100 million ways NBA is warped


How do you turn down $99 million? The question is posed literally here. How do you tell a person offering you such money for your services that it isn't enough?

What do you say?

Do you trump up some weak explanation just to get out of the awkward situation? ("Gosh, I'm really flattered, but my cable bill is going up and my cat loves expensive litter and I have to plan ahead.")

Do you pass the blame? ("It's a lot of money and I'd really love to say yes, but my mommy told me not to and I don't want to get in trouble.")

Do you try intimidating your suitor in hopes of getting your way? ("Ninety-nine million? Are you talking to me? Listen, don't even come around here anymore until you get serious, Jack. Don't insult me!")

What do you say when $99 million isn't enough? It's the etiquette question Dear Abby never answered, brought to you by the financial cuckoo's nest known as the NBA.

And you thought baseball salaries were ridiculous. And you thought hockey salaries made no sense. Why, they're right out of "The Grapes of Wrath" compared with NBA salaries.

Larry Johnson: 12 years, $84 million. Chris Webber: 15 years, $74 million. Jason Kidd: nine years, $60 million.

For those keeping score at home, that's $218 million wrapped up in three players who have never led a team to victory in a best-of-seven playoff series.

Now comes Glenn Robinson, the first pick in the past draft, insisting that he won't dribble for the Milwaukee Bucks unless they pay him $100 million, with every penny guaranteed.

What is he going to say if the Bucks offer $99 million? That his lifelong dream is to own Florida and he always promised himself he'd do everything he could to attain it? That his accountant says he'll need a minimum of $100 million because it's going to cost a fortune to send his kids to college in 20 years? That he thinks he's actually worth $100 million?

Please. There is already enough suffering in the world.

Considering that the entire franchise probably is worth $75 million, Herb Kohl, the Democratic senator who owns the Bucks, responded elegantly to Robinson's demands: "I was thinking of saying to Mr. Robinson, 'I'll tell you what: I'll take your contract and you can have my franchise.' "

A contract worth more than the franchise? For a player who has never scored a basket in the league? See? Baseball and hockey are bastions of fiscal prudence compared with the NBA.

As crazy as it sounded for the San Francisco Giants to give Barry Bonds $43 million over six years, they could almost make a case for it based on the increases in attendance, wins, interest and cap sales that Bonds could generate. (And did in his first season.) Similarly, Cal Ripken is conceivably worth $30 million to the Orioles.

But Robinson couldn't possibly sell enough tickets or caps to be worth $100 million to the Bucks. And, most importantly, he might not even help them win many more games. That is the true lunacy of the NBA's salary structure, in which rookies are worth vastly more than proven stars.

Everyone thought it was crazy when the Lakers gave Magic Johnson a 25-year, $25 million contract a decade ago, but Magic had won two titles and shown he was maybe the best guard ever. Who is Glenn Robinson? Sure, he was a load at Purdue, but he never went to the Final Four and Duke's Grant Hill shut him down in the regional finals last spring. There's a 50-50 chance he's overrated, as is the case with every college star.

But Robinson can ask for $100 million because he is the No. 1 pick and the NBA has this Frankenstein of a salary structure in which players who have done nothing have all the clout. (Charles Barkley has scored 17,530 points in his career, which is 17,530 more than Grant Hill has scored, but Hill makes twice as much. In other words, if the Orioles were in the NBA, Jeffrey Hammonds would make much more than Ripken or Rafael Palmeiro.)

The NBA salary structure was reasonably sensible until Charlotte owner George Shinn tore up Larry Johnson's contract last year and gave him a new one for $84 million. Suddenly, all the top young players were demanding a mega-fortune. And they wanted it guaranteed, just as Shinn had guaranteed every cent of Johnson's contract.

Guaranteeing a huge contract for longer than a decade is foolish enough, as Johnson continues to prove each time he gets injured, but giving a young, unaccomplished player such guaranteed wealth is as stupid as stupid gets.

Thus, even though NBA commissioner David Stern continues to paint a sunny picture of the league's health, don't be fooled. Things are a mess. Some veteran players, disgusted by rich rookies, agree with management on the necessity of a salary cap. But the union leadership doesn't want it. No matter what Stern says, there is the real possibility of a strike or a lockout at some point in the coming season.

Glenn Robinson isn't worried about any of that, of course. He's just worried about becoming the first player to break the $100 million barrier. And, truth be known, he isn't sitting around worrying about what to tell the Bucks if they offer him $99 million. He has a simple answer ready. A very simple answer:


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