In not much more time than it took them to write a check for, say, $500,000 and mail it off to Seattle, the New York Knicks had hustled big Spencer Haywood into action in Madison Square Garden last Saturday night and folks were standing and cheering the power forward who might be their salvation. In the jubilation everyone could forget that the Knicks had more or less found Haywood in a West Coast fortune cookie, and that they had begun the week with a low-comedy chase after another superstar, named Wilt Chamberlain.
Up in the Garden seats sat Mike Burke, the club's modish president, smiling at the prolonged ovation for Haywood but not daring to blink for fear that when he reopened his eyes, his cookie prize would be gone. The way things had been going for him these past few months, the 6'9" ex-SuperSonic—who played 21 minutes, scored eight points and had eight rebounds in a 100-91 win over Cleveland—could have changed into a Halloween pumpkin.
It had happened before. The Knicks were in terrible shape and everybody knew how desperate they were to find help in the off-season. For a few magic days Burke thought he owned George McGinnis but Commissioner Larry O'Brien stopped that one and McGinnis became a Philadelphia 76er. New York had waved at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wanted to get out of Milwaukee, but lost him to Los Angeles. And then Atlanta, with amazing tunnel vision, effectively denied Burke negotiating rights to Marvin Webster and David Thompson, whom the Hawks had drafted but couldn't sign. Thompson and Webster went off to Denver of the ABA. "Why should we help them New Yorks?" asked Cotton Fitzsimmons, Atlanta's coach and director of player personnel, forgetting that the TV networks view with distaste any league without successful teams in New York and Los Angeles.
All of which brought the Knicks down to opening day consigned by nearly everyone to doormat status in their division and with season-ticket sales off by 1,800. Which is why they began a feverish pursuit of Chamberlain, the 39-year-old volleyball player. It was, as Burke admitted later, a desperation move. Chamberlain hadn't played for two seasons, but perhaps he could provide, if only part-time, the rebounding and defensive muscle the Knicks had so sorely missed since Dave DeBusschere left in 1974. And whatever he might contribute on the floor, he would certainly bring in the cash customers.
The first problem with Chamberlain was that the Lakers said he still owed them a year of playing from his last contract. The 7'1" center replied that he had sat the year out and was therefore a free agent. Burned once by the NBA rules, Burke called L.A. Owner Jack Kent Cooke and asked for permission to negotiate. And what might the Lakers want as compensation?
" Earl Monroe or Phil Jackson, cash and a top draft choice," said Cooke, deciding not to ask for the World Trade Center. Since the last thing Burke could give up was a quality player, the project stalled until Cooke told Burke to go ahead and talk to Chamberlain; they would discuss compensation later.
Chamberlain was delighted. He asked the Knicks to give him "a number"—to make him an offer. And he informed the Lakers that if they felt he owed them another year, he'd be out for practice and would be glad to play—for the $450,000 his last contract called for.
Already saddled with a massive payroll, Cooke was not overjoyed with that idea. He wanted to sell or trade the big man, not pay him, and somewhere along the line Chamberlain got the impression from the Lakers that if he showed up at practice they wouldn't even give him a pair of sneakers. "They said they would embarrass him," says Seymour S. Goldberg, Chamberlain's attorney.
Into the situation stepped O'Brien, who said he was removing Chamberlain from the Lakers' suspended list, thereby making him a free agent. "Fraud!" cried Goldberg. It seemed there was an additional stipulation in O'Brien's decision, which had not been made public but had been communicated to NBA owners. It said: "In the event any team in the NBA signs Chamberlain, it must compensate the Lakers."
"There was no way the Knicks could make an offer," says Goldberg. "The whole thing was an exercise in frustration. How could they negotiate and take the chance of blowing up their team? It was like walking into a booby trap."