Part of the reason the NBA has surged in popularity over the past 15 years has been the tremendous success and drawing power of its superstars. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley led the NBA from a time when it couldn't even get its championship finals on in prime time to the point where it is threatening to become the No. 1 professional sport in terms of fan appeal, merchandising, collecting and yes, even television ratings.

Another integral element into the NBA's rise has been the problems the other three leagues have had in one key element: labor peace.

The NHL, NFL and most notably Major League Baseball have been saddled with strikes, prolonged labor negotiations and constant bickering between labor and management that has spilled over to the fans who have grumbled about spoiled players, bloated salaries and greedy ownership. The result has seen a decline in fan interest and the desire by many collectors to make those sports a top priority -- particularly baseball which a generation ago practically ruled the roost as far as trading cards, memorabilia and autographs.

The NBA has been immune to all of it, thanks in part to the goodwill of its superstars and calm labor waters. While fans seem to grumble about every salary in other professional sports, they don't blink when talking about the average salary in the NBA which is by far the highest of all the four pro sports.

That could change in 1998.

The NBA has never had a strike and has never locked out its players. Its landmark labor agreement in the late 1970s and early 1980s instituted professional sports' first salary cap -- a process which was copied years later by both the NFL and Major League Players Association much to the regret of both owners and players.

The NBA had, in effect, foresaw the future of spiraling pro athletes salaries and was able to keep costs in check while maintaining the competitive balance within the league.There was free agency but at a price: big city markets couldn't stockpile big-name free agents without going over the cap. As a result, the NBA's popularity -- and subsequent marketing and collecting of NBA materials -- flourished in smaller markets like Seattle, Portland, Charlotte and Indianapolis on the same level as the big city clubs like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The NBA survived and flourished because of that agreement, although three years ago the peace was nearly broken when an activist sector of the NBA Players Association led by Patrick Ewing balked at the current contract. Ewing and a band of small but powerful NBA players stirred dissension within the player ranks and nearly forced the owners to lock out the players.

The owners are talking lock out again this year, due in part to the escalation of salaries and what they claim are lower profit margins. Despite a huge new television contract with NBC and Turner Broadcasting, the owners claim that money is being eaten up by outrageous player salary demands. It isn't the Michael Jordan $35 million or even the Kevin Garnett $20 million a year contracts that has the NBA braintrust worried, it is the $5 to $7 million a year pacts they are paying to journeymen or untested rookies.

NBA Commissioner David Stern contends at least nine franchises are now losing money. Add to that two of the premier centers in the league -- Patrick Ewing and Shaq O'Neal-- are battling serious injuries, the negative publicity generated by the Latrell Spreewell assault of Golden State Warriors Coach P.J. Carlesimo and the threatened retirement of both Jordan and Barkley after this season -- well, things look even gloomier even without the potential labor problems.

As was the case with the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball, the owners only have themselves to blame for paying ludicrous amounts of money to marginal players. It could get worse very soon. The last contract had a clause that allowed all rookies at the time to become free agents after three years of service: that three years is up after this season which means top quality free agents will enter the market and demand the same type of money existing superstars are receiving.

The owners want to change that and other provisions of the contract, the players argue all of that was agreed to in good faith and they aren't about to give some of those gains very easily. The result could be the league's first serious threat to labor peace and possibly a lockout of players, either during or more likely after the NBA playoffs end in June.

Should the NBA fall the way of its other professional brethren, it could seriously affect the fans' views of the league and its players. And that could have a trickle down effect toward collectors who have enjoyed a "bull" -- pun intended -- market for more than a decade. Autographs, souvenior programs, merchandising, et al all could be affected, just the way it was when the other pro leagues went through their labor pains. Collectors should pay notice to progress -- or lack thereof -- of these talks as the months go on. It may be time to brush off the bubble gum off those baseball trading cards, just in case things go poorly for the NBA.