The NBA : Free-Agent System Is Under Fire

What do Kiki Vandeweghe, Terry Cummings, Michael Cooper, Phil Hubbard, Scott Wedman, Derek Smith, World B. Free, Sleepy Floyd, George Gervin, Otis Birdsong, Wayne Cooper, LaSalle Thompson and Artis Gilmore have in common?

As soon as the playoffs are over, they and about 75 other NBA players will be free agents, some of them looking for jobs.

It promises to be interesting, going into the final year of the players' union contract with the NBA, to see if there is much movement of free agents. If not, the players, who already think the system has failed them, aren't going to be very happy when they sit down at the bargaining table.

Larry Fleisher, general counsel for the NBA Players Assn., hopes that what happened to last season's free agents doesn't occur again with this year's crop.

"Only a very small number of them, less than 10, received offer sheets from other teams," Fleisher said. "The thing that's so disturbing is that only one team won the championship and 22 others didn't, but they didn't do anything to make them better.

"There are players who could have made those teams 15 times better, so it's just hard to accept the fact of this system of restraint," Fleisher said.

Fleisher said that the free-agent system does not work, partly because many teams do not sign free agents for fear of retribution in kind.

Fleisher outlined three areas in which he feels the free-agent system has broken down.

He said that teams often don't sign free agents because the players presumably want too much money, but teams never bother to ask how much.

Other teams consider offer sheets a waste of time because the original team will match the contract anyway, Fleisher said.

"Other teams are acting improperly, getting together and talking, and saying, 'If you don't sign my free agents, then I won't sign yours,' " Fleisher said. "That's clearly banned in our agreement with the league."

The only way the system can change in time for this year's free agents to benefit, Fleisher said, is if the league does something to change the system. Fleisher said that the league could ask the 23 NBA teams to act responsibly.

"Admittedly, there's not much chance of that happening," Fleisher said.

The salary cap also limits the movement of free agents, but Fleisher said that the number of them means many teams should have a great deal of money to spend on free agents.

"People could say, sure, with the average salary of about $400,000, the players are making a lot more money than they did 15 years ago," he said. "But a lot of people are making a lot more money than they did 15 years ago and none of them are operating in a system of restraint."

Fleisher and the players' association have already gone on record as calling for the abolishment of the free-agent system, which includes the draft, the salary cap and the right of first refusal.

Whether the players are willing to go on strike over these issues when their agreement with the NBA expires after next season remains to be seen.

"But this is serious," Fleisher said. "I'm not posturing."

Add Fleisher: The NBA's drug guidelines, the result of a collaboration with the players' union, is working well, but it has not eliminated drugs in the league, he said.

"I don't think we will," Fleisher said. "With all deference to the commissioner of another league to the positive, they're not going to eliminate drugs in baseball, either."

Jack Ramsay has coached longer and won more games than any active NBA head coach, but that doesn't mean he will return to the Portland Trail Blazers next season.

For the first time in 10 years with Portland, there is speculation that Ramsay may be on his way out of town. Some speculate that his chances of returning are no better than 50-50.

Ramsay, 61, speaks cautiously about his coaching future in Portland.

"For me to come back here next season, two things have to happen," he said. "One, I have to want to come back, and two, they have to want me to come back."

Ramsay has one more season left on his contract with Portland, but he has recently been mentioned as a possible successor to John Bach at Golden State, should Jim Fitzgerald buy a majority interest in the Warriors from Franklin Mieuli.

In this season with the Trail Blazers, his 18th in the NBA, Ramsay has watched his team flutter around the .500 level and, as a result, has apparently lost at least some support from club owner Lawrence Weinberg.

Ramsay would not comment on whether he was dissatisfied with the Trail Blazers' organization. Morris Buckwalter, formerly the team's scout and Ramsay's assistant, has assumed greater responsibilities in the Weinberg regime.

"I think everything will be settled this summer," Ramsay said.

The only coach in the league with a doctorate, Ramsay has been considered one of the league's top tacticians since he began with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1968. Ramsay made it clear that he has no intention of retiring.

"I'm sure, if there was interest shown in me, I could certainly coach another NBA team," he said.

In Ramsay's 10 seasons with Portland, the Trail Blazers have reached the playoffs nine times. The Lakers and 76ers are the only teams with 10 consecutive playoff appearances.

It had to happen. Chick Hearn has made a rap record.

"When I finally heard it, I almost fell out of my chair," Hearn said. "And I was sitting down."

The disc, called "Rap-Around," was released by Outpost Records and was written by Hearn and producers Dave Blume and Dave Gillerman.

What's next? A video, of course.

The last word on the New York Knicks is simply goodby.

On the cover of the Knicks' media guide are drawings of Patrick Ewing, Bernard King, Bill Cartwright and Pat Cummings, all of whom had season-ending surgery.

Combined, they missed 243 out of a possible 328 games this season--that's 74%--on a total salary of $3.6 million.

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