The National Billionaires Association

Look at it this way. The average American working stiff makes $548 a week--before taxes. Michael Jordan makes $576,923 a week--before the sneaker company and the cereal maker and the burger chain and the people who provide his underwear can even line up to add their huge endorsement checks to the pile.

Does a guy who throws a leather ball through a steel ring merit this kind of dough?

Like it or not, America says yes. Last week the Chicago Bulls agreed to pay their star $30 million for one year (that's $3,424.66 per hour--every hour, even while he's sleeping), and they didn't blink a corporate eye or even think about calling a personal foul. For his part, Jordan termed his raise "fair" and went about his business.

Down in Florida, meanwhile, Shaquille O'Neal was weighing offers from his present team, the Orlando Magic, and from the Los Angeles Lakers. "I just want a comfortable deal," he said, "and hopefully I can get signed pretty soon." (He did. He picked the Lakers.)

A "comfortable deal," by the O'Nealean definition, is something like $20 million a year, give or take the price of a fleet of Rolls-Royces, and the figure doesn't daunt big Shaq any more than it daunts the team owners who are so eager to pay it. In fact, neither the English language nor mere numbers themselves seem capable of expressing what has happened to National Basketball Association salaries in the past two weeks. It's a little like the surreal inflation that afflicted Germany in the months following defeat in World War I. "Interested in this nice loaf of bread, mein herr? Fine. That'll be 538 million marks, bitte."

Speaking of the limits of language, consider the term "free agent."
Dikembe Mutombo, an NBA center who demonstrated in his years with the Denver Nuggets that he cannot run, shoot, handle the ball or close his mouth in the presence of an official, was a "free agent" this summer. That means the Atlanta Hawks were willing to pay him $58 million for five years of work--$11.5 million a year to block shots, which is the only thing he's good at, besides speaking seven or eight languages that all come equipped with full sets of numbers.

Mutombo's new boss, Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens, has the easiest job on the planet this summer--he's coaching "Dream Team 3," the NBA-loaded U.S. Olympic basketball squad that beat the Greeks 128-62 and the Argentinians 96-68 last week and is expected to demolish every team it faces at the Atlanta Summer Games by thirty or forty points. Obviously underworked, Wilkens had time to discuss the new free-agent salaries, and he did so with the same absence of astonishment that characterizes the comments of everyone else around the game:

"Hey, more power to them," he said. "It's a short period of time in their life, and they have to make the most of it. So it's whatever the market will bear."

In the short period of time Jordan or O'Neal or the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning ($112 million for seven seasons) have to make hay, Wilkens seemed to be saying, there's no use trying to scrape by on a lousy seven or eight mil a year. The first time a family emergency came up--the necessity of buying a 300-foot yacht with two galleys, say, or forming your own government--where would you be then? Flat out of luck, that's where.

So the orgy of free agency has, if anything, picked up steam, and the inmates are now running the asylum. Seattle's Gary Payton, for one, signed up for seven more seasons with the Sonics for $85 million. "I love Seattle," he said, as soon as the check was cut. "I been there six years. I just wanted them to step up to the plate and promise me the way I promised them. I was there six years, worked hard, did a lot of good, won a lot of ballgames. And that's what they did--they stepped up."

Despite Payton's seeming confusion about what sport he's playing--it's probably Ken Griffey Jr. who should be asking Seattle to step up to the plate--he's pretty clear about where he stands for a while. His deal makes him worth two-thirds the entire value of his team, a concept that redefines the term "franchise player." But he's an orphan cousin compared to Mourning, the ex-Georgetown center who went to Miami from Charlotte. His contract is worth $112 million; the team value is $97 million; the Heat came into the league seven years ago for a cost of $32.5 million. But the Heat weren't done yet: They got Juwan Howard out of a Washington Bullets uni for, let's see here, just $110 million over seven years. That probably means Mourning will get stuck with the lunch check at the hotel: He's the rich guy.

Not to be outdone, the beleaguered New York Knicks have outspent just about everybody but Miami in their frustrated quest for another NBA title. Larry Johnson came in from Charlotte for $84 million; Chris Childs crossed the Hudson from the New Jersey Nets for six years worth $24 million (we trust his new club picked up the cab fare), and the New Yorkers lured three-point specialist Allan Houston away from Detroit with a $56 million contract. But that wasn't the only inducement: They also showed Houston a custom-shot video in which Spike Lee and Robin Williams begged him on bended knee to become a Knick. No ploy is too rude these days in the drive for NBA glory.

The bizarre verbal beat goes on. John Calipari, who would have coached Childs in New Jersey, expressed no regret when his star went over to New York. On the contrary. "I'm so happy for him," Calipari said. "I told him when I met with him: If you can get $4 million a year, you gotta take it. Because this is your livelihood. Isn't this a great country we live in?"

On the other hand, some teams are so scared of being frozen out of a rejuggled win column that they're throwing fresh bundles of cash in the paths of players whose deals haven't even expired yet. In Houston, star center Hakeem Olajuwon has three years left on his contract, but rather than let him get happy feet, the Rockets re-signed him for another five years at a reported $11 million per. Like a lot of these astronomical numbers, the Olajuwon figures are estimated figures. Little matter: What's three or four hundred dollars an hour difference among friends?

All right, then. Where is all this loot coming from? Even your hapless (and now Dikembe-, Jalen- and Mahmoud-less) Denver Nuggets, the fourth most popular pro franchise in this town these days, have an annual budget that could keep Somalia and Qatar solvent for decades, and there seems to be no end in sight to the league's free-agent shopping spree.

For one thing, network and cable TV deals now pour a quarter-billion dollars into the NBA every year, and ticket and merchandise sales have inflated average team revenues from $22 million in 1991 to a whopping $52 million per club today. NBA players like Jordan and Shaq are not just hometown heroes, either: They are international sports icons almost as well-known on the dirt roads of Kenya or the boulevards of Paris as in the high school gyms of Keokuk.

Wilkens's new Dream Team--led by behemoths like O'Neal, Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Grant Hill--will certainly do nothing to devalue the NBA's preferred stock. Indeed, if the Croatians finish a distant second at the Olympics, as expected, it's a pretty good bet that kids in Rio de Janeiro and Riyadh won't spend much time trying to remember their names; it's Michael and Shaq and Sir Charles every kid in the world wants to see, and the Olympics offer some of the most valuable free advertising the league ever gets--even if the games look like Hitler blitzing Poland.

It's their own fault, after all. The losers' fault. It wasn't the NBA that pushed American pros into the Games; it was the rest of the world. Julius Erving, a great NBA star in the days before players owned fewer pairs of shoes than Imelda Marcos, said it plainly last week: "The world wanted to find out how they really stacked up in basketball. Now they know." Does that mean the charade should now be ended, that American college players should return to the Olympics in the name of a fair fight? Not according to the Good Doctor. "Once the door is open," Erving said, "it has to remain open."

Is it some kind of coincidence that the Olympic Games have gotten under way just as the NBA free-agent frenzy hits its peak? Maybe, but don't count on it. Is it coincidence that $100 million men in the NBA arrive just a month after the spectacular season of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls reveals a team that could dominate the league for years to come? Not likely, either. The Knicks and the Heat, to name but two, now look willing to try anything short of a compact with the Devil to unseat Chicago--and if the Devil asked for $110 million over seven years, he'd probably get it.

And the losers? Are there losers amid the frenzy? Sure are. As superstar salaries continue to rise, the league's less talented players will probably have to play for fewer and fewer bucks, perhaps provoking resentments on some teams. But that isn't where the real hurt will come, is it? To feel the real hurt, ask the person earning $548 a week how many NBA tickets he or she can afford at this season's prices--or next season's. That could strain the limits of the English language, too.


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