In a preseason game at the omni, Jon Koncak of the Atlanta Hawks rises up for a baseline slam a split second before Mike Brown of the Utah Jazz rises up to nullify the shot. Two career reserve big guys with similar stats, skills and roles—one filthy rich, the other just, oh, comfortable—going at it. This time comfortable (Brown, $550,000 per year) nearly sends filthy rich (Koncak, $2.2 million per year) to the promised land.
Brown pins the ball against the glass and hits Koncak with a body check that sends the seven-foot, 260-pound center into a spinning, flailing arc toward the Omni floor. Koncak lands on his back with a resounding thud. The crowd gasps. It appears that Brown mutters something as Koncak lies writhing. Slowly Koncak rises, limps to the free throw line and shoots two free throws, missing each badly. He calls timeout and with the help of the trainer staggers to the training room.
Is Brown angry about Koncak's newfound wealth, about the 26-year-old's recently signed six-year deal with the Hawks for an astonishing $13.1 million, or is this your basic NBA territorial how-de-do?
"Just a foul,' " says Brown later. "Just bodies going in opposite directions."
In truth, it may have been logic and reason going in opposite directions. We all know that NBA superstars make big money. Subconsciously we may even want them to make huge amounts, the same way peasants of yore wanted their kings to be outfitted in gold-threaded robes. Magic Johnson ($3 million this season), Larry Bird ($2.7 million), Michael Jordan ($2.5 million)—we can deal with them making bundles of cash. What are we to think, though, when Jon Koncak (Jon Contract?)—a hardworking, congenial, but remarkably ordinary NBA player (6.2 points, 6.1 rebounds per game career average)—earns that kind of money? Maybe we should simply sit back, take a deep breath and try to understand the economic, social and legal forces that are turning the NBA into the equivalent of a state lottery—with Koncak, and maybe every other player, holding a winning ticket.
Wait for a moment, though, because right now Koncak himself is not thinking at all about wealth. As the game continues out on the court, Koncak lies in the training room alone, on his stomach with an ice pack on the small of his back. He is in deep pain. His legs went numb for a moment after he hit the floor, and he feared that his back was broken. He still doesn't know if everything is in place back there. Indeed, he will miss the last six exhibition games with a deep contusion to his coccyx because of the crash. He landed so hard that there are about 10 small red stars near his tailbone, the imprint of a section of his mesh jersey. Let's see, that's just over $1.3 million per star.
Koncak laughs through the pain. He has been beat up before in the NBA—eight root canals, four crowns and a false tooth, just in the mouth department—but such abuse comes with the turf. "When you retire you can get your teeth redone," he says.
And when you retire after earning his salary—all guaranteed, all cash—you can do just about anything you want.
"Hey, I can't justify what they offered me," he says with a careful shrug. "But what was I supposed to do? Say no? The league is changing. I think maybe this is just the start."
It almost certainly is the start of a financial hurricane in the NBA, one that will see money flying everywhere and players of all calibers earning larger and larger salaries while the league itself flourishes from its growing global popularity and the revenue from increased gate receipts, advertising, marketing and TV deals. Koncak is not alone among obscure NBA players who are raking in the dough. Portland guard Terry Porter, who has never been an All-Star nor led his team past the first round of the playoffs, signed a six-year deal with the Trail Blazers last summer for $13.2 million. His backup, Drazen Petrovic of Yugoslavia, who played in Europe last year, signed on for four years for $5 million. Veteran Jim Petersen, a center-forward of no particular distinction, recently signed with the Sacramento Kings for $8 million for six years. And guard Sedale Threatt (rhymes with "treat"), a career 7.3-points-per-game scorer, recently inked a $2.6 million, four-year deal with Seattle.