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The Big O Has Some Big Questions

ASSOCIATED PRESS

As one of the best guards in NBA history, Oscar Robertson went through enough labor wars to accumulate some scars and learn some things.

One of the lessons he picked up is to cut the best deal possible and then don’t let the other side squirm out of it. That’s why he wonders how union lawyers could have approved the deal that helped create the lockout.

“I cannot imagine how attorneys for the players could sign a contract with an escape clause out of the deal like that,” Robertson said.

They did, though, and because they did, no NBA games will be played on Tuesday, which was supposed to be opening night. Too bad for Robertson, who could have been at the Knicks-Celtics opener during his stopover in New York for the Boys Club Hall of Fame dinner.

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Give the owners credit for including a safety net for themselves in the collective bargaining agreement. With the players’ share of revenue escalating beyond anyone’s imagination, they went ahead and used it.

That troubled Robertson.

“A deal is a deal,” the Hall of Famer said. “If you don’t want to pay them, don’t sign those deals. The problem with the escape clause is eventually the percentage of money that the players get goes higher and higher and it provides the owners with a way out. No one forced them to pay that money.”

Not even if that money was guaranteed.

Arbitrator John D. Feerick’s ruling releasing the owners from the obligation of paying guaranteed contracts during the lockout left Robertson bewildered.

“I have a question for you,” he said. “Why did the arbitrator rule that guaranteed contracts don’t have to be paid? If you have a guaranteed contract, then the boss says, ‘I don’t want to pay,’ what happens then? What does a guarantee mean? I thought it meant ‘guaranteed.’ ”

Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Feerick’s ruling--based on the intricacies of federal labor law, individual player contracts, bargaining history and terms of the collective bargaining agreement--permitted the owners to withhold $700 million in guaranteed contracts to 220 players.

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And it gave the owners a negotiating hammer.

“He let them off the hook,” Robertson said. “If he had ruled the other way, the lockout ends. If the league had to pay the players with no income, they’d be back playing.”

Instead, the league stands idle, at least until December.

This is the first time the NBA has ever lost games in a labor dispute. It came close before, most dramatically in January 1964 when the best players in the league--Pettit, Baylor, Chamberlain, Lucas, Heinsohn, Russell and Robertson--sat in the cramped dressing rooms at Boston Garden, ready to boycott the All-Star Game.

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At issue was the players’ demand to have lawyer Larry Fleischer represent them in collective bargaining, the beginnings of a union.

“The owners wouldn’t talk about it,” Robertson said. “They didn’t want us to have representation. They felt we didn’t exist. They weren’t just against Larry Fleischer. They didn’t want us to have anybody to represent us.”

The players were adamant.

“We weren’t going to play,” Robertson said. “It went right up until game time.”

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Then, with 13,464 fans growing impatient, management blinked. Fleischer would be allowed to represent the players. The game went on.

Those were the dark ages of labor-management relations in sports, long before big salaries and bonus clauses. “There was no free agency,” Robertson said. “Teams thought they had perpetual rights over you forever.”

Robertson later became president of the National Basketball Players Association and his name is attached to the 1976 settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that permitted the league to absorb four ABA teams, established right of first refusal rights in contract negotiations and began the real escalation of salaries.

By then, Robertson’s 14-year career was over. He never earned more than $250,000 -- a far cry from the stratospheric salaries that caused the lockout.

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“Now,” he said, “the pendulum moves the other way.”


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