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When Nuggets general manager Dan Issel was an All-America center out of Kentucky in 1970, the ABA's Kentucky Colonels whisked him off to Florida and stashed him there until he signed on the dotted line, rather than risk losing him to the NBA. No wonder he understood the value of insulating Antonio McDyess, the 24-year-old free-agent power forward who was reduced to tears last week as he agonized over choosing between Denver, his first NBA team, and Phoenix, the one he played for last season.
As the Nuggets were about to announce last Thursday that he had chosen them, McDyess, still tormented by doubt, abruptly canceled the 3 p.m. press conference. Some of those doubts were fueled by a phone conversation McDyess had with forward LaPhonso Ellis, a close friend whose rights were about to be renounced by the Nuggets so that they could sign McDyess to a six-year, $675 million deal. The fact that he wouldn't be playing alongside Ellis in Denver was news to McDyess, so he tearfully called Suns point guard Jason Kidd and told him he was uncertain about joining the Nuggets. Phoenix guard Rex Chapman joined Kidd on the line, and when he asked McDyess if they should fly to Denver to talk with him, McDyess said yes. "It was clear he was really struggling," Chapman says.
McDyess then instructed Tony Dutt, one of his agents, to call Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo and ask whether McDyess could still return to Phoenix; Colangelo assured Dutt that he could. What followed in the next 12 hours is a tale of intrigue that lends a new and bizarre meaning to the term free-agent frenzy.
When Issel learned that Chapman, Kidd and Suns forward George McCloud, another one of McDyess's close friends, were in a private jet bound for Denver, he realized it was time to change tactics. Until then he had avoided pressuring McDyess. Now Issel summoned first-year coach Mike D'Antoni, assistant coach John Lucas and point guard Nick Van Exel to Denver from the team's training camp in Colorado Springs to help close the deal. They made the 60-mile trek in a blinding snowstorm, passing several accidents on the treacherous roads.
In the meantime Issel and Nuggets owner Charlie Lyons huddled with McDyess and his agents, Dutt and James Bryant, in a locker room at McNichols Arena, where a sold-out NHL game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Calgary Flames was less than an hour away. When McDyess mentioned that Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy was his favorite player, the Nuggets brass asked Roy in for a quick pregame visit. He presented McDyess with the goalie stick he had planned to use that night.
By the time the three Suns had landed and were in a limo headed to McNichols, the hockey game had started and McDyess had moved to Lyons's luxury box. Chapman called Dutt on his cell phone and arranged for a 9:30 p.m. meeting with McDyess at the Embassy Suites hotel. With more than an hour to kill, the Suns parked outside the arena, hoping McDyess might slip out through the players' entrance. Chapman says he asked a security guard to tell McDyess they were waiting. After a few minutes a different guard returned and told him, "I just talked to Antonio, and he said, 'Beat it.' "
"I told the guy, 'You're lying,' " Chapman says. "I pressed him and then he finally said, 'Look, I'm just telling you what I was told to come out here and say.' "
Issel and Lyons continued to court McDyess in the box, awaiting the arrival of D'Antoni, Lucas and Van Exel. McDyess had stayed with Lucas, formerly the 76ers coach, while in Philadelphia for a workout before the 1995 draft; Van Exel, who is also represented by Dutt and Bryant, had become a good friend to McDyess over the summer. When Van Exel arrived, he spent 15 minutes alone with McDyess and persuaded him to come back to the Nuggets—despite the Suns' ability to pay him at least $20 million more. "If Antonio had left that arena without some kind of handshake deal," Issel says, "we were in trouble."
As 9:30 neared, the Suns players headed to the Embassy Suites and waited. According to Chapman, Dutt phoned them at 9:35 and said McDyess was running late. "Then," Chapman says, "a half hour later we get a call from some guy named Ted who tells us Antonio was tired and confused and wasn't going to talk to us or anyone else that night. We asked for him to put Antonio on the phone. He wouldn't do it."