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MILLIONS FROM HEAVEN
Rick Telander
November 06, 1989
The Atlanta Hawks' Jon Koncak was a center of little renown—averaging 6.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, career—until he signed a six-year contract worth $13 million. Now other lesser NBA players should find gold at the end of the rainbow
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November 06, 1989

Millions From Heaven

The Atlanta Hawks' Jon Koncak was a center of little renown—averaging 6.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, career—until he signed a six-year contract worth $13 million. Now other lesser NBA players should find gold at the end of the rainbow

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"It's a whole new world out there when it comes to money," Cleveland vice-president and general manager Wayne Embry said. "And it's pretty scary."

Weird is more like it. The money just happens to be there, and the old rules about proving your worth before getting rich just don't apply anymore. In fact, even having great worth isn't really that important anymore. All a hoopster has to do is get into the league and wait, briefly, through free agency or competitive bidding, for his time to come.

"Thirteen million," says Koncak softly, still amazed. "Thirteen million!"

As Mike Brown dresses in the Jazz's locker room, he says that he isn't jealous of Koncak, and he seems to mean it. "I'm happy a young man with a family can make that kind of money," Brown says. "I have three or four millionaires on my team already. In two years I'll be a free agent, and if it's meant to be, I'll get mine. Jon's salary helps us all."

Indeed, it does, and only the shortsighted players fail to realize that. "A backup center helped everybody," says the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins, one of the league's superstars. "I can't feel jealous. There's no question he helped my contract directly." Hawk management renegotiated Wilkins's contract ($14 million for five years) just before signing Koncak. While many of the players are happy for Koncak and for what it portends for them, management is dismayed about parting with more of its cash. Contracts like Koncak's "create unrest, ill feelings, and I don't think it's fair," says the Los Angeles Lakers' general manager, Jerry West. "In some respects it's disgusting."

Maybe it is, but it's here to stay, simply because people like the NBA's pizzazz, and they're willing to pay to watch it. Baseball is the summer game, football is impersonal, hockey is provincial—but basketball is an action sport with players you can see and hear. It translates well to other cultures, and the rest of the world is rapidly catching up with the U.S. in skill level and enthusiasm for the sport. Foreign leagues, once odd little circuits with lead-footed men playing in 1920s uniforms, now have become competitive markets that offer real financial alternatives to American players. "Last year 60 countries got the NBA on TV," says Hawk president and G.M. Stan Kasten. "We're getting close to having an NBA game of the week shown in the U.S.S.R. The gap between us and the rest of the world is getting smaller every day."

Revenue taken in by the NBA has increased from $110 million in 1980 to a projected $500 million this season. And the salary cap, the total amount of money that each team is allowed to spend on its players yearly, has gone from $3.6 million in its first year (1983) to $9.8 million today. There are only 12 players per team, so everybody except fringe players who sign for the league minimum of $110,000 should see big pay increases every time they get a new contract. "And the cap has never gone down," adds Koncak's agent, Steve Kauffman. The cap actually has increased by an average of 18.7% over the last seven years. As Jazz center Mark Eaton says of Koncak's contract, "In another two or three years, it might not seem that big a deal."

But it is now, and it's interesting to see how Koncak pulled the whole thing off.

To begin with, he played out the option year on a four-year contract that paid him $675,000 last season. "The Hawks tried to sign him in February," says Kauffman. "What they offered was in the five-year, $5 million range. I was able to tell him to just say no."

Kauffman figured, correctly, that the salary cap was going up and that, as always, there was a shortage of good, big men in the league, which would drive Koncak's value up. "Before the season we purchased as much disability insurance as we could," says Kauffman, "and I guess we just were lucky."

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