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Kids come into the pros nowadays expecting a windfall. I remember I went to sign a kid to a league contract and offered him, as I was authorized to, a 50/50/50 deal, which translates into $50,000 up front and then a two-year no-cut at $50,000 a season. This bonanza was for a small guard with no celebrity value who figured to be a substitute on most teams. I'll never forget the boy's reaction when I made the offer. He just looked sadly up at me and said, "But I wanted a lot more than that." Wanted—can you believe that? I tried to tell him that there were a lot of things in life we wanted, but these young athletes believe that the streets are paved with gold and that 50/50/50 is peanuts. This bird was eventually drafted in the fifth round by the NBA, was cut before the season started, and ended up back in our league, making the $17,500 minimum.
While the players are at the heart of what drove me out of sport, they cannot be singled out for the blame. Agents and owners are two witting accomplices. I cannot say enough about agents. Taken as a group, they are the lowest, most despicable people with whom I have ever had to deal. You cannot imagine how many athletes have been robbed by these vultures, yet the agents continue to perpetuate the myth that they are protecting the naive callow youth from unscrupulous management. In reality, one of the most striking unpublicized facts of modern sport is that there is much more litigation between players and agents than between players and clubs.
I do not condemn the role of the agent as it is theoretically intended. Nor do I say that none of them work for the greater good of clients. Any kid in this country involved in sophisticated financial negotiations should have counsel—and should be willing to pay the appropriate hourly fee that the lawyer charges in such cases. Not only do most agents want a cut of the action, a great majority of them would steer a boy to the team that offered the best deal for the agent and not necessarily the best opportunity for the player.
I dealt with all types of agents. Some good, some bad. Al Ross, who made a career out of leading stars from the ABA through a loophole into the NBA, is not surprisingly held in the lowest esteem in the ABA. I don't know if he truly deserves that ranking, but he is surely the quintessential agent—fast-talking, flashy, elusive. Steve Arnold and Marty Blackman are others of this stripe, although they have never obtained the notoriety Ross has. Arthur Morse is also well known, an old pro from Chicago. His game is to beat image like a drum. First class, first class—when are you going to go first class and sign my boy? The price with Morse is always a million dollars. He's stuck in that groove, Million-Dollar Morse. Then there is Tom Meehan, the fatherly type. He plays the good guy and is always telling you that he advised his client not to ask for as much money as he is asking for. But, of course, the client won't budge from the figure.
The truly reprehensible agent is the one who just takes a big chunk of cash and runs. Men like these get the kid's money up front—even though that is almost surely not the best way to gain a tax advantage—because it is easier for the agent to get a larger cut that way. Seldom do you confront an agent and player together; in many cases the agent does not want the player to know how much he is really taking out of his hide. Many contracts are worked out so that the agent is paid his "fee" directly by the club.
Agents play games both ways. As soon as we had one of our "secret" drafts in the ABA, I knew I could expect a call from a certain agent the next day informing me that he represented our first choice. Probably the agent had never laid eyes on the kid, but he would ask me how much the Chaparrals would pay to get the kid. With a figure, he would then go to the player and tell him he was authorized by the club to make this offer if the boy would sign right away. If the player agrees in this sort of situation, the agent draws up a contract, takes his cut and splits. If the kid has the sense to tell the agent to get lost, the guy goes back to the club, says the boy reneged and suggests that the team was lucky not to get stuck with such a bad apple.
What makes it so easy for the players and the agents are the owners. You cannot have a spoiled child without someone doing the spoiling. It is strange what involvement in sport does to some businessmen, to men who have been clever (and businesslike) enough to have made fortunes elsewhere. But give a man ownership of a sports team and he seems to take leave of his senses. The same shrewd, tough guy who drives the hardest bargains in business will think nothing of advancing a kid $10,000 on his $90,000 salary.
In the ABA I saw men who were millionaires many times over not only scream and yell at each other like little children but wallow in business practices that would have driven them to bankruptcy in any other business. But then this appears to be a phenomenon that cuts across sport. I am sure it is an ego thing. It seems that nobody can say a nicer thing to an owner than, "I saw you on television." Or, "I saw you on national television." My owners in Dallas were generally dismissed as veritable skinflints because they wouldn't ante up a million every time Arthur Morse called me on the phone, but I always had the distinct feeling that even they would rather blow a hundred thousand than go out to the country club and get razzed about the team. While I can assure you that franchises in the ABA changed hands for much less than $25,000, it was policy to publicize that millions of dollars were involved.
Owners who had paid $800,000 for some Everybody's All-America urged the others to duplicate their folly. And calls for prudence were hushed as violations of antitrust law. Sport is so out of touch with reality today that those owners who make the worst—most expensive—deals seem to have the most prestige.
For all the millions spent by owners, they are more powerless than ever to exercise any real authority. In the ABA, never mind that the players and the agents and the networks and the lawyers ran roughshod over management, we couldn't even tell the referees where to spend the night. The average pro basketball official makes about $30,000 for seven or eight months' work—plus a liberal per diem for expenses that makes traveling a great deal less burdensome than so many players and officials maintain. Unlike sports such as tennis and football, where the officials are moonlighting, basketball's week-long scheduling demands full-time professional officials. One would imagine that $30,000 and the bounty of large amounts of nontaxable expense money would attract a truly elite corps of referees. Instead, the club was forever getting calls about officials who had skipped town with unpaid bills, and both the club and the league had to endure a most sensitive ongoing problem—many referees insisted on staying at the same hotels as the players. In consequence, a situation developed where certain pros and some referees were spending their per diems drinking together. If you can't keep your game free from elementary suspicion, the rest of it counts for nothing.