Once upon a time, becoming "like baseball" was the aspiration of other professional sports. Now it is the National Basketball Association's nightmare.

A lockout of players, which means a suspension of signings and other transactions, will begin next Wednesday when the league's labor agreement with the players expires.Thanks to the general emancipation of professional athletes that began in baseball in the 1970s, every NBA player has, after three years in the league, a right to become a free agent. Thanks to various elemental forces there is an ocean of dollars at issue. Last season the players received almost one billion of them, about half of all revenues.

But superstars like Michael Jordan may retire, sales of licensed merchandise are stagnant, attendance is down sharply in some cities and is flat overall. Even though, or perhaps because, ticket prices have risen 27 percent in three years, more than half the teams say they are losing money. The players' union, suspecting creative bookkeeping, scoffs at that, and at the league's claim that it barely broke even this year and expects to lose perhaps $100 million over the next three years. Now the league, which has never had a game lost because of labor troubles, is threatened with disruption because the owners propose what the players consider a regressive contract.

The NBA currently has an extremely porous salary cap, made so by the Bird Rule (devised when Boston's Celtics needed to spend to keep Larry Bird). It says money spent to re-sign free agents previously under contract to that team can exceed the cap by any amount. The owners want to impose a hard cap (eliminating the Bird Rule), raise from three to five the number of years a player can be paid according to the league wage scale negotiated with the players, and institute a team's right to match any offer made to a player at the end of the fifth year.

One worry shared by the players' union and wise owners concerns the "Hollywoodization" of the league's pay structure, with a few stars on each team getting most of the payroll and about a quarter of the players - the number is rising - making near the league minimum ($272,250 last year). But this polarization is a natural, even desired, consequence of a celebrity-driven marketing strategy that has made the NBA so successful.

This strategy reflects the nature of the game: in neither baseball nor football can one player take over a game the way Jordan regularly does and many others often do.

So the NBA wants to avoid becoming "like baseball," where, although there is a trend toward "Hollywoodization," there is still what critics call the problem of the high price of mediocrity - .250 hitters earning $2 million.

As ticket prices soar, NBA games may become like Broadway shows: people will pay only for smash hits, meaning only for a few teams. No team can unilaterally restrain salaries and stay competitive.