The fans at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles gave center Isaac Austin a standing ovation when he entered his first game as a Clipper, against the Charlotte Hornets, late in the first quarter last Saturday night. They cheered Austin, who was acquired with guard Charles Smith from the Miami Heat in a trade for guard Brent Barry two days earlier, mainly because they thought he could help push their dreadful Clips toward respectability. But given the events leading up to last Thursday's trading deadline, Austin probably deserved the applause just for showing up.
If there was one thing the flurry of activity last week proved, it was that a deal is not a deal until, like Austin, the traded player puts on his new uniform and steps onto the court. Several players who were dealt or nearly dealt, including guard Kenny Anderson, center Rony Seikaly and guard Doug West, acted as if they would rather hire Dennis Rodman as their fashion consultant than report to their new teams. Anderson, who refused to join the Toronto Raptors after they acquired him from the Portland Trail Blazers, forced Toronto to send him to the Boston Celtics. Seikaly, who chose not to report to the Utah Jazz after they got him from the Orlando Magic—or, if you buy Seikaly's spin on this, after the Jazz rejected him—wound up being shipped to the New Jersey Nets when the deal with the Jazz was voided. There were also a number of trades never consummated largely because the principal players, including guards Kendall Gill of the Nets, Penny Hardaway of the Magic and Damon Stoudamire of the Raptors, scared off prospective new employers by declaring their distaste for the teams. Gill threatened to retire rather than play in Toronto; Hardaway let New Jersey know he didn't want to play there; and Stoudamire made it clear he didn't wish to go to Orlando unless Hardaway, who would have been dealt for him, remained.
By the time the smoke had cleared, there were several irritated executives around the league, including the Magic's John Gabriel, the Raptors' Glen Grunwald and the Jazz's Scott Layden. The message was unmistakable: No longer can it be taken for granted that traded players will go quietly. "There's a wave that will have to be stemmed of players suggesting that they won't go certain places," says Nets general manager John Nash. "When they sign, they know their contract can be reassigned, and if they don't report, it's a breach of that contract."
Even though a player can be suspended and his salary withheld if he doesn't report to his new team within 48 hours of being dealt, an increasing number of players seem willing to play a game of chicken with the teams that trade for them. "Some things are more important than the dollar," says West, who initially refused to report when the Vancouver Grizzlies acquired him from the Minnesota Timberwolves last Thursday. His reason for not acceding to the deal was understandable: He had endured so many losses in his 8� seasons as an original member of the Timberwolves that he was reluctant to go back to the bottom with yet another expansion team. But West changed his mind and joined the Grizzlies last Friday. "Most times you're powerless over trades unless you have a no-trade clause in your contract," West says. "Sometimes [threatening not to report] is the only way you have of making your voice heard." (On Sunday, West announced that he would enter in-patient treatment for alcohol abuse.)
Management, of course, isn't particularly interested in hearing players' voices when it is making deals. "One day, and I can't wait for the day, an owner is going to sue a player and his agent for damages for killing a trade or not wanting to go somewhere else," says Miami president and coach Pat Riley. "One owner is going to win a lot of damages, because that's not right. In your contract it says that within 48 hours, you go. So if you're starting to blackmail people, then I think somewhere, somebody is going to be sued one day."
Not everyone thinks the situation is that dire. "As far back as I can remember, players have threatened not to report after being traded," says Trail Blazers president and general manager Bob Whitsitt. "But in most cases, when they've got a contract and stand to lose money, they don't follow through. There's a lot more rhetoric these days, with players saying, I will go here, I won't go there, but nine times out of 10, it's just talk."
A team can call a player's bluff, but even if it wins, it runs the risk of having an unhappy and unproductive player on its hands. That's a chance Toronto decided not to take with Anderson. When Portland sent him, along with forward Gary Trent, guard Alvin Williams, two first-round picks and a second-round pick, to the Raptors for point guard Stoudamire and forwards Walt Williams and Carlos Rogers, Anderson retreated to his home in Los Angeles. Grunwald called Anderson. "I explained to him how much we liked him as a player and how much we'd like him to be part of our future here," Grunwald says. "I told him we have a new arena coming and new ownership and a group of young, talented guys."
Anderson's response? "He listened, but he didn't say much," Grunwald says. The Raptors executive took the hint and sent Anderson, forward Popeye Jones and center Zan Tabak to the Celtics for guards Chauncey Billups and Dee Brown and forwards Roy Rogers and John Thomas.
Anderson, who didn't return SI's phone calls, apparently balked at going to Toronto for the same reasons Gill threatened to retire if he was dealt to the Raptors—players don't want to play for a floundering franchise and deal with what they perceive to be an unfavorable tax situation (page 118). But Seikaly's situation defies logic. Utah acquired him by dealing center Greg Foster, forward Chris Morris and a first-round pick to Orlando, but, according to Jazz officials, Seikaly would not report for reasons that remain a mystery to them. "His agent [ Steve Kauffman] never would land on anything concrete that he wanted from us," says Utah owner Larry Miller. "He made allusions to things, but he would never pin it down."
Seikaly's version of events is that after the trade Utah lost interest in him because it thought a stress fracture in his right foot would keep him on the sidelines for eight weeks. (As it happens, the injury is expected to keep him out for four weeks.) But since Seikaly never went to Utah to allow the Jazz medical staff to examine him, his story seems far less plausible than Utah's. "I don't know what Rony was thinking," says one of his former Magic teammates, guard-forward Nick Anderson. "It sounded like a good situation, a chance to play with a couple of legends [ Karl Malone and John Stockton] and maybe win a championship. Maybe he just doesn't like the snow."