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Old 07-13-2001, 09:16 AM   #1
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New York Times
JUL 13, 2001
Players Must Give Back 10 Percent of Their Pay

PARADISE ISLAND, the Bahamas, July 12 The golf tournament ended Wednesday afternoon, followed by the Versace fashion show at 8 p.m. and a mandatory union meeting this morning.

The perfect balance of business and pleasure.

In between the catamaran cruise on Tuesday and the sounds of the Baha Men at the farewell dinner tonight, a new president was elected, hot-button topics like an age limit and player image were tabled and the disturbing reality of something called an escrow fund from the players' salaries was reiterated.

When the N.B.A. players catch their flights Friday morning, parting will indeed be such sweet sorrow. Not only does the National Basketball Players Association wrap up its annual meeting and the players go back to their teams and free-agent negotiations, they will also soon part with about $183 million of their salaries next season.

After profiting for the past three seasons under the league's labor agreement, negotiated during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the pendulum has swung toward the owners, and N.B.A. players are about to feel genuine economic pain.

Because the players' share of league revenues that have been designated as basketball-related income by both sides passed an agreed-upon threshold, every player must deposit 10 percent of his 2001-2 salary into an escrow account to be divided by the owners of the league's 29 teams. Players will also have to give back 10 percent of their salaries the next two seasons.

The players were told by union lawyers that they would still receive 61 percent of revenue from basketball-related income an estimated $1.65 billion for next season, the largest share of salaries and benefits the players have ever received.

"We knew this day was coming," said Michael Curry, who was elected union president in a landslide victory over Alonzo Mourning on Tuesday, replacing Patrick Ewing. "We've informed everyone about this all along. It's not something we like, but we all had a chance to vote down the deal in 1999. So we'll deal with it."

Beyond the finances, these union meetings took steps toward tackling some of the most controversial topics in the N.B.A.:

Referees were brought in for a give-and-take session with many players who thought that the referees had grudges against them.

An image panel on Wednesday took the form of a freewheeling debate, with players grabbing the microphone and turning a ballroom into "CNN Talkback Live."

The notion of more teenagers migrating to the N.B.A. invited candid disagreements between the players on Monday.

Mourning argued passionately that older players needed to counsel and look after young teammates. Another player, who was not identified later by players who attended the meeting, countered, "You had two young guys on the Heat last year and you didn't spend any time with them."

Carlos Rogers and other players said education was paramount for the young players. Other players wondered how a player who never received his college degree could tell a player who entered the league from high school to stay in school.

The real concern among the players at the meetings was not that an 18-year-old would take a veteran's job an implication Commissioner David Stern has used to trumpet his proposal for a 20-and-over rule. Many of the players merely do not want young players, and some fans' preconceived notions about them, to further cripple the game's television ratings and popularity.

Mentor programs, about to be started by the league, were discussed. But there was much more ideology than action.

"Right now, the best thing is to look at all possible solutions for these kids' transition before imposing an age limit," said Jerome Williams, the union vice president. "Once we give that up, that's it. There is no going back. I don't think anyone in that room believes a talented kid does not deserve the right to earn a living if he has the talent."

One of Stern's major concerns has been player image. On Tuesday afternoon, the issue was taken head-on. A two-hour panel, moderated by ESPN's Robin Roberts, featured Michael Dyson, an author and a DePaul professor; Tricia Rose, an associate professor at New York University and an author; Greg Anthony, the veteran point guard of the Portland Trail Blazers; Neil Pilson, a sports- television consultant and a former CBS Sports president; and Byron E. Lewis, the chairman and chief executive of Uniworld Group Inc.

The gamut of image issues was covered: hip-hop culture and its impact on how people view the N.B.A. Perceived news-media bias toward more edgy and negative stories rather than human-interest features. Children born out of wedlock to players. Race. Sex. Allen Iverson's image restoration. Most controversial issues dogging the league were discussed in a back-and-forth exchange.

If there was one major grievance aired by many of the four dozen of the 430-plus N.B.A. players who attended all week, player apathy won out.

Williams said he telephoned 25 players over the past few weeks, trying to coax them into attending. There would be a mandatory meeting discussing finances and the election of a president. The players and their families, if they chose to bring them, would have an all-expenses paid trip to a gaudy Caribbean resort. Williams went 0 for 25.

"It's too bad that more guys couldn't make it," Williams said. "No message heard secondhand is ever better than hearing it in person."

The job of emboldening the players for another labor struggle will be left to Curry. Mourning also ran for president, but only because he was nominated. Curry was the only player who wanted the job.

It will be difficult keeping a group of millionaire athletes many already with layers of accountants and laywers from believing they need further representation in the long haul or that the same players fiercely competing for free-agent dollars and rebounds can find a common cause by 2004, when the league's labor agreement expires.

But Curry, who is five classes away from finishing his master's degree in sports management at Virginia Commonwealth, is determined. As a role player for much of his career, he does not have Ewing's former All-Star status behind him. Yet Curry is savvy and respected, not only among the stars but also the journeymen and the young players.

"They had a chance to vote down the deal at the time and it didn't happen," Curry said of the deal that will cost the players 10 percent of their salaries. "Personally, I don't have a problem with a player making two, three and four million dollars having to give back two, three, four hundred thousand dollars. You're still making great money and it's better than what we had before, where guys were signing for the minimum of $140,000 or $200,000 and the gap between salaries was much larger."

The last N.B.A. negotiations resulted in the lockout. Of the ensuing fight with owners in a few years, Curry said:

"I was never in favor of a work stoppage. I didn't think it was good for the union, the league or the fans. Although the N.B.A. and the players are separate in some ways, we're all in the business of growing the game. If there was one thing I took away from the last negotiation, that was it."
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