It's more common to find an Ivy Leaguer with an M.B.A. than in the NBA, or as chairman of the board rather than crashing the boards. So Portland Trail Blazer center Chris Dudley, a graduate of Yale, is used to hearing the occasional wisecrack. But this year fans throughout the league may not needle him quite as much for his educational background or even for his painfully woeful form at the free throw line.
Now there will be nights on the road—oh, just wait until he goes back to New Jersey—when Dudley will endure a new kind of tongue-lashing. He'll be hearing mouthfuls to the effect that the Trail Blazers would have better spent their money gold-plating the Memorial Coliseum rest rooms than by signing him, a 6'11" free agent with career averages of 4.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, to a seven-year, $11 million contract. And if the size of Dudley's deal isn't enough to stick in the craw of your average working stiff, consider this: The contract includes a clause that could make him a free agent again at the end of the 1993-94 season. That, under rules governing the league's salary cap, would allow him to sign for even bigger bucks. Hey, Dud, buy a free throw!
It is a deal so sweet that a fleet of NBA lawyers spent most of the off-season trying to get it annulled, characterizing it as a blatant attempt to unscrew the cap. Their efforts were unsuccessful, leaving Dudley carrying both a fat wallet in his pocket and a fatter target on his back. More than a few folks have been reminded of Jon Koncak of the Atlanta Hawks, the last nondescript center to sign a huge contract—a six-year, $13 million deal that expires after the '94-95 season. Koncak, who never averaged more than 8.3 points per game in his four seasons before signing the contract and hasn't risen above the 4.1-points-per-game mark since his contract went into effect, has not been able either to play up to that deal or to live it down. It has, in fact, turned him into a poster boy for athletes who earn too much for doing too little. Dudley, fairly or not, may soon find himself similarly framed; the cruel line already making the rounds in the league is that Dudley and Koncak were separated at worth. "Chris is a good guy with some rebounding and defensive skills," says one Eastern Conference general manager, "but c'mon, isn't this a lot of fuss to be making over a not-very-special player?"
Probably so. Dudley is an intelligent, forthright fellow who has certain strengths—he grabbed a rebound every 2.7 minutes last season, narrowly beating out Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic for the best ratio among the league's centers, and he managed to crack the top 20 in blocked shots (1.45 per game) despite playing less than 20 minutes per game. But he is better known for his limitations, both offensive and aesthetic. He may be good at slapping the ball away from a driving opponent or grabbing it oft" the backboard, but when it comes to putting it in the basket, let's just say you're unlikely to see Dudley on any of the NBA's "I Love This Game" promos. The Blazers will quickly find out that it's best to keep the ball away from him on offense, not so much for fear he will shoot it, but for fear that he will get fouled. Dudley is a 45% career free throw shooter, the league's worst active regular. And he doesn't just miss, he looks bad doing it. His ungainly efforts from the line—with his stiff-looking crouch, he resembles a shot-putter more than a shooter—are so lacking in grace that the ball looks as if it were being launched by a badly built catapult.
Fortunately, Dudley, now in his seventh pro season, is as thick-skinned as he is intelligent. He can accept a bit of taunting away from home, but he's counting on Portland fans to understand that the Blazers weren't necessarily banking on double-figure scoring when they gave him the eight-figure contract. "Portland knew what type of player I was when they signed me," he says. "I'm expected to block shots and to rebound, which I think I've always done well. There are plenty of people on this team who can score, but that's not all there is to this game. It's just not as simple as that."
Even if Dudley's abilities don't seem to warrant such a hefty contract, no one can accuse him of being greedy, at least not in the short term. In fact, he could have earned far more money elsewhere; the Nets, his former team, offered him about $10 million more for the same number of years, and the $790,000 he will earn in the first year of his Blazer contract is less than the $1.2 million he made last season. Those disparities are exactly what thrust Dudley into the what-is-the-world-coming-to category: Not only did he sign a big contract, but also it wasn't big enough, according to the current marketplace. That's just one of the many conundrums surrounding Dudley's situation. He is either an ordinary player who stands to become extraordinarily overpaid, a complementary player with subtle strengths who neatly fills a Blazer need, a pawn in a much larger battle between the league and the players' union, a shrewd Yalie who has stared down the powerful NBA and struck a potentially fatal blow to the salary cap...or just another guy who wanted out of New Jersey.
Truth is, he's probably all of the above. "Everywhere I went during the off-season, people asked me about my contract," he says. "I could tell from their reactions that they didn't really understand it. They would ask me how I'm going to spend the money, as though I'd just won the lottery, even though I'm actually making less money this season than I did last year. But I don't blame them. This thing has gotten so complex and has gone on for so long, I'm not sure anyone can say they completely grasp it all."
It began near the end of last season, when things began going sour for Dudley in New Jersey. About to become a free agent, he requested a long-term commitment from the Nets but drew a cool response. He began to hear rumors that coach Chuck Daly was considering leaving at the end of the year. Then came the death in June of teammate and close friend Drazen Petrovic. Finally, general manager Willis Reed traded for underachieving center Benoit Benjamin, a move any self-respecting center would consider a slap in the face. It all made Dudley think a change of scenery might be best for him.
The Phoenix Suns, the Detroit Pistons and the Trail Blazers showed the most interest, with the Blazers featuring the best combination of factors for Dudley: Portland is a reasonable flight from his home in San Diego, the Blazers have a chance to be a championship contender, and they had a hole at center because Kevin Duckworth had been traded to the Washington Bullets in June for forward Harvey Grant. The only problem was that the Blazers had just $790,000 available to them under the cap, far less than Dudley's apparent market value.
The Blazers' solution was to offer Dudley and his agent, Dan Fegan, a contract topped by the lightning rod that the free-agent clause has become. Because teams may re-sign their own free agents for any amount, without regard to the cap, after this season the Blazers will be able to offer Dudley a contract that could exceed the value of the offer from the Nets that he rejected.