LOS ANGELES -- The Celtics placed Vin Baker on waivers yesterday morning, igniting a war of words between the National Basketball Players Association and the team, which could soon translate into a heated legal battle.
By placing Baker on waivers, the Celtics took the first step toward terminating his contract, worth approximately $35 million over the next two-plus seasons. It is a move NBPA president Billy Hunter said the Celtics had no right to make. The Celtics, however, contend that the collective bargaining agreement and uniform player contract give teams the right to terminate a contract if a player "does not fulfill his obligations."
In a five-minute conversation yesterday afternoon at the Century Plaza Hotel and Spa in Los Angeles, Hunter discussed why he believed the Celtics had "circumvented the guaranteed contract provisions of the collective bargaining agreement." He also said the players union would immediately notify the Celtics and NBA that it planned to file a grievance. The union intends to exercise its right to pursue this case in an expedited manner.
As he rushed to the annual All-Star break Players Association meeting, Hunter fired off a threatening parting shot. "Just tell the [Celtics] we're coming after them," he said.
As Hunter sees it, the Celtics' attempt to terminate Baker's contract is an act of "subterfuge" and "a ploy." He added that the union has "totally been against this thing from the get-go."
"We view this as nothing more than a ploy by the Celtics to circumvent their obligation under the guaranteed provisions of the collective bargaining agreement and the uniform player contract," said Hunter. "We're going to go all out on this one. We can't tolerate somebody trying to, in this instance, erode something that we've put in place.
"We're not going to let this be some new precedent, a way for teams to try to get out of their responsibilities under the guaranteed contract provisions of the collective bargaining agreement . . . I was never OK with any of the agreements. The agreements were not negotiated by us."
According to Hunter, the union forced the Celtics and Baker's representatives to renegotiate their initial agreement regarding Baker's alcohol after-care program, which was drawn up after the power forward was suspended last February. The Celtics and Baker's representatives worked throughout the summer to restructure the agreement, arriving at the three-strike formula. But Hunter claimed he still had serious reservations about the second agreement, though he acknowledged it was much better than the first.
"When we got wind of the first agreement, we felt it was a clear violation and would have given the team unfettered discretion, for the most part, to terminate Vin at the nod of a head," said Hunter. "When we got wind of that, we put them on notice and said under no circumstance is this going to happen, and if you don't do something to amend the agreement, then I'm going to take you to federal court.
"At that moment, the [Celtics], in conjunction with the people who were representing Vin, then sat down and came up with a new agreement. The second agreement was one that was negotiated between Vin's agents and the Celtics. In that instance, we said, `We understand that Vin may need some form of treatment to help him. But we're not going to let you [the Celtics] be in a position where you can arbitrarily terminate this guy.' And I basically agreed, at that moment, to sort of go along with what it was they said they wanted to do.
"But as far as I was concerned, I knew there was no way Vin was going to make it. I knew that he was going to be found in violation of the agreement."
Baker was found to be in "noncompliance" of his after-care program on three occasions. The third strike resulted in Baker's indefinite suspension Jan. 23. After the 10th game of the suspension, Thursday's loss to the Bulls, the Celtics, in accordance with their interpretation of the agreement, moved to terminate Baker's contract.
"The team would hope that there would be an opportunity for constructive conversation about what is best for Vin under the circumstances that currently exist," said Neil Jacobs, who serves as team counsel for the Celtics. "Groundless threats by the Players Association do not constitute constructive communications.
"The collective bargaining agreement contains provisions that give teams the right to terminate a player's contract if the player does not fulfill his obligations. We are concerned about doing the right thing for our team. The team's most fervent hope was that Vin Baker would be able to stay in compliance with his after-care program and play for the Celtics. Unfortunately, he has not been able to do this."
According to a league source, the agreement between the team and Baker states unambiguously that following the 10th game of the indefinite suspension/third strike, the Celtics regain rights under the uniform player contract to terminate his contract. The UPC outlines reasons a team can terminate a contract. Those reasons include: failure of a player to keep himself in first-class condition, failure or neglect to provide his services (in other words, to play), and conduct detrimental to the team.
At the center of the grievance filed by the union will be that Hunter and Baker's representatives maintain Baker is fit to play. Under the second agreement reached between Baker and the Celtics, Dr. Lloyd Baccus, an Atlanta psychiatrist who became head of the NBA's drug program in 1994, is the only person with the discretion to determine when, or if, Baker can come back to the team. In the team's view, Baker's alcoholism makes him unfit to play.
Baker is scheduled to clear waivers Wednesday at 10 a.m., at which point the battle will become more heated.
"The Players Association was completely informed every step of the way by Baker's representatives about the agreement and given a copy of the agreement," said Jacobs. "The NBA and the NBPA signed off on it. All the actions that the Celtics have taken have been taken in consultation with the league."