Earl Monroe vividly recalls the day he signed his first pro contract with the then Baltimore Bullets.
"The Pearl" had averaged 41.5 points his senior year at Winston-Salem State and was the second player chosen in the 1967 NBA draft.
"I thought my college coach, 'Bighouse' Gaines, had taken care of the negotiating," he said last night at a reunion with some 20 former Bullets at the Sports Boosters of Maryland banquet. "I didn't even bother to read the fine print, just signed my name."
Monroe earned $20,000 his first year when he averaged 24.3 points, captivated the Baltimore fans and won Rookie of the Year honors.
But surprisingly, the flamboyant guard who helped revolutionize backcourt play, expressed no bitterness over the contracts today's NBA stars are demanding.
"I'd be a lot smarter the second time around," said Monroe, who left Baltimore in a contract dispute in 1971 and went on to greater financial success and glory as part of the New York Knicks' 1973 championship team.
Asked his thoughts of center Alonzo Mourning rejecting a $10 million-a-year offer from the Charlotte Hornets to force his trade to Miami, Monroe said, "He knew $10 million was the bottom price and that there was more money out there. If that makes him greedy, so be it."
But the majority of the former Bullets, who entertained crowds at the then Civic Center in the mid-to-late '60s before the team moved to Washington, believe the current players are in danger of killing the golden goose.
That thought was even expressed by Jack Marin, the left-hander with the classic outside shot who is now an attorney and sports agent.
"There are more negatives than positives to a deal like Mourning's," Marin said. "As an agent, you've got to leave a little on the table to buy some goodwill or you're creating possible chaos down the road."
An All-American at Duke, Marin was the fifth player picked in the 1966 draft.
"But I got the third-best money," he said. The Bullets gave me $18,500, which was more than Dave Bing got from Detroit.
"I don't envy today's players, though. I quit playing in 1977 because I didn't think the game was going anywhere financially. No one could foresee how the game would be packaged and merchandised with all the glitz and glamour. And the players are reaping the benefits.
"But to paraphrase Lou Gehrig, I consider myself one of the luckiest men on earth. I got a basketball scholarship to Duke, played in the NBA 12 years, and now I get invited to play celebrity golf. How can you beat that?"
Bailey Howell, the power forward who spent two seasons in Baltimore (1964-1966) and played a dozen overall, averaging 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds, remembers when the league operated on a shoestring.
"When I broke in with Detroit in 1959, I got about $10,000," said Howell, who recently retired after 20 years as a Converse salesman. "Back then, you had to pay for your own shoes. But after my third year with the Pistons, ol' man [Fred] Zollner put his arm around me and said, 'Don't worry, 'Bails, from now on I'm paying for the shoes."
Johnny Green, the forward who once scored 24 points in a quarter for Baltimore, does not begrudge Mourning taking the money and running off to Miami.
"If Mourning got $12 million, the other players will tag along behind him and be able to demand more themselves," said Green, who owns a McDonald's franchise in New York.
Green, who lasted 14 seasons as a pro, got $15,000 as a first-round pick by the Knicks in 1959.
"I considered that real good money at the time," he said. "Heck, Oscar Robertson came out a year later and only got $18,000 from Cincinnati."
But John Egan, a valuable part-time starter and reserve point guard for the Bullets from 1965 to 1968, sees frightening signs of what escalating salaries can do to the health of the league.
"I've been living in Houston for some time now," said Egan, who played and later coached the Rockets, "and I can see how free agency can quickly change the sports map.
"We've already lost the Oilers to Nashville, and there was a real chance we'd lose the Astros to Washington," said Egan, an insurance executive.
Ray Scott, who was a high-scoring forward for the Bullets from 1966-1970 and later coached the Detroit Pistons, finds today's salaries mind-boggling.
"I never thought I'd see the day when players were averaging over $1 million a year," said Scott, an insurance representative in Detroit.
"It shows how far this league and the entertainment business has come in a quarter of a century. But I'm a bit fearful when the players become bigger than the game."