Charles Barkley was a pudgy rookie back in 1984 when he was selected with the fifth pick of the draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, happy to sign the four-year, $2 million contract that paid him $535,000 in his first season. And over the next decade Barkley would establish himself as one of the game's top players.
Yet for all he accomplished in those 10 years, he now finds his salary being dwarfed by those of rookies who have yet to play a single minute in the NBA.
"If you're working and someone comes right in and doubles and triples your salary, it's not fair," Barkley, whose contract with the Phoenix Suns averages a reported $3.2 million per season, told reporters earlier this month. "What did Grant Hill [the third pick of the draft] get? Nine years, $45 million? That's $2 million more than I got. Something is wrong."
Wrong? Says who?
Not the high draft picks who are signing enormous contracts -- and not their agents, who are pulling down fat commissions.
But it's all wrong to the veteran players, some of whom are becoming increasingly disgruntled. And it's wrong to owners, who are left wondering whether it really is lucky to win one of the top picks in the draft lottery.
Using Glenn Robinson's holdout for a contract worth $100 million from the Milwaukee Bucks as the latest evidence, some owners are calling for a rookie salary cap and -- despite the opposition by the NBA Players Association -- veteran players are heeding the call as well.
"I look at Julius Erving, Magic [Johnson] and Michael [Jordan], and if those guys aren't worth $100 million, nobody is worth $100 million," Malone said recently. "Four, five years from now, when you get ready to take your kid to a game, there won't be any."
No sure things
Los Angeles Clippers coach Bill Fitch has been around the league long enough to know a sure thing isn't always a sure thing. He coached Dennis Hopson in New Jersey (the No. 3 pick of the 1987 draft), and he coached against Chris Washburn (third pick by Golden State in 1986), Danny Ferry (second pick by the Clippers in 1989) and Benoit Benjamin (third pick by the Clippers in 1985).
"After five years, you have guys who are being well overpaid, who can't play," Fitch said. "Then you get team greed, individualism takes over and you have problems."
Escalating rookie salaries are just a sign of the times, if you ask the agents lucky enough to land one of the top rookies as a client. Of course, they want no part of a rookie cap.
"I think they're going in the right direction," said ProServ vice president Tony Dutt, whose agency represents Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Donyell Marshall. "You have some entertainers making $2-3 million that no one has ever heard of. There's no cap for them. Sports is entertainment."
Said Boston-based agent Thomas McLaughlin: "It's an awful lot of money; it's staggering. There's nothing that amazes me anymore, because it seems to all change day to day."
Some agents point to the six-year, $19 million contract signed by the Charlotte Hornets' Larry Johnson in 1991 -- followed by a 12-year, $84 million deal two years later -- as the turning point for rookies. As the top pick in 1992 by the Orlando Magic, Shaquille O'Neal signed for $39 million over seven years.
"I'm a strong believer that these teams can't pay the money they're paying if they don't have it," Dutt said. "Remember, in Charlotte it was the owner who went to the player. He said, 'We see numbers going in this direction, and we think we can lock the player in at this rate.' "
But even the agents say that long-term contracts also have a certain amount of risk.
Standing 7 feet 6 helped get Shawn Bradley an eight-year, $44.2 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1993 after just one season of college basketball and two years away from the sport. But a dislocated left kneecap limited him to 49 games in 1993-94, and he has reinjured his knee in the preseason.
"I think it's a tremendous risk," said Pete Babcock, general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. "It's a little irrational to just give those type of contracts out front to players who have yet to step on the floor.
"There's always the can't-miss players, players who are destined to be stars. But there's always that unknown, because they've never stepped on the floor yet."
And it's because of that unknown that Washington Bullets general manager John Nash refuses to give Juwan Howard the team's highest salary. The Bullets have offered Howard a 10-year, $30.7 million deal, which would be the biggest contract in team history. (That offer would pay Howard less this season than Kevin Duckworth's $2.6 million salary.) Howard and his agent, David Falk, have refused to sign.
"The marquee player is always going to be paid handsomely, but we have too many players currently in the league working on their long-term rookie contracts and they've yet to produce," Nash said. "And often they get flushed out of the league before their deal expires -- a la Bo Kimble."
Kimble signed a five-year, $7.2 million contract with the Clippers as the eighth pick of the 1990 draft and last played in the NBA in 1992-93.
When told that agents think owners are free with the money they're spending on rookies, Nash agreed.
"The teams are at fault, and now we're taking the position that we don't want to pay the rookie and we're being criticized," Nash said. "The agents can't have it both ways. Either the teams are right, or they're not right.
"Every team has the right to spend their money prudently. And when you make the rookie your highest-paid player, you're creating chaos in the locker room -- unless that rookie is Shaquille O'Neal."
O'Neal did not cause a stir after Magic teammate Anfernee Hardaway exercised an option out of his rookie contract and, after a holdout, became the highest-paid player in the league on average (seven years, $50 million).
"Michael Jordan was the best player in the league. Period," said O'Neal, who will get $4.8 million from the Magic this year. "If he can get underpaid, I can be underpaid."
To the fan, $4 million isn't exactly underpaid, but that's what Jordan made in his final season with the Bulls.
"He would be the first $100 million player, without a doubt," said Dutt, whose company also represents Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf. "He'd probably be a good deal for both sides, if you had a crystal ball and could read what he would accomplish."
That's what owners are faced with each year as salaries soar -- glancing into a crystal ball and hoping for the next Michael. Or Magic. Or Bird.
More often than not, it doesn't happen. And often you end up with a Hopson, a Washburn or a Ferry.
"I think we have to reach a common ground," Philadelphia 76ers coach John Lucas said. "Clarence Weatherspoon left camp for an hour or two because he thought that [rookie] Sharone Wright got more money than he got.
"We're going to have to reach a happy median where everybody is in a win-win situation. Or else we'll see the league drop in attendance because people aren't going to care anymore."