B-Ball Breaks The Bank

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NEW YORK CITY: As basketball teams rush to throw tens of millions of dollars at free agents, the NBA must wonder whether it will be felled by the same problems that have damaged Major League Baseball. In one weekend, teams committed nearly half a billion dollars to eight free agents, three of whom have yet to win a single NBA playoff game. And that doesn't include the biggest fish in this summer's free-agent sea -- Shaquille O'Neal, who has been offered $115 million over seven years to re-sign with Orlando. The barrage of deals began after the league and its players agreed last Thursday to a new labor deal that eases player movement. Free agency in baseball has exacerbated problems between small and large market teams and fed fan resentment toward players who don't play up to their extravagant contracts. Can these problems be far behind for the image-conscious NBA now that talk is of option years, instead of pick-and-rolls and boxing out? The Miami Heat led the charge, reportedly signing Washington Bullet forward Juwan Howard to a seven-year, $98 million contract, and then making its own center, Alonzo Mourning, the only $100-million man in professional sports. Mourning has reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $112-million deal. Close behind the Heat, the New York Knicks rebuilt their entire team in one afternoon, committing to $151 million in contracts. The Knicks signed guards Alan Houston and Chris Childs for a combined $80 and then traded for Charlotte's Larry Johnson and his $71 million deal. This weekend's madness may have been best summed up by Charles Barkley, he of the $4.6 million a year contract. Upset with millions being thrown at young, unproven players, the 33-year-old Olympian said, "I'm firing my mother. She's off the Barkley payroll. She had me too soon." -- Josh Dubow