It's the end of the 1995-96 basketball season, and Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal has an opportunity to exercise an option out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. What's his worth in the open market -- $80 million, $90 million? Perhaps the game's first $100 million athlete?
"That would not surprise me," said agent Eric Fleisher, who helped negotiate the recent contract for Boston Celtics guard Dana Barros. "The only thing that could temper such a contract is that you can only sign a player for seven years [the NBA maximum]."
Still, those numbers are not out of line, in light of the six-year, $57 million contract that Washington Bullets forward Chris Webber signed Monday. Webber's average salary of $9.5 million is the richest in league history (New Jersey Nets forward Derrick Coleman is second with a $7.9 million average).
In addition to O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Reggie Miller and Dikembe Mutombo also become free agents after the season, putting some of the game's biggest stars into a market where it appears the standards are rewritten every day.
"If you talk in terms of market value, Shaquille O'Neal becomes the game's first $100 million player," said Jerome Stanley, who recently negotiated a three-year deal for Orlando Magic reserve guard Brian Shaw for an average of $4 million a year.
Agents said it was no surprise that Webber, the top pick of the 1993 draft and the 1993-94 Rookie of the Year, would command such a salary.
Webber is considered one of the most talented forwards in the league, and was in great bargaining position with a team that sent Tom Gugliotta and three first-round draft picks to Golden State for him.
"I wasn't surprised with [Webber's deal], for a couple of reasons," Fleisher said. "He's the No. 1 pick and he's a very talented player. Plus he's bounced around a number of times, making a sacrifice by taking less money, in hopes of landing the big deal. Now he's reaping the rewards."
Webber's original deal with Golden State was $74 million over 15 years, but because of the team's salary cap he was paid $1.6 million during his rookie year -- a first-year salary less than that paid to the second pick (Anfernee Hardaway, $2.7 million his rookie year), the fourth pick (Jamal Mashburn, $2 million), the fifth pick (Isaiah Rider, $2 million), the sixth pick (Calbert Cheaney, $2 million) and the seventh pick (Bobby Hurley, $1.61 million).
Hardaway renegotiated his contract before last season at $68.5 million over nine years ($7.6 million per year). The fact that Webber got more is no surprise.
"[Webber] had to get more than Hardaway, indirectly," said Jimmy Sexton, whose clients include Horace and Harvey Grant and Elliot Perry. "I think what you have to do is look at his contract over eight years, not the six years it's for.
"Washington had to deal with those two years that he was underpaid," Sexton said of Webber, who made just over $2 million last season. "So looking at it in terms of eight years, no I'm no surprised at what he got."
Like most agents who were against the collective bargaining agreement that was approved by the players last month, Fleisher and Stanley both said that this is the start of a two-tier pay system.
"I think it's pretty clear as to what many thought about the new agreement, that the league would become one of the haves and the have-nots," Fleisher said. "The more high-profile players will reap the rewards, and the ones less fortunate will have problems.
"The Webber signing is an indication of that trade-off," Fleisher said. "If you're one of the top free agents next year, you're going to use his numbers as leverage. Obviously, they'll be worth much more."
Stanley said: "As teams pay their stars and struggle to get under the cap, there will be fewer players making between $400,000 and $1.2 million. Those players will be going to the $225,000 market [the rookie minimum]. And with the way salaries are now, you're going to carry more players at the minimum."