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Players May Have A Leg Up On NBA

A unique clause in Sacramento Kings center Olden Polynice's contract was cited by the players union Monday during the first day of arguments in a key lockout-related grievance hearing.

The clause, agreed to when Polynice signed a five-year deal in 1994, protected the Kings from losing any money they had paid Polynice in the event games were canceled due to a work stoppage -- whether a strike or a lockout.

Shawn Kemp of Cleveland is the only other NBA player with any type of lockout language in his contract, but his clause is more complicated than Polynice's.

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"This is not a good thing, I don't think, for the league," said agent Keith Glass, who negotiated the contract for Polynice before the player twice switched agents. "I don't know how they explain this one away."

The hearing is being held over the union's grievance contending players with guaranteed contracts should be paid during a lockout.

The Polynice peculiarity was mentioned during opening arguments as the sides began a hearing that would last 71/2 hours. Commissioner David Stern was the only witness to testify Monday.

Presided over by arbitrator John Feerick, who ruled in the controversial Latrell Sprewell case, the hearing was attended by all the principle players in the nearly 2-month-old lockout -- Stern, deputy commissioner Russ Granik, union director Billy Hunter and union president Patrick Ewing.

The union is arguing owners should have protected themselves by inserting lockout language into individual player contracts, as baseball owners routinely do. And since explicit lockout language exists in the Polynice contract, the lack of it in every other contract makes those deals payable, the union claims.

"Every single contract goes through the league office for review and is stamped and signed by the commissioner," said Glass, adding the Kings insisted upon the strike-lockout language because they feared the players would strike in 1995.

The league will claim

Davd Stern
Commissioner David Stern was the only witness to testify Monday in a 7 1/2-hour hearing. (AP)
the Polynice language relates only to the possibility of the repayment of a $500,000 advance the player received when he signed his contract.

Polynice became a free agent July 1 when the Kings opted out of the final season of the five-year, $15 million deal, so the language in question has become moot.

"I went back into my files and pulled out that contract. There were three words highlighted with a yellow highlight pen -- 'or a lockout.' I was surprised it had those words in it," Glass said before leaving for Munich, Germany, where he was available to be deposed by telephone if needed Tuesday on the second day of the hearing.

Both sides agreed the hearing will last longer than the two days they originally expected. The extra days will be added later this week or next.

There is no precedent in sports law regarding liability for guaranteed contracts during a lockout. No union has ever filed such a claim -- including the NBA players who were locked out in the summer of 1995.

"There may not be a specific precedent for this," Hunter said. "But the reality is that there are other cases that we are able to cite where the courts have ruled that individualized contracts not only supersede collective bargaining agreements, but in fact that there's an obligation to pay once an agreement has expired."

Lawyers for the league, meanwhile, presented case history to support their argument that the very essence of a lockout is the fact that employees don't get paid.

Feerick's ruling is expected in early September.

If the owners lose, they would have to go to court and ask a judge for a restraining order to avoid paying about $800 million in salaries for some 220 players who have guaranteed contracts for the 1998-99 season.

"We think it's a waste of time. The only way this dispute is going to be resolved is at the bargaining table," NBA chief legal officer Jeffrey Mishkin said. "It's not going to get resolved by litigation. There's no arbitrator and no court that can make a new deal for us. We can only do that together and at the bargaining table."

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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