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Shaq-zamm! He’s a $120-Million Laker

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Basketball giant Shaquille O'Neal, who plays a genie in his new movie “Kazaam,” has granted one final wish before hanging up his turban. Responding to the hopes, dreams and open checkbook of Laker owner Jerry Buss, the free-agent center agreed to a seven-year, $120-million contract with the team early Thursday, becoming the latest in a series of NBA stars to sign deals that have sent league salaries into a higher stratosphere.

O'Neal thus turns his back on the Orlando Magic, the team he played for in his first four seasons, to follow in the large footsteps of centers Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Chamberlain played on the Lakers’ first championship team in Los Angeles, Abdul-Jabbar on the other five.

But at 7 feet 1 and 320 pounds, the 24-year-old O'Neal leaves some large footprints of his own. He will be expected to earn his money by not only filling the void on the court at center, but also the void on the marquee left by the retirement of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, last of the Laker superstars.

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“We worked as hard on this as we’ve ever worked on anything,” Buss said. “But it was well worth it.”

In order to clear room for O'Neal under the salary cap, the Lakers were forced to trade away center Vlade Divac and practically give away Anthony Peeler and George Lynch.

“It really was a gamble,” Buss conceded. “We would have been left high and dry. We laid it out there and we could have lost very easily. From the time we traded Vlade, we knew we were out there on a limb. We were going to either be very sorry or very ecstatic.”

There has been a lot of sorrow and ecstasy running through the National Basketball Assn. in the last seven days since the floodgates opened and an unprecedented 150 free agents came onto the market under terms of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Responding to the glut of big names, owners have been tossing around contracts worth more than entire franchises were worth only a few years ago.

Since the start of free agency a week ago, high-profile NBA free agents have signed multiyear contracts worth $648.7 million. In a span of just 48 hours at the start of this week, teams signed players to multiyear deals worth $460.5 million. The Miami Heat alone signed two players, Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard, to multiyear pacts that will pay them $203 million. Michael Jordan signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Bulls for $30 million.

Buss signed O'Neal for an annual average of about $17 million. In 1979, Buss paid $16 million for the entire Laker team.

What in the world is going on?

‘Picassos on the Street’

Even in an age when movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Carrey can get $20 million or more for a single film, when heavyweight champion Mike Tyson has earned $65 million in the ring in his first year out of prison, the NBA numbers are raising the eyebrows of people from the man in the street to the executive in the boardroom.

“It’s like a public auction,” said Indiana Pacer President Donnie Walsh. “It’s been like putting a bunch of Picassos on the street.

“I didn’t think it would be this frenzied. I feel for the players’ agents and I feel for us. You think you’ve got a deal and someone comes in and offers more. It’s been crazy.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the NBA couldn’t even get into prime time, much less garner headlines stretching from the front page to the sports page to the financial page.

In 1959, the Minneapolis Lakers, $300,000 in debt, were desperate to get out of town but had to wait before the deal was finally approved for the 1960-61 season. When league owners rejected the team’s proposed move to Los Angeles by a 7-1 vote, Laker owner Bob Short appealed to Ben Kerner, owner of the then-St. Louis Hawks.

“Ben, we’ve got to move,” Short said. “We’re going to die in Minneapolis.”

Replied Kerner: “Then that’s the way it’s gonna be.”

That’s the way it was for a long time in the NBA. Playing in the shadow of major league baseball and the National Football League, the NBA struggled from its inception in 1946.

Ever hear of the Baltimore Bullets, Anderson Packers, Chicago Stags, Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons, Indianapolis Jets, Indianapolis Olympians, Pittsburgh Ironmen, Providence Steamrollers, St. Louis Bombers, Sheboygan Redskins, Toronto Huskies, Washington Capitols or Waterloo Hawks?

All of those teams had come and gone in the NBA by 1955.

In 1968, Chamberlain, a dominating force in the game at that time, signed a five-year contract with the Lakers. His total salary? One million dollars.

Buss said he was the first to pay a player $1 million for a single season, giving that amount to Abdul-Jabbar. Buss paid Johnson $500,000 for each of his first five seasons.

“I remember giving [guard] Norm Nixon $260,000,” Buss said, “and people told me I was crazy.”

When Johnson led the Lakers to the NBA title in the spring of 1980 in a memorable final game in which he played every position--including center, in place of an injured Abdul-Jabbar--the game was shown on a tape-delayed basis around the country, except in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Much credit has been given to Johnson and Larry Bird for providing the shot of adrenaline that awakened the sporting public to the league in the early 1980s.

They certainly put a new sparkle and excitement in the product. But credit David Stern with making that product profitable. By the early 1980s, the NBA had sunk so low that there was talk of a merger between several of the poorer franchises just to keep them afloat.

Then, with Stern as commissioner, the salary cap was born. The owners, pleading poverty, sold the players on the idea of becoming partners with the owners rather than antagonists. The owners would give the players 53% of their revenue in salary. For the 1984-85 season, the first season of the salary cap, it stood at $3.6 million.

A decade later, that salary cap, boosted by soaring revenues, was at $15.9 million. Last season, it had risen to $23 million, and the cap is projected at $24.3 million for the 1996-97 season, which covers the current rash of free-agent signings.

The league is more popular than ever. It can throw out its own shadow to match those of baseball and football. NBA teams played to 92.4% capacity in the 1995-96 season. The league is halfway through a $750-million network television contract, $150 million larger than its previous network deal, and a $350-million cable contract, $75 million higher than its last cable deal.

Jordan is the most visible endorser of commercial products in the athletic world and O'Neal has become a movie star--he’s about to start filming his third picture--as well as a rap music star.

Although revenues have increased dramatically around the league, that alone cannot account for the bloated salary cap. The method of accounting has also changed. In the past, the cap was based on owner income, called defined gross revenues, that consisted of gate receipts, television money and certain ancillary areas.

Under a new agreement, the percentage going to the players has dropped from 53% to 50.13%, but it’s a smaller piece of a considerably larger pie. The revenue, now called basketball-related income, includes gate receipts, television money, luxury suites, advertising, sponsorships, parking, concessions and certain areas of merchandising.

So where does it all end? Are owners pricing themselves out of their own game?

Theoretically that should not be the case because, if the salary cap stands at $24.3 million and the owners are paying only half of their revenues, then that means clubs are bringing in an average of $48.6 million. In reality, though, it’s not so simple. Because of differing financial arrangements from team to team, in terms of arena deals, merchandising, broadcast rights, actual payroll versus salary cap and other factors, the revenue streams vary from a small creek to a raging river.

“There is some fear,” said Atlanta Hawks General Manager Pete Babcock, “that we are creating two classes, those that can pay and those that can’t pay. The cap ought to help, but you may see more corporate ownership in the future.”

Buss agrees.

“It certainly seems,” he said, “that, if things go the way they are, in 10 or 15 years, the individual owner will be out.”

Will the individual fan be out as well? Will the corporations also have to buy most of the tickets because of the prohibitive cost? Following on the heels of the announcement of O'Neal’s signing Thursday came word that the Lakers have increased the price of some seats.

Making the Fans Pay

How will all this play with the man in the street?

“I think it starts with the average guy in the street,” Buss said. “Fans say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to get a center. You’ve got to get Shaq.’ This is what the fans really want. But the cost is passed back to the fans.

“It [the signing frenzy] has gone crazy to the point where it reaches a level where fans will feel it in the pricing of tickets. I think we are at that limit. I hope we haven’t exceeded it.”

When the owners do exceed it, there figures to be a huge backlash against big salaries by the fans. But Bud Crystal, one of the nation’s leading experts on executive salaries, isn’t at that point yet.

“The numbers are large,” he said, “but, based on what CEOs are paid, these [NBA players] are not prize-winning fish. Not that you would throw back their salaries, but there is one executive making $66 million for one year. [Walt Disney CEO] Michael Eisner reaped $202 million in option gains in 1992 in real money, and he has millions more he can have but hasn’t taken out. Sanford Weill, CEO of Travelers Group, a Wall street firm, is always good for $40 million to $50 million a year.

“CEOs always used to turn to sports figures to justify their own salaries. Now a Michael Jordan may have to turn to Eisner to justify his own salary.”

Crystal, however, thinks sports fans have far less tolerance than he does.

“The Michael Eisners of the world are still pretty remote as far as the public is concerned,” he said. “And they seem to chuckle over the salaries of movie stars. But the sports fans appear to be the biggest critics. The athletes’ salaries are all right there to check and they are easy to understand. All sports fans consider themselves experts anyway. So they can look at the signing of an athlete and say, ‘What a stupid buy that is.’ ”

Buss doesn’t think the money he shelled out for O'Neal is a stupid buy. What bothers Buss are some other unnamed players around the league.

“Shaq has the same kind of charisma Magic had,” Buss said. “I think he wants to win and he wants to try and keep the team together. What I am disgusted by is the huge salaries that are being paid to some players who don’t even seem to care at all. They should care about what they are doing to earn their money.”

Will there ever be a cap to the cap, a ceiling for salaries?

“Yeah,” Walsh said. “It’s called bankruptcy. Actually, it’s a floor. You hit the ceiling and go through the floor.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Free Agent Frenzy

In the span of seven days, NBA franchises have spent hundreds of millions of dollars signing a number of high-profile free agents. Highlights of the shopping spree:

PLAYER: Shaquille O'Neal

FORMER TEAM: Orlando

POSITION: Center

NEW TEAM: Lakers

CONTRACT: 7 years, $123 million

****

PLAYER: Juwan Howard

FORMER TEAM: Washington

POSITION: Forward

NEW TEAM: Miami Heat

CONTRACT: 7 years, $98 million

****

PLAYER: Gary Payton

FORMER TEAM: Seattle

POSITION: Guard

NEW TEAM: Re-signed, SuperSonics

CONTRACT: 7 years, $85 million

****

PLAYER: Allan Houston

FORMER TEAM: Detroit

POSITION: Guard

NEW TEAM: New York Knicks

CONTRACT: 7 years, $56 million

****

PLAYER: Horace Grant

FORMER TEAM: Orlando

POSITION: Forward

NEW TEAM: Re-signed, Magic

CONTRACT: 5 years, $50 million

****

PLAYER: Dikembe Mutombo

FORMER TEAM: Denver

POSITION: Center

NEW TEAM: Atlanta Hawks

CONTRACT: 5 years, $50 million

****

PLAYER: Dale Davis

FORMER TEAM: Indiana

POSITION: Forward

NEW TEAM: Re-signed, Pacers

CONTRACT: 7 years, $42 million

****

PLAYER: Antonio Davis

FORMER TEAM: Indiana

POSITION: Center

NEW TEAM: Re-signed, Pacers

CONTRACT: 7 years, $38.5 million

****

PLAYER: P.J. Brown

FORMER TEAM: New Jersey

POSITION: Forward

NEW TEAM: Miami Heat

CONTRACT: 7 years, $35 million

****

PLAYER: Michael Jordan

FORMER TEAM: Chicago

POSITION: Guard

NEW TEAM: Re-signed, Bulls

CONTRACT: 1 year, $30 million

****

PLAYER: Chris Childs

FORMER TEAM: New Jersey

POSITION: Guard

NEW TEAM: New York Knicks

CONTRACT: 6 years, $24 million

****

PLAYER: Chris Gatling

FORMER TEAM: Miami

POSITION: Center

NEW TEAM: Dallas Mavericks

CONTRACT: 5 years, $22 million

****

PLAYER: Brent Price

FORMER TEAM: Washington

POSITION: Guard

NEW TEAM: Houston Rockets

CONTRACT: 7 years, $18.2 million

****

PLAYER: Don MacLean

FORMER TEAM: Denver

POSITION: Forward

NEW TEAM: Philadelphia 76ers

CONTRACT: 4 years, $12 million


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