Sunday, April 7, 2013

the last book I ever read (David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, excerpt four)

from The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam:

Because of the Wicks case, Inman considered himself a combat veteran of one of the most difficult and turbulent periods in professional sports, a period when the coming of bigtime television and its accompanying money and new labor laws had dramatically changed sports salaries in general and basketball salaries in particular. Other sports salaries had risen significantly in the very brief period from the late sixties to the middle of the seventies, but in that seven years basketball salaries had gone up some 700 percent. In the process, the money had frequently changed a player’s attitude towards the game, towards his coach and towards his teammates. The explosion of the sport, the coming of television and its extraordinary social amplification system, dovetailed almost exactly with the coming of a rival league (there was a rival league in football too, but it had been incorporated before money in sports became really big). Unlike football and baseball, basketball, with so few players, presented the illusion that a single superstar could transform a loser into a winner. There had been a rush by new owners—often unaware of the complexity of the game, anxious to be winners, anxious to be celebrities themselves (one became a celebrity in sports by paying celebrity wages)—to endow young gifted players with huge salaries and make them superstars. Bidding wars took place over players like Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, George McGinnis, and even Wicks, driving the salaries from an average of $75,000 in the late sixties to $500,000 and $600,000 for a superstar by the late seventies.

This explosion of salary, sudden and overnight (owners for the first time, proud capitalists that they are, being forced to pay the market value in what had been the hitherto conservative sanctuary of sports), had changed not just the financial structure of the game but, more significantly, the political structure as well. In the past coaches had been the figures of authority, as a rule paid more than players. They moreover had the power to withhold playing time (and thus statistical production) from players and thus determine to no small degree the course of a player’s career. A coach could determine whether a player had a good year, and if the player had a good year he might be able to sign again, perhaps for $5,000 more. The choice was management’s. Overnight the pay scale changed, superstars—some of them mere rookies—were now being paid four and five times as much as the coaches. Even more important, they had guaranteed, no-cut, long-term contracts. How they performed on the court in the future no longer mattered; at least in financial terms, the future was already theirs. The leverage of the coach and of management to control players dropped accordingly. Since the ownership was now deeply committed to the superstar, if a problem developed (as it often did) it was not the superstar who departed. The superstar was the key to the gate, to season-ticket sales. It was the coach who departed.

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