“Take advantage of it. You only come this way once. When it’s gone, it’s gone. You’re not going to be able to come back and play anymore.” — Oscar Robertson’s advice to NBA free agents
Big O Day in the NBA begins on Sunday as NBA free agents make decisions that will change their lives and alter the landscape of the NBA.
The Big O is Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. But Robertson’s most enduring claim to fame is his gift to generations of NBA players: free agency.
Robertson sued the NBA for free agency in 1970 when he was president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). In 1976, two seasons after Robertson retired, the NBA settled. The result has been a succession of relatively unshackled pro basketball players who have been able to shop their talents on the open market.
History for many young people can seem hazy and irrelevant. But there is a direct line from Robertson to the multimillion-dollar contracts that will be signed by NBA players beginning Sunday.
The intent of his lawsuit was simple: Players wanted to be free to choose when they wanted to play for a different team, when they wanted to be free to shop their services to the highest bidder.
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When Robertson filed his lawsuit in 1970, teams kept players in place until the owners were ready to discard them. Today, star players do the discarding.
Will Kawhi Leonard discard the Toronto Raptors? Will Kevin Durant discard the Golden State Warriors? Will Kemba Walker discard the Charlotte Hornets? In each case, the conversation is about players exercising a hard-won freedom of choice.
“We’re talking about what is this player going to decide to do for himself,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said. “What is KD going to decide he wants to do? What does Kyrie want to do? I think this is great because we’re speculating about what these men are going to decide, not what some teams have decided.”
She added: “I think it can be somewhat distracting to the player, but I find it absolutely joyful that at the end of the day we’re talking about a player’s exercise of where he wants to spend the next part of his career. I have no complaints about it. I think it’s good for the game. It’s another thing that keeps basketball in the conversation.”
Still, free agency is far from complete. Only a relatively small number of players are free.
This is the next field of battle for NBA players: total and complete freedom of choice.
This means dismantling the current system, especially the draft. The NBA draft is a veritable welfare system for billionaire owners that rewards incompetence in the name of keeping an artificial playing field level.
The arguments against total freedom in the NBA are familiar: Unfettered free agency will be the death of the league. The big markets will get all of the best players.
“Without a draft, I think you’d see the big markets would gain all the players,” NBA TV analyst Billy King told me during a recent interview. King served as president of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets.
If players gain total freedom of choice, King fears that NBA teams would lavish high-profile incoming rookies with all the money at the expense of veterans.
“What would happen is the unproven younger players would be getting all the money and you would squeeze out a lot of the veteran guys,’’ King said. “Teams would say, ‘I’m going to pay Zion Williamson, I’m going to pay RJ Barrett. I’m going to pay all these guys because they’re younger.’ With the cap system, you wouldn’t have money for the older players.”
The reality is that every player cannot go to the Los Angeles Lakers. Every player does not want to go to the New York Knicks, or the Brooklyn Nets, or the Chicago Bulls.
And there are ways to make total freedom work and still make the playing field level, by limiting the amount of money a team can spend. For example, the rookie scale could stay in place, but first-year players would be free to negotiate with any of the 30 teams. A player like Williamson would be free to negotiate with any team, but a team — the Lakers, for example — could not say, “We’ll pay you $50 million a year to play for us.”
If the amount of money teams can spend on talent is equal, everything else comes down to which franchise does the best job of marketing itself and running efficiently.
The larger concept is that players, all players, must be free to negotiate in an open market. Free agency works in every other industry. It can work well in sports.
Athletes are born free. And they already live much of their athletic lives as free agents.
They have choices and make choices: which middle school to attend, which AAU program to play for, which high school to attend. The best of the lot have colleges begging for their services. And even those athletes who do not get offers from their first and second choices can choose between third and fourth.
But then the pro leagues create an artificial barrier, a restraint of trade, with a draft that robs players of their freedom.
The fascinating aspect of the NBA draft is that the league has managed to turn this restrictive system into a celebration, not unlike Christmas Eve. I often imagine the antebellum South and the largest plantations holding a draft to choose corn-shucking teams. It’s not the same, but it is quite the same.
Players begin their professional careers being told where they will work and how long they will stay there before they can make a decision about where they want to live and raise a family.
Dismantling the draft will take time because so many have been brainwashed about its usefulness — indeed, its necessity. Parents, players, an entire community embrace the draft as a liberating holiday, when it really is not.
“It’s remarkable because the draft is so presumed to be a part of the way sports operates that there’s an assumption that it’s a perfectly legitimate and necessary evil,” Roberts told me recently. “That’s why I say, I don’t think it’s changing anytime soon because it’s so ingrained in the psyche of fans and players and future players.”
And that is why the freedom revolt will be brought about by players not yet indoctrinated.
“Are the rookies strong enough as a class to say, ‘We don’t want to do it?’ I don’t know,” Roberts said, referring to players refusing to participate in the draft. “Will the players’ association do another Oscar Robertson or Spencer Haywood and find a kid that’s willing to say, ‘I’m not going, I don’t want to be drafted,’ and then challenge the system? It takes someone willing to make a sacrifice. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
There are athletes-turned-revolutionaries in every generation.
Who could have anticipated Paul Robeson? Who could have predicted Muhammad Ali? Who could have guessed that Wilma Rudolph would return from a triumphant Rome Olympic Games and force her hometown of Clarksdale, Tennessee, to hold its first integrated parade and banquet?
Who would have predicted that star outfielder Curt Flood would face down Major League Baseball by refusing to be traded? Who would have guessed that a pair of sprinters from San Jose State would sprint their way into immortality on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games in 1968?
Who could have predicted Colin Kaepernick?
For all the look of relative calm between players and the league, a battle for freedom is brewing.
At least two generations of NBA players have never been near a labor war.
“Some of them don’t think there’s a fight,” Roberts said.
They’ll soon learn.
In sports and out, freedom is not free. Never was, never will be.