BY WARREN COHEN
December 11, 1995 (490 words)
This summer's collective-bargaining agreement was supposed to create good feelings between NBA players and owners. But the Charlotte Hornets quickly learned about the new state of labor relations in the league. This fall, contract extension talks with the team's center, Alonzo Mourning, broke down. Charlotte offered the all-star $ 11.2 million a year, but Mourning's agent, David Falk, maintained that Mourning was worth at least $ 13 million a season. The prospect of losing Mourning to free agency without getting any players in return forced the Hornets to trade him to the Miami Heat.
Charlotte won't be the last team to experience the "Falk factor." Although there are about 300 licensed NBA agents, Falk's obdurate advocacy on behalf of his clients stands out.As a result, his firm,Falk Associates Management Enterprises, represents many of the NBA's top players, including Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing.
Falk's visibility increased earlier this year, when he and his major clients criticized the NBA labor talks and tried to decertify the players' union. The conflict almost shut down the league. In the end, the majority of players voted for the contract, one of Falk's rare defeats. The agent still insists the deal is a bad bargain -- not for the great players but for the NBA's role players. "Under any system, the superstars will get paid," explains Falk. "Yet salaries will become polarized, and it's not in the interest of the middle class of players."
The cap. The NBA's rookie salary cap poses new challenges for agents. In 1994, the league's top draft pick, Milwaukee's Glenn Robinson, received a 10-year, $ 68 million contract. This year's initial pick, Golden State's Joe Smith, received a cap-mandated three-year, $ 8.5 million deal. Falk insists he isn't worried, but the cap does take away an agent's early payoff if a player lacks longevity.
Few agents pursue endorsements for their clients as relentlessly as Falk. Jokes Dennis Scott of the Orlando Magic: "I have to tell David to stop calling me." But some of Falk's ex-clients are no longer so chummy with him. Former player Adrian Dantley has filed a lawsuit against Falk and his former colleagues. The suit alleges that poor financial advice caused Dantley to lose $ 1.5 million. Falk denies the charges.
One of Falk's next assignments will be negotiating a new contract for Jordan. When the agent worked out Jordan's last deal in 1988 with the Chicago Bulls, the player received an annual salary of more than $ 3 million, one of the NBA's highest paychecks at the time. But escalating contracts soon made these numbers look small. Jordan's deal expires next summer, and Falk will seek very big dollars. "The greatest player in the history of the game, who has been underpaid for the last six years," declares the agent, "should be the highest-paid player in the game." Sounds like the Bulls will be confronting the "Falk factor" again.