Taking His Best Shots
New Knick Glen Rice is still steamed about how he was treated by the Lakers last season
The NBA championship ring arrived in the mail from Los Angeles on Nov. 8, and it was handed to Glen Rice in the Knicks' locker room following New York's 99-97 loss to the visiting Cavaliers. Rice held the ring up so that his new teammates could take a look at it on their way to the showers. Not quite the celebration he had imagined.
Win a championship, and all your dreams come true, players throughout the league are told. "That sure wasn't the case with me," says Rice, the 33-year-old forward who, three months after helping the Lakers win the title, was dealt to the Knicks in the four-team Patrick Ewing trade. "I was lied to."
The Lakers seemed committed to keeping Rice for a long time when they got him from Charlotte for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell in March 1999. Coming off three straight All-Star seasons, Rice was a career 20.8-points-per-game scorer whose outside shooting seemed certain to take pressure off Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The trade almost fell apart because Rice feared his scoring opportunities would diminish with L.A., reducing his value as a free agent. But the deal was finally consummated, according to Rice's agent, David Falk, when the Lakers agreed to ignore the 1999-2000 option year of the contract Rice had signed with the Hornets.
Falk says Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss informed him an hour before the 1999 draft that the Lakers would pick up Rice's option year, and under the terms of the contract they paid him $7 million last season. "Glen had had an operation [to his right elbow, in January 1999], and we wanted to see him play before we made any commitment," says Buss.
At an Oct. 7, 1999, meeting at L.A.'s training-camp hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif., Lakers executive vice president Jerry West tried to make amends. He confronted Buss—in the presence of Rice and Falk—over the Lakers' broken promise to Rice. " Jerry Buss said he hadn't made any promises about the option," says Rice, "and Jerry West told him, 'You did! Jerry West basically said, 'We broke a commitment to this guy, and we need to do something to salvage it.' Buss was pretty upset."
According to Falk, Buss eventually shrugged off the disagreement as a misunderstanding and invoked the Lakers' longstanding tradition of taking care of their star players. "Buss said, 'I've never had a player here who was unhappy about money,' " Falk says. " Jerry Buss looked at Glen Rice and said, 'If we win—and we don't necessarily have to win the whole thing—I promise I'll make you happy.' So what happened? The Lakers won the title, and he didn't even make Glen Rice an offer. He broke two commitments to Glen Rice."
Buss told SI he never promised to make Rice happy, and West declined to comment. However, league sources say that the Lakers' broken promise to Rice was a factor in West's decision to retire in August. At the same time, they point out that West stepped down for many reasons, not the least of which was his concern for his health.
These sources also say that Falk subsequently broke a promise to the Bulls when he pulled Rice out of a one-year, $7.5 million agreement with Chicago last summer to get him traded to the Knicks, with whom he signed a four-year, $36 million contract. Falk all but concedes that he broke his commitment to the Bulls. "I feel very badly that things happened that way for Chicago," he says.
Rice was deemed expendable in part because he had a hard time fitting into coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense. Rice contends his limited role with Los Angeles was the result of a power struggle between Jackson, who had urged the Lakers to trade for Scottie Pippen, and West, who preferred to stick with Rice. "Besides my wife, the only person who kept me motivated about being there last year was Jerry West," says Rice. "He told me over and over, 'I want you to end your career here.' "