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When John (Hot Rod) Williams left Tulane University in March 1985, he was a confused, undereducated young man living under a cloud, barred from the NBA pending a trial that would determine whether or not he had conspired to fix college basketball games. Today? Well, with a career scoring average of 13.5 points per game, Williams, 28, is no NBA All-Star. But he's a solid citizen—he was acquitted of all charges several years ago—a veteran member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and a 6'11" frontcourtman respected for his unselfish play and all-around ability.
Oh, yes, and with the $5 million he will be paid by the Cavs for the 1990-91 season, Hot Rod Williams suddenly has the second-highest salary of any American team athlete. Jose Canseco of the Oakland A's will earn $5.5 million this year.
You may gulp now.
Williams's seven-year, $26.5 million deal with Cleveland, which was precipitated by a free-agent offer sheet extended to him by the Miami Heat, is simply incomprehensible to many NBA fans. Patrick Ewing will receive more than $4 million from the New York Knicks this season, but at least America knows who he is. Five million dollars for Williams, a sixth man for most of his four-year career? The numbers seem to be way, way off the sanity scale. Sure, NBA players' annual salaries average almost $1 million, but Williams's stupendous contract raised eyebrows and pulses.
"Amazing," said Hot Rod's teammate Mark Price, the Cavs' point guard.
"I'm stunned," said one NBA general manager. Said another: "It's insane."
So, why did it happen? And what will its impact be? As with almost any player who gets a megacontract in sports, the recipient was in the right place at the right time. Last November, with Williams's contract due to expire at the end of the season (Williams made about $675,000 in '89-90), Cleveland offered him a five-year, $11.8-million deal. Williams and his Chicago-based agent, Mark Bartelstein, rejected it, gambling that Williams would be among the most attractive free agents of the summer and thus be in a position to command an even more lucrative offer from another team. Cleveland made other overtures to Williams, the last being a five-year, $13.5 million offer in July, but Williams said no.
On Aug. 22, the Heat offered, and Williams signed, the eye-popping, must-be-a-misprint, seven-year, $26.5 million deal. Last Thursday, the Cavs did what they had to do to keep Williams—they matched the figure. The Cleveland contract is structured to give Williams maximum benefit right away: He gets a $4 million signing bonus and a $1 million salary for this season. That's $60,975 per game. By the end of his contract, in '96-97, Williams will have to struggle along with only $2.5 million for the year.
"Higher risks for higher rewards," said the Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale, a better forward than Williams who will make far less ($1.4 million) than Hot Rod this season. "John Williams played the game by the rules. He waited until his time came, and he hit a home run."
But why would Miami lob Williams such a multimillion-dollar gopher ball? "I guess just about every team in basketball is upset with Miami," said one NBA team executive who asked to remain anonymous. "What they did was very irresponsible and bad for the league." On the other hand, Miami's proposal was totally within the guidelines and makes sense for several reasons.