Minnesota Feels Stern’s Wrath
Now that the World Series is out of the way, we can concentrate on the saga of Joe Smith’s secret contract, the most interesting story in sports right now.
Every scandal is about sex or money, sometimes both. This one’s purely financial but, man, does it have plot lines. It contains elements of the Iran-Contra scandal and “The War of the Roses,” with biblical overtones.
NBA Commissioner David Stern didn’t just spank the Minnesota Timberwolves for their clandestine deal that violated the league’s salary cap. He punished them Old Testament-style.
It’s not the $3.5-million fine Stern levied against the franchise that stings. Making the Timberwolves forfeit their next five first-round draft picks leaves the salary-capped team with no room to grow and no flexibility. It’s a death sentence.
You can just imagine Stern quoting from Ezekiel 25:17, like Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction:” And I will strike down upon thee with gr-r-r-eat vengeance and fur-r-r-ious anger . . .
Stern might not be finished smiting. The Timberwolves’ owner, Glen Taylor, faces a suspension, and so does General Manager Kevin McHale. McHale claims he had no involvement in the deal, but the report from the arbitrator who ruled on the case indicated that McHale was present when it was signed. It’s like Oliver North all over again. Who knew what, and when?
How did all of this come about? It’s fallout from the breakup of agents Eric Fleisher and Andrew Miller. When Miller left Fleisher’s firm he took clients Kevin Garnett and Smith with him. That prompted Fleisher to sue Miller, and in the course of the proceedings all kinds of documents were unearthed.
There were phone records that showed Miller making unsanctioned phone calls to college basketball players. And now, out comes the secret Smith deal, a series of at least five agreements that would have paid Smith up to $86 million--if all incentives were met.
Neither Fleisher nor Miller win. Smith left Miller for Santa Monica agent Dan Fegan. And as any family therapist can tell you, in any divorce there is ancillary damage.
Speaking of families, Fleisher is the son of Larry Fleisher, who worked with the league to help institute the salary cap in the 1980s.
Now the league hopes to use this episode to decertify Fleisher for violating it. Meanwhile, Miller has nothing to show for his involvement except a headache, and Smith is at least three years from generating a large commission for Fegan, if an arbitrator rules that Stern was within his bounds when he took away Smith’s Larry Bird rights--a player can exceed the salary cap after three years with the same team--as part of the punishment.
Smith, Fegan and a squadron of lawyers are going to challenge that, with hearings scheduled for the beginning of next week.
“We don’t believe that David Stern has the authority to strip Joe of his Bird rights,” Fegan said Friday. “What the commissioner is doing is using the process unfairly to punish Joe. By delaying and dragging it out, I believe they’re trying to force Joe to go to another team.
“The commissioner doesn’t have blanket authority to void future contracts. . . . What they’re attempting to do is rewrite the collective bargaining agreement.”
Stern also voided Smith’s current $2.5-million contract for this season. Once the arbitrator has his final ruling it will be open season for Smith.
The Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers are interested. So are the Lakers, but the most they can offer is $1.2 million, which could make their chances of signing him slim.
Smith has to go where the loot is, and here’s why: He has missed out on more money than anyone in the history of professional sports.
First, he had the misfortune of joining the league the year its rookie salary cap went into effect. When Smith was taken by the Golden State Warriors with the No. 1 pick in 1995, the most they could offer him was $8.53 million for three years. The player selected first in the previous draft, Glenn Robinson, had signed for almost $69 million over 10 years.
It gets worse. He turned down an $80-million extension by the Warriors, preferring to test the free-agent market. The Warriors feared losing him for nothing and traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers. When Smith became a free agent after the 1997-98 season, he found the free-agent terrain a scorched wasteland, not greener pastures. The lockout came, the collective bargaining agreement changed and he wound up signing for one year at $1.7 million.
Now, Smith won’t be heading to the soup kitchens any time soon and there’s no need to say a prayer for him. Still, $80 million is $80 million. And with career averages of 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, he probably won’t see that type of money associated with his name again.
Don’t expect to see “Timberwolves” and “playoffs” show any matches on your Internet search engine, either.
The Timberwolves didn’t have a pick this year, so by the time this punishment runs its course they will have gone six years without a No. 1 pick of their own. In other words, no one’s coming to help Garnett’s cause.
Not only is the team’s competitive future in doubt, the stability of the franchise has to come into question. The region has already lost one hockey team, and Minnesota is supposedly a hockey state. Now that the NHL is back with the expansion Minnesota Wild, will people still pay NBA ticket prices to watch the strapped Timberwolves?
You know what this could mean? Ladies and gentlemen, introducing your New Orleans Hurricanes (think of the drink, not the weather phenomenon).
The Timberwolves almost moved to the Big Easy in 1994, when boxing promoter Bob Arum’s Top Rank tried to purchase them. Stern stepped in the way of the deal, which is why he seemed to feel particularly betrayed by the Timberwolves’ transgression in the Smith case.
Now there’s a new arena in New Orleans, next to the Superdome. And the city could offer the team a new start. It would be just like having an expansion team, which is essentially what the Timberwolves will be for the next few years.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.