When Bobby Orr, Ted Williams and Larry Bird appeared together on Boston's WBZ-TV on Dec. 6, it raised this question: What other city can boast three living legends of such stature from three different team sports? Cleveland has Jim Brown and Bob Feller, but who else? Ditto San Francisco with Joe Montana, Willie Mays and...nobody. L.A. has Magic Johnson and Sandy Koufax, but you can't really count Wayne Gretzky, because he spent his best years in Edmonton, not in Los Angeles. New York could start with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle—but they played the same sport, so stop right there. Pittsburgh offers Terry Bradshaw, Willie Stargell and Mario Lemieux—good, but not good enough.
Chicago comes closest, with, say, Walter Payton, Michael Jordan and Bobby Hull. Yet consider this: Beantown could have subbed Bill Russell for Bird with no loss of luster whatsoever.
The NHL named a commissioner. The baseball owners voted to reopen collective bargaining talks. The NFL neared agreement with its players' union on free agency. These seemingly unrelated developments last week were, in fact, critically linked. They meant that those three leagues were all moving toward what only the fourth major league, the NBA, now has: a salary cap.
It was no accident that the man hired as the NHL's first commissioner—until now the league's top gun has worn the title of president—is 40-year-old Gary Bettman, who, in his previous job as the NBA's senior vice-president and general counsel, was instrumental in creating that league's salary cap. The cap, which provides for fixed and equal payrolls for all teams, has helped bring the NBA stability and prosperity, and Bettman is expected to push for a similar scheme for the NHL.
A salary cap was also on the minds of baseball's free-spending owners when, exercising an option in their four-year contract with the Major League Baseball Players Association, they voted 15-13 to reopen talks for a new contract a year early, a move that could lead to a spring lockout for that troubled sport. And the deal that the NFL was close to working out with the NFL Players Association would provide not only for free agency for most veteran players but also for a salary cap that would kick in when total player salaries for the league rise to a set share of the league's gross revenues.
Ironically, the other pro leagues are angling for salary caps at a time when the concept is under fire in the NBA. Some NBA general managers complain that the cap ties their hands in making trades, but the biggest objection comes from the NBA Players Association, which last year filed a suit accusing the owners of underreporting the revenues to which the cap is pegged. A settlement was reached in which the NBA made concessions to the union, which now contends that the cap has outlived its usefulness.
The NBA's cap has become less attractive for another reason: The rules governing the cap are complex, and it's generally accepted that the departed Bettman was the only person who really understood how it works.