Book Club: The Cap

A Q&A with Joshua Mendelsohn about the salary cap's origins

Welcome back to the ProHoopsHistory Book Club!

This is where I try to help you help me help sports history writers.

Simple stuff.

Today we’re Q-ing and A-ing with Joshua Mendelsohn, a labor lawyer and adjunct law professor.

Josh has graced the world with a fantastic book, The Cap: How Larry Fleisher and David Stern Built the Modern NBA. As the title implies, the book covers the origins and implementation of the salary cap.

Much like our previous Q&A with Pete Croatto, I enjoyed this book since it points our attention to actual, concrete actions off the court that made the NBA a juggernaut business and brand… at least compared to what it had been. The importance of the salary cap and its assorted cast of characters (for better and/or worse) are integral to the league’s change in this period.

After all, Larry Bird doesn’t have his “Bird rights” without the saga that unfolds in this wonderful book.

WHERE TO BUY!

University of Nebraska Press—one of the premier sports history publishers, they’re running a 50% off holiday special that expires December 31 ON ALL THEIR BOOKS including The Cap!

Use promo code 6HLW20 at check out. It’ll be cheaper than any other vendor (even Amazon) in the meantime.

Other sellers


Q1: What inspired you to write this book?

JM: That is a difficult question to answer!

There were a few things that came up that led me to realize that I knew very little about the economic, business, and labor history of the NBA. So, I did what I normally do when I find something interesting - I looked for a book on it. And, even though there are a bevy of fantastic basketball books, there wasn’t one. So, I just started doing research and I found the world of the NBA in this time to be a ton of fun - certainly chaotic, horribly disorganized, but an incredibly lovable universe.

The characters are  fascinating - especially Larry Fleisher who is as important as anyone to modern basketball (and is as creative and innovative as the smartest GM or agent today) and absolutely forgotten -  and the history is relevant and  instructive for anyone trying to understand the NBA now, and where the NBA  may go.  Then, I was able to get my hands on a ton of internal NBA documents which allowed for a very insider look. Also, being a labor lawyer and doing this stuff for a living I wanted to be clear that the outcome of a long term labor relationship is the product of time,  leverage, relationships and circumstance. Change - for either side - does not often happen overnight or in one contract cycle and how you behave has short, medium and long-term consequences. 

Q2: Obviously, David Stern and Larry Fleisher take center stage in the story (they're in the subtitle), but the two "subplots" running through the book that I enjoyed the most were Ted Stepien and Moses Malone.

Stepien is infamous among basketball fans, but I was surprised and entertained every time he showed up. What are your thoughts on Stepien? What ran through your mind every time you came across another story with him at the center of the action?

JM: You’re right. Stepien is entertaining, if not particularly likable. Look at this video of him injuring people by throwing softballs at them from a tower in Cleveland and then sheepishly trying to leverage the coverage of the horror to sell Cavs tickets - that’s entertainment! But it’s also incredibly dangerous and poorly conceived! Those are the hallmarks of Ted Stepien’s ownership of the Cavs.

I have conflicting feelings about Stepien. He’s a hapless doofus for trading away every draft pick and signing every free agent (and hiring the GM of his semi-pro softball team to run the Cavs’ basketball ops), but also incredibly arrogant when the NBA steps in and says that they want to be able to veto him, if he makes silly trades. He was candid when he said he had to overpay for players to come to Cleveland and kind of funny when he named the team’s on-court dance troupe after himself (the Teddi-bears) but his blundering attempts to threaten Cleveland that he would move the Cavs is a sad, pathetic soap opera unto itself (I mean Don King was openly talking about buying the Cavs at one point).

He’s pitiable when after two years of running the Cavs into the ground and losing a large portion of his fortune he is finally able to sell - but only on the condition that he not only sell the Cavs, but also his own company that he spent decades building. And he has to leave his company as part of the deal! 

Then again, he is absolutely detestable when he is making sexist, racist and anti-semitic comments, bullying reporters and suing his broadcast partners for being critical of his ownership. He was even moderately self-aware - when he was interviewed by the LA Times at a lingerie show he was emceeing (yes, that happened), Stepien said, “I may not be able to run a basketball team, but I can run a lingerie show.” And he did all of this in under three years. So, as I said, Stepien is endlessly entertaining, if not particularly likable.

Beyond the foolishness, in my mind Stepien’s contribution to the NBA was being SO bad that it helped make the case to change the system to avoid people like him. How these things evolve in sports is a lot more about timing and circumstance than an objectively efficient macroeconomic distribution of income or some grandiose long-term vision - which for both sides did not exist.

At that time, NBA teams didn’t share money in the same ways as other sports, they didn’t get or share money from the gate like baseball teams or the gigantic TV revenue that the NFL had, so a really bad team could really hurt the league. Also, they were having difficulty attracting new owners - so they were getting stuck with people like Stepien or Donald Sterling. Stepien’s mayhem was a real problem. Without an owner as bad and stupid as Ted Stepien, the NBA may not have been able to convince its owners to be willing to share with one another and for Fleisher and the players to consider a cap framework, and they may not have had to. One of the things Fleisher wanted as a condition to the deal was to make sure the incentives were such that Stepiens would not be in the league anymore and if they were their impact would be blunted.   I don’t think it was what Stern wanted - Stern hated Stepien - but it was the reality the league faced and his idiocy did have an impact.

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Q3: Similarly, the centrality of Moses Malone was also enjoyable. What is your opinion on his free agency saga with the Rockets and 76ers; and its importance to the shaping of the NBA's salary cap?

JM: In the same way that Stepien was so bad that it helped make the owners case, Moses fulfilled a similar role for the players. At this time, the owners were crying poor across the board, and that was not true either. They were not all Stepiens - big market teams were doing quite well and the future of the NBA was very rosy which made the solution thornier. So in the summer of 1982, Moses Malone was the best player in the league, the reigning MVP at the start of his prime and a free agent. If you signed him, you could immediately win the title (which the Sixers did).

But, he was going to be very, very expensive. At the same time, the NBA was in negotiations with the players and trying to get them to agree to a straight limitation on salary - an across the board hard cap. Total non-starter. Certainly, if everything was so dire in the NBA and the league was on the verge of collapse the way that David Stern and Commissioner Larry O’Brien were saying publicly then no one would sign Malone. And, for a while no one did… to the astonishment of everyone. In fact, no players at all were signing. Not Moses, not Bernard King. No one. From the time the season ended in June until September, no one was signing the best player in the league.

The Sixers were the heartbreak team in this period - three Finals in the previous six years, no title, including losing in the Finals to the Lakers the previous year. Their title window was closing - Dr. J was at the tail end of his prime and the team had to make a decision to blow it up or run it back. And, at first they started breaking up the team. In the summer of 1982, they traded their starting center Daryl Dawkins (which Dawkins believed was because Sixers’ owner Harold Katz’s daughter had a thing for him which bothered Katz) for a first round pick. When they traded Dawkins, Katz made a lot of noise that the league was not making any money, he couldn’t afford all of their stars and he had to be prudent. 

Then... a week later Katz signs Moses to the largest contract in the history of the league. When asked about it, Katz said that he had done a business analysis and that having Moses would put the team in a good business situation. But he also said what is actually the truth when he said, “I’d rather lose a few dollars and win than make a few dollars and lose.” After Moses signed with the Sixers, a bunch of other players started signing with other teams, and free agency started up again.  So, that blows open the idea that the NBA is going under or that the players should subsidize ownership’s decisions. Within a few weeks the owners actually took the cap proposal off the table, then included a revenue share, but I think that the Moses deal pushed a lot of that forward. Also, in the end, the Sixers won the title and Katz spent a lot of time congratulating himself for what a great business decision it was to sign him. And it was. Winning teams do well! And if you can sign good players you should!

[The editor would like to congratulate the ghost of Harold Katz about his ill-fated trade of Malone to the Bullets for Jeff Ruland. Brilliant move.]

Q4: Every author or researcher comes into a project with a road map or idea for how things will go. And usually those ideas and road maps are trashed because some new information comes along.

What are some of the more surprising stories or facts you learned that forced you to rethink how you approached the book and the story you were trying to tell?

JM: I would say the most surprising thing I found was that in October 1982, in the middle of negotiations, the owners actually took the salary cap off the table and that it was Fleisher who went back to discuss it. I keep doing the what-ifs here - what would have happened if Fleisher said great, we’re going to bargain over the issues on the table and never come back to the cap? There probably would have been a strike. It may have been very different. But Fleisher went back because he wanted the guarantee of revenues, he wanted a piece of TV going forward and he thought this was the only way to get it.

Before working on this, I had always assumed that the players agreed to a cap as an act of capitulation, either because they were forced to or because the league was in profound trouble. In truth, they got things they wanted for it. It was very much a trade - and aspects of it have proven to be wise, though the system itself has changed tremendously over the years. None of this was preordained. The current belief is that something like the salary cap/profit sharing deal came down from god and can never be changed and was always going to be that way. It’s not true! It’s also assumed that the current framework will always be. That is also not necessarily true!  It’s a complex organization of luck, timing and leadership. It’s also believed that this system was the best one. Also not necessarily true! 

[This editor heartily endorses the notion that history is not pre-ordained and wishes more people understood this instead of believing history is some monolithic force.]

Q5: A lot of material also gets left by the wayside when writing and researching. What story or research was left on the cutting room floor that you would love to take up in the future as another book (or maybe just as an article)?

JM: I had written an entire chapter about the end of the 1966-67 season when the players almost struck the playoffs. It would have been the first league-wide walkout in sports history, and was the first such threatened act.

It was five years before the MLBPA went on strike. I cut it because I was 30,000 words over and it was not directly crucial to the story I was telling. I had always worked under the assumption that everything in sports labor was baseball first.  That baseball players led, that they had pushed and everyone else followed  their leadership. It’s not true, and in 1967, it was the NBA players who almost led on the first walkout in the history of sports.  It was also the incredible combination of players actually having leverage and using it. They had no claim to anything - the players had contracts, they had a lot to lose but they did it anyway. They ended up reaching a deal, but it’s a great story.

Q6: What was the most enjoyable part about doing this book? 

JM: The research! I learned that apparently Tigers great Hank Greenberg and Earl Monroe were tennis partners in the 1970s. I learned that in Kareem’s contract with the Lakers, part of what he had was two nights he could schedule at the Forum every year (how awesome would that be if the current CBA allowed for that!).  I found this ad of Bob Lanier doing an energy conservation ad for a local heating company. I mean, what is more fun than this stuff?

Q7: Do you have a favorite player or team from this era? If you didn't beforehand, do you have one now after "living" with these people during the book-writing process?

JM: I’m a New Yorker, and my favorite team from this time has to be the Knicks of the late 60s and early 70s.  After living with these folks for the last few years, I have to say the leadership of the NBPA in this time period are my favorites - Oscar, Paul Silas, Bob Lanier and Tommy Heinsohn. They were fantastic leaders, incredibly thoughtful and I have tremendous admiration for them. The players were lucky to have them.


And that’s it for the Q&A! There’s tons of other great stories in the book. We’re just scratching the surface here, although to be honest nothing tops Ted Stepien. Although Angelo Drossos of the Spurs, comes close. So get the book to get the full story!

WHERE TO BUY

University of Nebraska Press—one of the premier sports history publishers, they’re running a 50% off holiday special that expires December 31 ON ALL THEIR BOOKS including The Cap!

Use promo code 6HLW20 at check out. It’ll be cheaper than any other vendor (even Amazon) in the meantime.

Other sellers