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A new road to riches
Anthony Cotton
July 13, 1981
Free agents are costing millions under the NBA's Right of First Refusal system
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July 13, 1981

A New Road To Riches

Free agents are costing millions under the NBA's Right of First Refusal system

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For Mitch Kupchak, 27, a 6'9", 235-pound free-agent power forward soon to be both a former Washington Bullet and a millionaire, the biggest worry these days is how to invest newfound riches. "Gold and diamonds are just too expensive," he says. "Fancy cars I'm too hard on. I'd just wreck 'em. Besides, I probably wouldn't fit into one. All I'd like is a pool built into my backyard."

The cost of a pool no longer poses a problem for Kupchak; the question simply is where it will be built. Although the answer won't be official for weeks, contractors in Los Angeles should get ready. Kupchak, who says the Bullets have told him they can't afford to meet his demands for next season, has received an offer from the Lakers for between $700,000 and $850,000 per year over an estimated seven-year period.

The Lakers' offer represents quite a windfall for a man who has never been a starter in the NBA, who last season made $160,000 and who two years ago almost had his career ended by a herniated disk. But under the NBA's new Right of First Refusal system, windfalls for free agents are fast becoming commonplace. Indeed, in the two months since the Right of First Refusal went into effect, it has radically changed the salary structure of pro hoops.

Laker owner Dr. Jerry Buss, not wanting to risk what might happen under the new system when Magic Johnson's contract is up in 1984, two weeks ago signed Johnson to what is probably the biggest contract in sports history—$25 million for 25 years. Cleveland's Ted Stepien has lavished riches on even journeymen players. And Seattle has offered Denver Nugget Forward Alex English a contract that includes a four-year option to buy stock in the Sonics' parent company, FNI, at $7 a share. The stock is currently worth $3.60 a share, but the NBA's special arbitrator, George Nicholau, has ruled that the Nuggets must come up with $300,000 just to match that clause, a decision which, if it's based on sound information, could produce a run on FNI stock.

In short, free agents are rich agents, and Kupchak is the most talented and marketable—read white—big man in this year's free-agent crop. Under the rules of First Refusal, the Bullets can match Kupchak's offer sheet from the Lakers and either keep him or work out a trade for him, or they can simply let him go, without compensation. Whatever happens, Kupchak is guaranteed the amount of L.A.'s offer.

The 13th pick in the first round of the 1976 draft, from North Carolina, Kupchak originally signed a four-year deal with the Bullets at $160,000 per year with much of that money deferred. In his first training camp he was faced with the prospect of beating out either Wes Unseld or Elvin Hayes for a starting spot. He didn't, partially out of self-preservation. "Unseld said he'd kill me if I took his spot," Kupchak says. Still he gained a reputation as a hard worker; coming off the bench in his first three seasons he averaged 13.6 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. He suffered his back injury near the end of that third season and missed much of the following year. Concerned about Kupchak's disk, the Bullets last year refused to exercise the option on his original, guaranteed contract and signed him to a one-year deal with no option. Kupchak made a strong comeback, averaging 12.5 points and 6.9 rebounds, and decided to test his value as a free agent.

The first indication Kupchak had that the market would be bullish came while he was in Acapulco in May for the NBA Players' Association meeting. Word arrived that All-Star Guard Otis Birdsong, then of the Kansas City Kings, had received an offer worth a potential—with incentives—$1 million per year for five years from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Within days, Indiana Pacers Center James Edwards, a rather ordinary performer, got an offer of $750,000 per year for four years, also from the Cavaliers.

After listening to offers from at least six teams, Kupchak went to the Bullets and said he'd re-sign with them for $100,000 less than the highest bid. "My friends said I would've been nuts to sign for less than the highest offer," he says. "But I was content here. It got to a point where I was wondering how happy I could be. I'm the last person to say that I deserve this kind of money, but I didn't go after those bids, and I'll never be in this position again. All I asked was for the Bullets to be competitive. I understand their economic decision. I hope they understand mine."

Kupchak's numbers are just a fraction of the figures that Buss threw at Johnson, who had approached Buss early last season and asked if anything could be done to ensure his being a Laker forever. The result was a contract that surpasses the one previously considered the richest in sports, Dave Winfield's 10-year, $22 million deal with the Yankees.

To pay Johnson, a 6'9" guard, his cool million a year, Buss purchased for $5 million the trust deed to what is presumably a piece of real estate in an unspecified location ("To tell where would only lead to someone desecrating it to get some attention. There are a lot of crazy people out there," Buss says). The interest from the 20% mortgage comes to a million dollars a year for Buss—or Magic.

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