The Clippers, alleging that they would not have traded for Marques Johnson if the Milwaukee Bucks had told them of his earlier drug abuse problems, have filed suit to nullify the trade.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Federal Court on June 7, seeks to have the six-player trade rescinded, or as an alternative, seeks compensation from Milwaukee in the form of draft choices or money. It also asks that an independent arbitrator, not NBA Commissioner David Stern, hear the case.
Responding to the Clippers’ action, John Steinmiller, the Bucks’ vice president of business operations, said Saturday that it is merely an attempt by the Clippers to “get back at the league” for its suit against them over their move from San Diego to Los Angeles.
“They’re making a nuisance of themselves to get back at the league, plus they’re embarrassed by the way the trade worked out,” Steinmiller told the Milwaukee Journal. “They’re trying to save face.”
In May, the Clippers wrote to Stern seeking arbitration in their dispute with the Bucks and asking Stern, who under the National Basketball Assn. constitution is empowered to handle such matters, to disqualify himself as a potential arbitrator. The reason is Stern’s involvement in the league’s lawsuit against the Clippers over their move to Los Angeles in May 1984.
The Bucks immediately responded by saying that they would “refuse to participate” in any arbitration not presided over by Stern.
“If the Clippers feel that they’ve been taken, they should take it up with the commissioner,” Steinmiller said. “By going to court, they’re saying that the commissioner can’t handle the matter . . . they want to force the matter to be handled by an outside arbitrator . . . they’re trying to render the commissioner impotent.”
Steinmiller said the Bucks have not yet responded to the suit.
“We haven’t filed a legal response,” he said, adding, “Obviously we don’t believe they have a case.”
The action by the Clippers was not unexpected. In early February, when the Clippers learned that Johnson had undergone treatment at St. Mary’s Drug Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis in July, 1983, Clipper President Alan Rothenberg said that had he known of the drug treatment, he would have “thought twice” about the September 1984 trade that brought Johnson to Los Angeles.
“I think for sure the Bucks were obligated to tell us,” Rothenberg said at the time.
Later, on March 19, Daniel Neviaser, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks’ board of directors, admitted that the team “tried to hide” the fact that the former UCLA player had been hospitalized because of drug problems.
However, the Clippers could easily have learned about Johnson’s drug history had they followed standard NBA procedure and checked Johnson’s file at the league office. The Clippers failed to check, believing that they had no reason to do so.
Johnson came to the Clippers along with Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings in exchange for Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce.
Cummings led the Bucks to the NBA Central Division title, averaging 23.6 points (10th best in the league), 9 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game. Johnson, who missed 10 games due to injury, averaged 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists for the Clippers.
Rothenberg was unavailable Saturday to comment on the suit, but Arn Tellem, the Clippers’ general counsel, said he believes that the team’s case is strong.
“We feel we have a meritorious position and will be vindicated in court,” Tellem said. “The case is very simple. We asked them (the Bucks), they lied. They had a duty to tell us the truth.”