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NBA drama unfolds: Will Sloan go to Chicago?

This week's NBA Melodrama Theater involved the Utah Jazz, and whether coach Jerry Sloan will remain with the team beyond next season. It went like this: Sloan hasn't yet received an anticipated contract extension; Chicago's Phil Jackson is leaving the Bulls and - voila! - Sloan is the prime candidate to coach the Chicago Bulls, starting in 1999-2000.

Sloan was reportedly assured last summer by Jazz management that it would begin working on a contract extension. But the summer passed and nothing happened. Then he was told something would be worked out by Christmas, but nothing happened then, either. Consequently, speculation began that maybe Sloan wouldn't be the Jazz coach after next year.The Chicago Tribune ran a story under the headline "A Coaching Move that Makes Sense: Sloan and the Bulls." The scenario had current Bulls' coach Phil Jackson leaving after this year, but Sloan's contract doesn't expire until after next season, so the Bulls would survive for a year with an interim coach. The next year they could bring back what the newspaper termed "the greatest original Bull."

Sloan returning to Chicago is fine drama. He remains a legendary figure in the Windy City. He has already been head coach there once but was fired midway through his third season - a move most basketball experts say was a rash decision. Sloan has a home in McLeansboro, Ill., and two adult children who live in Indianapolis. Chicago is a city he knows and a city where he is revered.

But on Friday Jazz owner Larry H. Miller dampened that story by saying he has no intentions of letting Sloan's contract expire. He said he will extend Sloan's contract as soon as he can, providing Sloan wants to stay.

"As far as I'm concerned," said Miller, "it's a non-story."

As important as Sloan's contract status is to the Jazz, Miller has been preoccupied with bigger issues. He serves on the NBA labor relations committee and has been involved in trying to avert the ultimate contract problem: a leaguewide strike or a lockout. He and other owners and league officials feel their charge is nothing less than keeping the league solvent.

"There is a lot of other stuff going on, including the survival of the league, that we're dealing with," said Miller.

"I've got my hands full with that."

Indeed, the league has taken another precarious turn in recent months. Within the past year, Minnesota's Kevin Garnett signed a $125 million contract, and the prospect of more $100 million contracts is just around the corner - which is alarming enough. But adding to the concern is the sharp rise in coaching salaries. While Miller openly allows coaches have been underpaid relative to their value, he shudders at what has happened recently in other cities. New Jersey signed John Calipari to a contract totaling $15 million over five years. Boston signed Rick Pitino for $70 million over 10 years. Indiana's Larry Bird makes $4.5 million per year.

The big coaching contracts raise the problem of budgeting for astronomical coaching salaries, as well as player salaries.

Coaching salaries could actually become the bigger concern. Due to salary cap restrictions, teams can only spend what they have available under the cap to sign a free agent from another team, thus keeping at least some costs in check. That isn't the case with coaches. Teams can spend whatever they wish to sign a new coach. Thus, the prospect of adding millions to team payrolls looms.

In particular that's a problem for smaller market teams such as the Jazz that don't have large television contracts and have limited revenue sources from advertisers and sponsors.

As the NBA positions itself for the future, one thing is clear: It can't continue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to a single player or coach. Teams have filled their old arenas, built new arenas, sold out their luxury suites, raised ticket prices, raised advertising rates and deferred salaries - yet are still looking for ways to get enough revenue to meet the demands.

So while the Sloan contract situation has been an intriguing diversion this week, it isn't the most pressing issue. Judging by Miller's comments, Sloan's future with the Jazz is secure. The same can't be said for the future of the NBA.