The death of Owen left a void. "When Bob died, I didn't know what to do or where to go," says Abdul-Jabbar. His $1 million salary with the Lakers in 1980 was among the highest in the NBA, and he was living in his Bel Air mansion with 23-year-old Cheryl Pistono, who would become the mother of his fourth child.
Many of Abdul-Jabbar's financial dealings were now being handled by Collins, whom he had met in the mid-1970s at a tennis club. Collins was a fledgling agent who had gotten his start by hustling up athletes to appear at local shopping centers. He was a sincere, religious man who frequently quoted Scripture in discussing his business philosophy. He had spent a year as an FBI trainee, worked as a bank teller, managed a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and had done market research for Dun & Bradstreet.
"I never had dreams of being an agent," says Collins. "I wasn't really a sports fan." But one day in the mid-'70s he read an article about a former ABA and NBA player, Bird Averitt, who had had some financial problems. Collins could not understand how such a thing could happen. He picked the brains of sports agents and money men and began acquiring clients. For a while he handled neither big names nor big money. Then gold medal-winning Olympic decathlete Bill Toomey became a client. Laker guard Lucius Allen and L.A. general manager Bill Sharman followed. Then came Abdul-Jabbar. "What made me choose Tom?" Abdul-Jabbar says. "Naivet� made me choose Tom."
But surely Abdul-Jabbar must have checked Collins out, must have asked some people about him?
"Nobody told me anything," Abdul-Jabbar says. "I just assumed Tom knew what he was doing. I felt insecure going out and trying to find somebody new. He represented a lot of athletes, there hadn't been any complaints that I was aware of, so I just decided that the status quo was fine."
The agreement he signed with Collins on Nov. 15, 1980, is a stunning document, Exhibit A in Abdul-Jabbar's lawsuit. In nine simple paragraphs it essentially gave Collins the right to do anything he pleased with Abdul-Jabbar's money. He was free to sign checks and take out loans in Abdul-Jabbar's name. All Abdul-Jabbar expected in return was that Collins provide him with monthly reports.
Once Abdul-Jabbar signed that 1�-page paper, he barely gave it another thought, and for the next two or three years everything seemed to go smoothly. Abdul-Jabbar's salary climbed above $1 million. "And then little things started happening that should have let me know that something wasn't right," he says.
He wasn't receiving his monthly statements, a fact Collins does not dispute. But Abdul-Jabbar scarcely noticed. He was breaking up with Pistono, and his emotions were in turmoil. He didn't become aware that the statements were missing until he tried to find out from Collins how much of his money Pistono was spending.
Abdul-Jabbar decided to let it ride. "With all that was going on in my head, I was willing to let Tom go on minding my business, simply because it was not something I felt I needed to worry about at the time." Collins claims he held the statements back from Abdul-Jabbar so that Pistono wouldn't get her hands on them and see just how much Abdul-Jabbar was worth. In the Bel Air house fire, several precious and largely uninsured rugs from Abdul-Jabbar's collection, rugs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, were destroyed. The house was insured, but he spent more than $2 million above the insurance proceeds to rebuild it. Then he got a notice that his taxes for 1982 and '83 had gone unpaid. "Tom made it sound like a bureaucratic snafu and, you know, I accepted it," Abdul-Jabbar says.
In 1984 and '85 Collins put together several limited partnerships involving his clients. One investment, according to court documents, was in a product called Heavyrope, a weighted jump rope that was manufactured by a small firm in Michigan. Collins put up $230,000 of Abdul-Jabbar's money, plus $145,000 of Sampson's, $120,00 of English's and $60,000 of Cummings', and led Abdul-Jabbar to believe that he would own an interest in the manufacture of Heavyrope and its distribution rights. One night in the summer of '85 he had dinner with Charlie Scott, the former NBA guard who was also a Collins client and another Heavyrope partner. Scott had gone with Collins to meet the manufacturers in Michigan and now, according to Abdul-Jabbar, Scott told him, "We don't own the patent. We don't own anything. We have a very weak license."