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Johnson signed for considerably less money than Bird got. One source says Magic received $300,000 a year for four years, plus a $100,000 signing bonus. During the negotiations, Magic fired his agent, Georgia attorney Jack Manton, and pretty much went it alone, with a bit of help from his father and a longtime friend, Charles Tucker. "I had him $600,000 a year for five years," says Manton. "What Magic and his people did was leave $1.5 million on the table. It's sad."
But others say Magic got a whole lot more than that. Included in the deal, according to these sources, was a lot of real estate and deferred money. Whatever the dollars, the prognosis is for NBA success for both Bird and Johnson. "They're both intelligent," says Fitch. "By that, I don't mean either one could necessarily win a spelling bee, but they are smart about basketball." "If they don't turn out to be great, they will be better than mundane," says Chicago General Manager Rod Thorn. "Neither will be a bust."
The intrigue surrounding Bird's signing made for the highest-rated Boston soap opera in years. There was lots of animosity, especially between Woolf and Red Auerbach, president of the Celtics. In their first meeting, Red groused, "I hope you don't believe those numbers I've been seeing in the papers."
"Of course not, Red," said Woolf. "I'm thinking a lot higher."
Later, cigar ashes drifting onto his blue sweater, Auerbach muttered, "Bird's a cornerman, that's all he is. And that makes him the least important of the three major positions—center, fast guard, then corner."
As it turned out, Auerbach proved to have much more sway with the Boston press than Woolf. The agent still gets angry when he recalls the repeated, albeit wrong, references in the media to his "demands" for $1.2 million a year for Bird. "Look, Red started fooling with me at $250,000," says Woolf. "I told him, 'I'm going to ask for $1 million and you say no. Then you've got to start at $500,000, and I'm going to say no. Come on, Red, you come up and I'll come down. That's the way negotiations work.' " No soap. Or more soap. Whatever. Said Auerbach, "Larry Bird can help, but he's not a franchise. Geez, you got to keep your self-respect. After all, he can't play by himself."
Countered a miffed Woolf, "I feel an athlete is entitled to everything he can get, as long as we don't put anybody out of business." Woolf gets about 5% of the deal and upwards of 15% of endorsements and other dealings. "The money means almost nothing to me," says Woolf. "Larry is a great human being with great character, and I am so proud he picked me." In fact, the choice came down to Woolf and Reuven Katz, who represents Pete Rose, among others. Woolf has asked Bird why he won out. "That other man was too smart for me, Mr. Woolf," says Larry. "That's why I picked you."
No sooner had he picked Woolf than Bird broke his finger playing softball, but he was his usual laconic self in one phone conversation with his new agent early last spring. "If the Celtics want me, they'll call," said Bird. "If they don't want me, they won't call. Get lots of sleep, Mr. Woolf, and take care of yourself. I'm going fishin'. " And the self-described hick from French Lick did just that.
As the weather warmed, recrimination, lies and threats were rampant. Blunders by the Celtics' ownership in recent years had made Bostonians surly, and now it seemed that Bird—clearly the most important rookie to come to town since Auerbach, in a brilliant coup, got the rights to and signed Bill Russell in 1956—might fly away. Once Woolf got lost driving in nearby Worcester, asked for directions and was told, "Not unless you promise to sign Bird." Woolf wouldn't promise; he got no directions.
Then in June, after numerous meetings, Auerbach came to Woolf's 45th-floor office overlooking the Charles River. He sat glumly on a black vinyl couch. Four times he walked out; four times Woolf grabbed him in the outer office and brought him back. "It was very civil," says Woolf. "He'd blow up, then we'd work some more. Red goes through life like hot lava." After 3½ hours the deal was struck.