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NBA stars face prospect of returning 10% of pay

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The National Basketball Association is becoming a millionaires-only league.

Seventy-six percent of the players earned at least $1 million last season, according to the National Basketball Players Association. That's up from 72 percent during the 1998-99 season and 61 percent in 1997-98.

The players, however, will have to give some of that money back to the owners beginning in the 2001-2002 season under a complicated escrow plan designed to limit the amount of money going to player payroll. Union officials are bracing for backlash from members who either forgot about the tax or didn't know about it in the first place.

"The guys should be happy, but let's see what their reaction is when they have to pay the 10 percent tax," said union President and New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing, in the Bahamas for the players association's annual meeting.

Union officials spent much of the first two days of their meeting explaining the escrow system to the players, who they hope will pass on the information to their teammates.

Orlando's Pat Garrity said there probably will be some angry players when they're reminded — or told — that their paychecks will be smaller than they expect after next season.

"I think they're going to be really upset when they fully learn about it," said Garrity, who today was elected to the union's executive board as its secretary and treasurer. "Ten percent of every check is quite a big chunk."

Billy Hunter, executive director of the union, doesn't want there to be any surprises. So, he said, early next season, representatives from the union will visit with each team to once again explain the escrow system and remind the players that it'll start for the 2001-02 season.

Eric Piatkowski of the Los Angeles Clippers was among those who had forgotten about the escrow system. When he was reminded about it earlier this week, he then realized that meant about $300,000 would be taken out of his paycheck.

"It was a couple of years ago, so guys — me included — haven't been thinking about it," Piatkowski said. "But now it's almost here. It's a big deal. That's a lot of money."

The players last season received about 62 percent of the league's basketball-related income — which includes everything from television rights fees to T-shirt sales — in salaries and benefits.

NBA owners before the 1998-99 season re-opened the collective bargaining agreement because they were paying about 57 percent of revenue toward salaries, a figure that they deemed excessive.