To acquire these remarkable sums of money -- Webber signed yesterday for a minimum of $74.4 million over 15 years -- these players found themselves in the right place at the right time, the kind of favorable economic environment that may never be seen again.
The right place is the NBA, whose revenue-based salary cap has climbed from $3.6 million per team in the 1984-85 season to $15.2 million per team this season and whose overall income -- particularly in broadcast-rights fees -- is growing at a comparable rate.
The right time is now, the final year of a 10-year-old collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners in which the league-imposed salary cap has been ravaged in court and rendered almost moot.
These rookies signed their contracts this fall even as NBA owners discussed the idea of a separate cap for rookie salaries -- a concept that could be in place as early as a year from now.
In other words, these young players got it while the getting was good, and it has been good beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
The NBA's broadcast rights 10 years ago, in 1983-84, generated $5.5 million on the cable side and $22 million from CBS, with the income split equally among the teams in the league. Five years ago, in 1988-89, cable revenues generated $25 million, while CBS kicked in $43.25 million.
This season, cable television (TNT) will pay the NBA $68.75 million, and NBC will pay the league $150 million. Next year, those figures will jump even higher, to $88 million from cable television and $187.5 million from NBC.
Ticket sales continue at a near-sellout pace on a league-wide basis, with an average 16,060 fans attending 1,107 regular-season games last season. In the relatively tiny Oakland Coliseum Arena (15,025 seats), the Warriors have sold out 187 straight games (regular-season and playoffs) dating to March 9, 1989.
For a further idea of how wealthy the league is, consider the cost of joining it. In 1980, Dallas paid an expansion fee of $12 million. The four newest expansion teams -- Charlotte, Miami, Minneapolis and Orlando -- each paid an expansion fee of $32.5 million.
The next city to join the league, believed to be Toronto for the 1995-96 season, will be expected to pay a reported $125 million -- more than 10 times the amount paid by the Mavericks in 1980.
It is in this lofty environment that the top draft picks landed.
Webber will make a minimum of $74.4 million over the next 15 years, and if things break Webber's way in his rookie season, he'll make that much in half that time.
Philadelphia's Shawn Bradley, even though he was out of basketball for two years while completing a Mormon mission in Australia, will make a minimum of $44 million over the next eight years, while Orlando's Anfernee Hardaway will make no less than $45 million in the next 13 years. Dallas' Jamal Mashburn, the No. 4 pick overall, will make a minimum of $34.8 million in the next eight years.
Both Webber and Hardaway have one-year termination clauses in their contracts that could negate their current contracts, should they wish to renegotiate before the length of the contract is up.
In Webber's case, here's how it works:
In the event Webber has the excellent season that everyone expects, his agreement with the Warriors allows him to tear up his current contract and become a restricted free agent.
Because the Warriors, like other capped teams, are allowed under salary cap rules to keep their own free agents, no matter what the price, the team and Webber can agree to a new contract worth the same total money -- in this case $74.4 million -- but covering, say, seven years, with a termination clause in place after six years.
Should Webber and the Warriors want to continue their association after that, they could keep the process going over and over again.
On the other hand, should Webber suffer a career-ending injury, or for other reasons find himself in a position of negotiating weakness, he still would be guaranteed the money contained in the current pact.
Hardaway's contract is similar, at least in terms of the termination clause.
The ripple effects of the new order have been felt immediately, particularly in New Jersey. Nets general manager Willis Reed has promised to keep star forward Derrick Coleman among the elite wage-earners in the league. It is now believed that Coleman will demand, and get, a contract worth $90 million over 10 years. Yesterday, Coleman rejected an eight-year, $69 million deal.