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“The Cap” is essential reading for NBA fans

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The definitive tale of the NBA salary cap has arrived. Somehow, that’s far less boring than it sounds.

It is almost impossible to be a hardcore NBA fan without understanding at least a few nuances of the league’s byzantine collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Luxury tax, mid-level exception, and rookie-scale contracts have all become common parlance among the intelligentsia of NBA observers. If anyone doubts the relevance of salary cap rules to modern fandom, just point them to the summer of 2016 when the Warriors were able to acquire Kevin Durant and the Blazers signed ...Evan Turner (ugh).

Somewhat surprisingly, until this month no definitive account of the origin of the NBA salary cap existed. The Cap: How Larry Fleisher and David Stern Built the Modern NBA by labor attorney Joshua Mendelsohn fills that gap.

In the book, Mendelsohn recounts granular details of the 1983 negotiation that created the original salary cap. The author emphasizes the integral role that agent Larry Fleisher, one of the founders of the National Basketball Players’ Association, had in the labor battle.

The Cap describes Fleisher as something of a visionary. He laid the groundwork for the modern NBA salary structure by solidifying free agency and negotiating a guaranteed percentage of league revenue for the players. Strikingly, Fleisher predicted the future relevance of massive TV contracts, importance of helping small-market teams stay competitive, and likelihood that the ultra-rich owners would try to hide basketball-related income from the players.

Mendelsohn also draws on a treasure trove of league memos, in addition to a solid lit review, to provide readers with the full context that led to the boiling point negotiation in 1983. The author uses the memos to pepper in rarely reported details — David Stern convinced ESPN to cut highlight reels for the NBA for free?! — that add flair to the stories. The end result is a narrative that is somehow never dull, despite the arcane subject matter.

Ultimately The Cap is a companion piece to the oft-repeated narrative of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saving the NBA. Without the elegant salary cap negotiations of the 1980s, it’s not hard to imagine the NBA falling victim to a catastrophic work stoppage like the MLB suffered in 1994. Instead the league entered a boom period that lasted into the early 2000s.

Mendelsohn’s work is an essential piece of NBA literature, covering a disproportionately underemphasized theme that has ripple effects to this day. It is accessible to nearly all readers and of particular interest to anybody who wants to understand the circumstances that have perpetuated the NBA’s ongoing popularity. The Cap: How Larry Fleisher and David Stern Built the Modern NBA gets the highest of recommendations.