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Phil Taylor
November 11, 1996
JIM McILVAINE Seattle is gambling $35 million on a former backup center to help it hit the jackpot
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November 11, 1996


JIM McILVAINE Seattle is gambling $35 million on a former backup center to help it hit the jackpot

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There are certain mysteries of the universe that are beyond all understanding. This is one of them: Jim McIlvaine will earn more money this season than Shawn Kemp, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen or Mitch Richmond. After you take a moment to digest that fact, two questions may come to mind. How in the world can that be? And who, exactly, is Jim McIlvaine?

The second question is easier to answer. McIlvaine is a 7'1", 260-pound center who was drafted out of Marquette 32nd overall by the Bullets in 1994 and averaged 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds as a Washington reserve, last season. Those are the kinds of numbers that are often rewarded by the NBA version of the minimum wage ($247,500 a year for veterans), but McIlvaine, 24, had the good fortune to have his contract run out after last season, just in time for last summer's great free-agent gold rush. Seattle looked beyond his modest statistics, saw great promise in his shot blocking and overall defensive skills, and signed him to a seven-year, $35 million contract.

That happened in July, and McIlvaine says that only once since then has he made it through a day without someone bringing up the contract. "But that was the day we spent on the plane coming back from [preseason games in] Europe," he says. "So I don't know if that counts." Fortunately he has maintained a sense of perspective as well as a sense of humor about his newfound wealth. "Teachers and parents should be making a lot more, and athletes should probably be making a lot less," he says. "Does it make sense that I'm making this much money? Of course not. But no one in this league can really say they deserve the money they're making except for maybe Michael Jordan."

But if McIlvaine provides the interior defense the SuperSonics need to transform them from last season's NBA finalists into this season's champions, he will seem like a bargain. His 2.08 blocked shots per game ranked 10th in the league even though he averaged only 14.9 minutes, and his projected 6.67 blocks per 48 minutes was the best such mark in the league. The Sonics, deep in scorers, won't ask for many points from McIlvaine, just defense and rebounding. Especially after All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal moved to the Lakers and the Pacific Division, the Sonics were looking for more power in the pivot than they had last season with starting center Ervin Johnson (now with Denver). "We didn't get McIlvaine to be a Shaq-stopper," says Seattle general manager Wally Walker. "But he's the kind of player who can make opposing centers work hard for everything they get." McIlvaine's presence should also take some of the inside burden off Kemp, the Sonics' All-Star forward. "Shawn's a better player when he has a big body beside him," says Seattle coach George Karl.

Kemp apparently didn't see things the same way, at least not for the first three weeks of training camp, which he missed in protest of his place on the Sonics' salary scale. (He's reportedly the sixth-highest-paid member of the team.) Although Kemp made it clear that he held no ill will toward McIlvaine, his frustration obviously was triggered by the signing of the Sonics' new center. After Kemp reported to camp, McIlvaine was properly deferential. "All I know is that guys like Shawn Kemp will eventually make more than I'll ever see in my lifetime," he says.

One thing that seems certain is that McIlvaine, who earned $525,000 last season, will never flaunt his healthy bank account. He and his wife, Kim, haven't treated themselves to any expensive toys since arriving in Seattle, which is in keeping with his conservative nature. "If we buy something big, it will be a careful process," he says. "We might have our eye on a motor home, but we'll spend a couple of years shopping around before we commit to something." That would be a wild spending spree, McIlvaine-style.

"I've talked to people from the players' association, and they've told me about guys who signed big contracts and started throwing their money around, buying a new car every week and living the high life," he says. "Then by the time they retire they're coming around to the players' association for financial help. I know that will never happen to me, but I just want to be careful."

If the Sonics had been careful, they wouldn't have gambled on signing McIlvaine in the first place. Now they hope that, come June, they will be rewarded for their risk.