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Brian Lee Tribble met Len Bias on a basketball court when they were both in high school. Six years later, he was with Bias when the Maryland All-America lost consciousness for the third and final time after snorting cocaine in a Maryland dorm room in the early hours of June 19, 1986. Tribble was later acquitted of charges that he supplied the cocaine that led to his friend's death, but he didn't seem to learn much from the tragedy or from the ordeal of his own trial. Last Thursday, in federal court in Baltimore, Tribble pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 110 pounds of cocaine in the past two years, and he now faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison without parole.
Tribble owned a house in suburban Forestville, Md., and three cars, including a Mercedes-Benz, before he relinquished all of it to the government. The opulent life-styles of wealthy drug dealers hold great allure for some inner-city youths. A journalist named William Finnegan recently described in The New Yorker the time he spent in New Haven, Conn., with a teenage drug dealer he called Terry. Wrote Finnegan, "I sometimes ask Terry about his 'role models,' about who it is he wants to be when he grows up. When his answer is not Eddie Murphy, or a rap star with a gangster style, it is an older New Haven dealer who 'made it to the top.' This dealer is now in prison."
One can only wish that kids in the Washington-Baltimore area would choose role models like Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, Redskins wide receiver Art Monk or Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. All are well respected as sportsmen and as generous contributors to their communities, unlike Brian Tribble.
WRETCHED EXCESS DEPT.
Dreams can die fast in the volatile athletic-shoe business. Witness L.A. Gear, which in the six years after its founding in 1983 became the industry's third-largest company, after Nike and Reebok. Sales at L.A. Gear hit $617 million last year, and the company at one point boasted a 185% annual return to investors, the highest of any New York Stock Exchange firm. But this past June, even as it reported record second-quarter sales, L.A. Gear announced that profits had declined by 36%. The stock price, which reached 50⅛ a share last May, plummeted by 22% in one day and was at 12¼ as of the close of trading last Friday. Shareholders have filed 24 class-action complaints against L.A. Gear, most alleging that it misled investors.
L.A. Gear was stung by the fickle breezes of athletic-shoe fashion. Its marketing strategy had targeted teenage girls, among whom L.A. Gear shoes are suddenly no longer the chic sneak. The company is trying to compensate by aiming for a bigger piece of the less mercurial men's market. L.A. Gear is spending many millions for endorsement tie-ins with show-biz celebrities like Michael Jackson, athletes like Joe Montana, Karl Malone and Akeem Olajuwon, and coaches like NC State's Les Robinson and USC's George Raveling. "We are spending eight or nine million dollars just to open a basketball division," says Sandy Saemann, L.A. Gear's executive vice-president.
But the Jackson shoes are not selling well, and complaints have arisen concerning possible conflicts of interest involving Leonard Armato, the Los Angeles-based sports agent whose company, Management Plus, serves as a consultant to the basketball division. Critics note that Armato became Olajuwon's agent after signing the Houston Rocket star to a shoe deal last year, and wonder whether Armato is using L.A. Gear to increase his client list. They question the propriety of Armato's lavishing L.A. Gear money on college coaches, who, after all, are in a position to recommend him as an agent to their players. Armato terms such criticisms "absurd."
Saemann says, "I'm happy with Leonard Armato, and I am in awe of how well the basketball program is working." But Armato's free-spending ways are raising eyebrows. For example, Raveling, whose Trojan basketball team has been less than a rousing success, having gone 38-78 during his four seasons at the helm, was receiving less than $50,000 a year from Nike before, sources say, Armato's company lured him away for $175,000 a year, a fee that prompted an executive in a rival sneaker company to sniff: "L.A. Gear is bidding against no one but themselves." L.A. Gear often stipulates that college coaches must donate 25% of their L.A. Gear earnings to charity, but critics in the financial community think that L.A. Gear's charity should begin at home, with Armato's being forced to tighten the purse strings.