It pays to be a journeyman center
Calvin Booth, a classic journeyman, has made about $38 million in 10 seasons
Booth received a big contract, from the SuperSonics, before he had done much
Coaches value Booth as a defensive practice partner for their star big men
The presidential campaign has kept us informed, up to the minute it seems, on the financial struggles of and tax consequences facing "Joe the Plumber."
Things are going along just fine, though, for "Calvin the Center." Even if the IRS bites a little harder.
In a conference call Thursday, NBA commissioner David Stern had reassuring things to say about his league's economic health at its macro level. We're here to allay concerns at a micro level, at least as it pertains to one of the NBA's lunch-pail -- OK, gilded lunch pail -- workers.
Calvin Booth is a classic NBA journeyman, a guy who has been employed by seven teams for 10 seasons. A 6-foot-11 center from Penn State who was the 35th player chosen in the 1999 draft, Booth has stayed in one place as long as three seasons (Seattle, 2001-2004) and as briefly as the half-season he spent with Milwaukee after his February 2005 trade from Dallas. For the 17 games he played there, the Bucks had the privilege of paying Booth not only the balance of his $5.9 million salary for 2004-05 but also approximately $13 million owed to him for the subsequent two seasons after they made him an "amnesty'' cut in the 2005 offseason.
That was just one of several financial windfalls that have graced Booth's professional life, making him a blue-collar player with a Robb Report portfolio. In fact, a strong case can be made he has been paid more, for less, than almost any NBA player in history. At least among those whose careers weren't abruptly ended by injury. (By the way, we're not picking on Booth here. We stand in awe of him, and shine this spotlight his way only in a Don King "Only in America!'' or a Yakov Smirnoff "What a country!'' tribute.)
Let's do some math: Toting an impressive Big Ten résumé, Booth arrived as a second-rounder and was signed by Washington to contracts worth about $725,000 for his first two seasons. After finishing his second year in Dallas (he was lumped into an eight-player trade at the deadline), Booth found himself pursued and signed by the Seattle SuperSonics to a six-year, $34 million free-agent contract. By that point, the 25-year-old with a knack for swatting shots had averaged 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 66 appearances -- numbers that, frankly, have only gone down (he's at 3.3 ppg and 2.8 rpg for his career. At the time, though, it was enough for the Sonics to plunge ahead.
"I think he's one of the best young centers in the league,'' coach Nate McMillan said then. "Everyone [we talked to] said the same thing: 'He has a bright future and he's a self-made player. He comes to play every night.' The potential for him to improve is huge.''
Or as former Sonics general manager Rick Sund put it: "If you don't have one of the top four or five [centers], there is just not a lot out there. So you go out there and do what you can and take a chance.''
In other words, Booth isn't much different from other NBA big guys paid on the come, like, Jim McIlvaine, Ike Austin, Michael Stewart, Greg Ostertag, Kelvin Cato and a dozen others now in the Big & Tall discard pile. No apologies necessary but no FDIC guarantees, either.
Booth missed 58 games of his first Sonics season with a sprained ankle, averaged 12 minutes as a sub in 2002-03, then had his most complete season the following year, starting 35 times in 71 appearances and blocking 4.02 shots per 48 minutes. Still, on average, it took him nearly three games to log those 48 minutes. That summer, Seattle traded him back to Dallas for Danny Fortson. Seven months after that, the Mavs shipped Booth to Milwaukee while acquiring Keith Van Horn.
After the Bucks cut payroll and luxury tax by shedding Booth under the NBA's one-time amnesty clause, he returned to Washington and was able to double-dip in 2005-06 and 2006-07. It wasn't at a Michael Finley level, of course, but adding the veteran's minimum to what the Bucks already were paying him bumped Booth into an even nicer income neighborhood. In September 2007, his big deal done, he signed a two-year, $2.2 million contract with Philadelphia. The 76ers hurriedly packed Booth off to Minnesota this summer to clear cap room for Elton Brand and still are on the hook for his $1.14 million salary for the coming season.
Add it all up and a conservative estimate of Booth's NBA earnings would be $38 million, give or take a few six-figure checks. Break that down by his actual game production and his compensation truly becomes Wall Street CEO worthy:
Booth has appeared in 358 regular season games, which -- divided into $38 million -- puts his per-game pay at $106,145.25. If the league's all-time leader in appearances, Robert Parish, had averaged that, Parish would have reaped $171 million in his 21-year career.
With 4,420 minutes played, Booth has been paid the equivalent of $8,597.29 for each one. At that rate, the Bucks and the Lakers would have owed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who logged 57,446 minutes, a total of $493,879,921.
Booth's 1,174 points scored have cost his employers an average of $32,367.97 each. The Philadelphia Warriors would have had to pay Wilt Chamberlain $130,410,551 -- just for the 1961-62 season alone, when he scored his NBA-record 4,209 points.
Chamberlain also holds the league's career mark for rebounds with 23,924. At Booth's per board rate of $38,038.04, the Dipper truly would have been dipping into deep pockets: $910,022,069.
Let it be known, too, that when Michael Jordan was paid $33.14 million by Chicago in 1997-98 -- the biggest one-season salary in NBA history -- and averaged 28.7 points, it worked out to $37,616.35 for every field goal. For Booth, you have to double that and add another six grand ($81,370.45).
Only in this what-a-country indeed!
It's not entirely fair to reduce Booth's value to his statistics, financial or otherwise. As a backup big man, he has been tall term insurance for each of his teams -- and the whole idea with term insurance is that you pay the premiums and hope you never see a dollar in return. Then there are his contributions defensively. And in practice. And in locker rooms, on flights, on buses and in general, as long as he stays affable, energetic and out of trouble.
"Being tall, you can stick around for a long time, depending on what your attitude is,'' Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said. "There are some who can't accept, 'Hey, maybe I'm going to be an eighth, ninth, 10th man my whole career.' I played with a guy, Scott Hastings, he played  years in the league and never was a starter. But he understood that's who he was. He played for  seasons and won two world championships [in Detroit].
"What people don't realize, guys like Calvin are viable not only for what they do on game day but what they do in practice. You get a guy like Al Jefferson, he needs somebody in practice who can push him from a defensive standpoint. So he's not playing against somebody who isn't going to be a challenge. There's a lot that goes into being that guy and having that role on a team.''
Thirty-eight million dollars' worth of a lot.
For all of Booth's good fortune, with the emphasis on fortune, it should be noted here that he caught a tough break Thursday. The Timberwolves cut three players, trimming their roster to the limit of 15 ... and Booth still was on it. If they keep him, it will seriously cut into his ability this time around to double-dip.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.