of players in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington and Memphis, Tenn., all get together regularly for pickup games. Many NBA rookies, such as the Philadelphia 76ers' Larry Hughes, practice with their former college teams.

Typically, players under contract are covered in offseason games and workouts through "love-of-the-game" clauses in their contracts. These clauses guarantee players will get paid the full value of their contracts if they suffer offseason injuries while training.

"I discourage [players] from playing in pickup games, and I explain the risk to them, but I also realize it's hard for a basketball player not to play basketball," said NBA agent Lon Babby.

But the lockout puts players, especially the league's 210 or so free agents, at a higher risk than under normal conditions.

Laettner's agent, Herb Rudoy, said his injured client is protected with "millions of dollars" worth of temporary total disability coverage. But when Laettner resumes his career, it's doubtful he will command the kind of money the Hawks offered him last year.

Loss-of-value insurance, which Laettner didn't have and which agents say is very difficult to come by, would have paid Laettner the difference between his next contract and his market value before he got hurt.

In addition to disability coverage, players are now on their own to arrange for health insurance. Players had until Sept. 14 to file for continued health coverage under COBRA, the federal law that gives employees the right to continue health coverage after a change in employment status.

Players who met the COBRA deadline will receive the NBA's group health insurance rate but will pay for the coverage themselves. Those players who did not meet the deadline are on their own.

NBA team officials would not discuss players' coverage relating to the lockout for fear of being heavily fined by the NBA. League officials declined to comment.

The National Basketball Players Association informed players about the COBRA deadline but has not made an effort to advise players on disability insurance.

The lockout, in its third month, shows no signs of ending. This past week, the NBA canceled its training camp for referees and its rookie orientation.

Players and owners likely won't meet for a collective-bargaining session until after arbitrator John Feerick decides whether players with guaranteed contracts should be paid during the lockout. Feerick is expected to rule by early October.

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