In 1991, the New York Knicks made a secret attempt to lure Michael Jordan away from the Chicago Bulls. Under the watchful eyes of NBA commissioner David Stern, Jordan traveled to the Big Apple to meet with Knicks owner and Madison Square Garden executive chairman, Irving N.Y. Rangers president, and Madison Square Garden Sports president Dave Checketts to pitch the Knicks’ organization. As Checketts told the New York Daily News, “We were under a gag order. We couldn’t tell anybody what we were doing, because it would have been tampering.”
7:00 A.M. EASTERN TIME
A few months after the 1998 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan sits at one end of a large table in a Manhattan boardroom. This is where the negotiations between the owners and the NBA players took place. The league was stuck in a lockout. The season was at stake. But Jordan had other matters to attend to.
A group of players sat next to Jordan, who voiced his support for the league as he was weeks away from announcing his second athletic retirement. One microphone was placed in front of the six-time NBA champion, the other in front of Dave Checketts, the president and general manager of Madison Square Garden, who sat across from the seven owners and commissioner David Stern.
The players have said they want the biggest share of the NBA’s growing revenue, fueled by Jordan’s global fame. The owners wanted to regulate a salary system that had allowed Jordan to single-handedly exceed the salary cap of the entire team in each of the previous two seasons, thanks to the combined effect of his tremendous value and the league’s Larry Bird rule.
Is Michael Jordan playing with the Knicks in MSG? Insiders say it happened much earlier than many people think. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Jordan and Checketts never spoke to each other, but their stories were closely linked. In the 1980s, Checketts recruited John Stockton and Karl Malone to lead the Jazz, who had just lost to Jordan in consecutive finals. When he led the Knicks from 1991 to 2001, Checketts and his teams lost to Jordan’s Bulls four times. (The Knicks have been rejected by the Bulls a total of five times since the Jordan era).
Jordan watches Checketts as everyone in the room sits down for the proceedings and leans into the microphone.
You’re still trying to beat the Bulls, right, Jordan said. A knowing look passed between the two men. What wasn’t said was that the paradigm-changing signing two years earlier – Jordan to the Knicks – never happened. If rumors are to be believed, it was a potential move that threatened to change the balance of power in the NBA in the summer of 1996. This came at a time when the beginning of the growing influence and movement of players coincided with Jordan, at the height of his development, becoming a free agent for the first time.
This is the oral history of those negotiations, the financial power of the NBA that made them possible, and the consequences. It is a shift of star power that can end a dynasty and create a new one. Again, if the rumors are to be believed.
It was the 16th. June 1996, Michael Jordan lies flat on the carpet of the United Center, in full uniform. He held the basketball in his left hand like a child comforting himself with a familiar stuffed animal. He was crying. It was Jordan’s first championship – a six-game victory over the Sonics – since the death of his father, James.
For the 32-year-old Jordan, the 1995-96 season was redemptive. He is the NBA’s top scorer (30.4 PPG) and fourth MVP with a record of 72 wins. Prior to the 1996 Finals, the Bulls lost only one playoff game, beating the Heat and Magic and beating the Knicks in five games.
He was the Michael Jordan of the contract years.
And behind the scenes, Chicago had cause for concern. Not only is Jordan entering the free agent market for the first time, but coach Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman also have uncertain futures with the Bulls.
After a five-year history in New York that began with the arrival of Pat Riley in 1991 and culminated when Jordan left the league and reached the NBA Finals in 1994, the Knicks were ready for a shakeup around 33-year-old Patrick Ewing. Point guard Derek Harper and veteran Anthony Mason, who played a key role in New York’s victory, played their final games in orange and blue jerseys.
Checketts said the team was not good enough to win the title this summer.
Sam Smith, who writes about the Bulls in the Chicago Tribune and is the author of Jordan Rules: The summer dragged on, Jordan was technically a free agent, but [no team other than Chicago] had the money to pay him. He had nowhere to go. Then I heard something about the Knicks.
Mike Wise, former Knicks writer, New York Times: The biggest event for them was going up against the Bulls, who were trying to take Mt. Michael to overcome. In the ’90s, when the league became Michael’s league, you still needed at least one Hall of Fame member to win a superstar.
Smith: Needless to say, the Knicks were very frustrated with losing to the Bulls time and time again. They lost to the Rockets in the Finals even after Jordan retired, and New York always tends to start with a bang.
Frank Isola, former NY Daily News editor: Checketts, [Knicks general manager] Ernie Grunfeld, they would do heaven and earth to get [Jordan]. They traded guys and cancelled the contracts of guys in the last year of their contract.
Grunfeld: If we could do that financially, we would drop everything else. Trust me. Jordan’s camp has made it clear in the media that they will consider other options if he doesn’t get what he wants in Chicago.
Checketts: So in the 1996 off-season, we created a lot of open space, and as a result, there was a lot of anticipation in New York about what we could do with it. We had a plan.
Madison Square Garden president and general manager Dave Checketts, left, and Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld. AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler
This plan began on the 8th. February 1996, as the NBA trade deadline approached. The Knicks made two transactions in ten days, including the sale of veteran forward Charles Smith, bringing back players with expiring contracts and freeing up $10 million in needed space.
The eighth. In March 1996, after a 9-4 defeat following the All-Star break, the Knicks fired Don Nelson, who had succeeded Riley 59 games into the 1995-96 season, and appointed assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy to lead a flawed team for the remainder of the season. An upheaval was inevitable.
Isola: Checketts has always thought big. The Knicks tried to get Charles Barkley. They were still looking for a second superstar. You’d have Ewing. It would have been a championship team.
Grunfeld: It was a rumor, mostly. I mean, look, you always keep the phone lines open, you always call to see who’s available, but I never got the impression that Barkley was about to happen. And that was towards the end of his career. I don’t think Patrick is recognized enough for the great player he really was. Eight years in a row he played [at least 79 games], averaging 25 points, 12 rebounds and two and a half blocked shots. Our team was built around Patrick, and we wanted to gather the right pieces around him.
Isola: I think Michael Jordan would suffice as a second superstar if they get him.
Smith: David Falk, Jordan’s agent, always thought he could put all his players on one team – his best players – and control that team. It would be like a shadow GM. I think it was some sort of dream of David’s.
Falk: Most of my opponents would never say I want to be the dishonest CEO of the Knicks. You know what they said? People called me a shadow commissioner, not a shadow manager. It’s an insult. I never felt the need to do it. But] I had a very strong feeling in 1994 that there would be unrestricted free agents [the earliest career player and no restricted free agents] in 1996. The rules have changed, the values of the players have changed.
Grunfeld: If you can become a free agent early on – an unrestricted free agent – that gives the player a lot more leverage.
Michael Jordan enjoyed his rivalry with Patrick Ewing (left) and the Knicks team. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
The year 1996 was the first year that free agents were drafted in the NBA. Wise, who was then a writer for the Times, wrote that it was the largest collection of free agents in the National Basketball Association. In many ways, it was a precursor to the attention paid to LeBron James’ decision and Hampton’s five, the contingent that was in place when Kevin Durant was drafted by the Warriors.
So, in 1996, after the new CBA passed, which allowed unlimited free agents, the market was flooded with young talent. That was Shaquille O’Neal, 24 years old. Alonzo Mourning, 26 years old. And Juwan Howard… Gary Payton… Dikembe Mutombo… Reggie Miller… Allan Houston – 165 in total, many of them in their prime.
But since there was no maximum wage or luxury tax back then, the only limit was the salary cap. Additionally, the Bulls owned the rights to Michael Jordan, allowing teams to exceed the $24.4 million cap to pay their own free agents. In other words: For Chicago – and only Chicago – there was no limit to what they could pay Jordan.
Russ Granik, former NBA deputy commissioner and CBA chief negotiator: After the 1994-95 season was under a strike and lockout ban, a lockout was imposed [in 1995]. At the same time, there has been a change in the leadership of the union. And the new head of the league is a guy named Simon Gurdin, who used to work in the NBA. And there were people who thought, politically, that he was not the right man for the job.
Falk: I don’t think the league was afraid of Simon. I don’t think they were afraid of him.
Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney for the NBA players’ union: A group of players, led by Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, took it upon themselves to shut the union out because they felt the CBA [negotiated but not yet signed] was a sellout.
Falk: If the union is not doing its job properly, the logical step would be to deny certification, which would give the players more leverage. The union had no way of making a proper agreement. So we encouraged the players to resign from the league.
Granik: Buck Williams was the president [of the union]. And he supported Gurdin and the existing union structure. And the group [represented by] Kessler tried to eliminate the union.
Michael Jordan on the floor of MSG for the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
The 1995 LOCKOUT, the first in NBA history, began on July 1 and ended on July 12. In September, after a vote by the old guard, the union was able to agree on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. After the Jordan Bulls won the 1996 title, the contract remained unsigned until July, when the two sides argued over final details. According to Kessler, this led to another brief interruption of service – the so-called 20-minute lockout.
The new agreement was signed on November 11. July 1996 officially announced. By 5 p.m. that afternoon, the biggest free trade period in NBA history had begun.
Falk: In 1996, I let all my prime ministers go free. We had Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard, Kenny Anderson, Armen Gilliam, Chris Gatling. It was like a chessboard.
Checketts: In the past, the Knicks have never been good at managing money. … But] we wanted to find Allan Houston first. He was our number one target. And if Allan doesn’t sign with us, we’ll move on to Reggie Miller. But before I started looking for everyone, my first phone call was to David Falk [about Jordan].
Isola: That was the only time the Knicks had money. They gave [Jordan] as much money as they could.
Checketts: I would do anything to get [Jordan].
Falk: No team in the league was able to offer him even a fraction of what the Bulls could, so the only problem … was developing a relationship of trust between him and the owner, so that what Jerry [Reinsdorf] was willing to pay him was something Michael could accept. Nothing to do with the other teams. It was really a one-horse race.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, left, talks with Jordan at a press conference to mark his death in 1993. AP Photo/Mark Elias
In the previous 12 years, Jordan became the THIRD pick to join the Bulls, who had made the playoffs just once in the previous seven seasons and had never advanced beyond the conference finals in their history. The savior of the franchise signed a $6.3 million contract for the duration of his seven-year rookie deal. The salary cap went into effect for the entire league in 1984-85, when Jordan was still a rookie. It was set at $3.6 million.
Magic Johnson was the highest paid player in the league at the time, having signed an unprecedented contract in 1984. In June 1985, Patrick Ewing, the prize of the first draft lottery, was chosen number one by the Knicks. Ewing was represented by Falk.
Falk: The Magic signed a terrible contract that lasted five years. After the [second] year, his agent wants to renegotiate his contract with Jerry Bass. Magic was an NCAA miracle, the MVP of the finals. The Lakers were one of [five] teams that fell to the Cape in the [1983-84] season, before the rest of the league moved on to the 1984-85 season.
Smith: The way they did it under the constraints of the salary cap was revolutionary. And at the time, it was a big story because no one had ever gotten a contract of this magnitude before.
Falk: As a big Magic Johnson fan, it’s a crime that Magic got such a contract. The next day I was interviewed by CNN and they asked me: You think this is the Armageddon of sports? I said: When this agreement goes into effect in 1984, Magic will cry because it is so far behind the market. Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone – those guys never got the big money because every time they saw another player that they didn’t think was as good as them, who was making a lot of money, they would renegotiate their contracts. Magic’s contract began [at the start of the 1984 season]. On the 18th. September 1985, Patrick Ewing signs a 10-year, $32 million contract.
In 1996, when JORDAN was about to be released free, an article appeared in Sports Illustrated magazine: The $40 million man… No matter how lucrative a contract Michael Jordan signs as a free agent, he’s not getting what he’s worth. The article estimates that Jordan earned $44 million in 1995 (including advertising revenue), although the basketball player’s salary for 1995-96 is only 9% of that amount.
Ewing was the highest paid player in the league in 1995-96 with a salary of $18.7 million, a one-year payment that far exceeded his salary for all other years of his contract. Still, with so many big-name stars jumping into the free agent race, it was to be expected that the salaries of many other players would be similar or higher than Ewing’s.
Falk: Michael Jordan is the Taj Mahal, so there’s no comparison, and in an environment like this, while he has great value, it’s not always easy to determine what’s fair. Jerry Reinsdorf is one of the smartest and funniest bosses in professional sports, but when you’re working in unfamiliar territory, it’s not easy…
B.J. Armstrong, Jordan’s teammate with the Bulls from 1989 to 1993; 1995, current NBA player agent: What is the real value of a player like Jordan? I think that’s what you’re bargaining against.
Leonard Armato, Shaq’s agent: Superstars began to realize that all franchises were built around them. So one NBA player can make a big difference in the life of a franchise. There is no other sport like it.
Grunfeld: Within two or three days [of winning the lottery in 1985], the Knicks sold 3,000 or 4,000 season tickets.
From Gundy: The real elites always win. It’s not a big list. If you take LeBron James, the salary cap reduces his real value to the franchise. And I know it’s hard to imagine, because the numbers are extraordinary and anyone would be happy with a salary like that. But if there was no limit on the individual player and he was just named: This is how much you can spend on your team, I think LeBron gets maybe 80% of that.
Falk: Do you think signing LeBron James in Miami was worth as much as signing Chris Bosh? Then why did he get so much as Chris Bosch? The rules on maximum wages have changed. When Michael Jordan signed, there was no salary cap. It could easily be worth $100 million a year. … Jordan told me he didn’t want me to let Jerry Reinsdorf or the Bulls know what I thought I had to do to get him to sign. He just wanted to know, without pressure or coercion, how much Bulls thought he was worth. And so [when free agency began], he asked me not to make an offer to anybody. When the Bulls called and asked what it would take to sign a contract, I explained to Jerry Reinsdorf that Michael wanted the Bulls to make a better offer. And he just said yes or no. It’s like a sealed application.
Isola: There was no way to take advantage of everything he had accomplished, and they were still a great team. In the summer of ’96, Jordan was still a grown man, so he had to pay. It was almost like a service charge, but he also got it for the potential. If they sold Michael Jordan, which would be madness, I could see him coming to the Knicks.
Falk: Reinsdorf was a very clever man and said: David, that might be the stupidest thing you’ve ever said to me. I’m really not going to do this. You mean if I call the wrong number and don’t get a chance to answer, I lose the best player of all time? I said: Look, Michael wants to handle this. He said: I want to give you an initial figure that I think is reasonable, and I want you to tell me [whether] that figure is reasonable. I said: Okay, that sounds reasonable. And he asked one of the most famous questions in sports history: Does the first number start with a two? And there was a very, very, very long pause in the phone call. And I said: No, Jerry, the first number doesn’t start with 2. But] we know it will be a seismic decision because you’re asking your team to pay 45 percent more [than the next highest paid player in the league]. LeBron James earned 45% more than Kobe Bryant? There has never been a player who earns 45% more than the next highest paid athlete. Rheinsdorf should really be aware of this. One night, when he was thinking about it, we had a conversation with [Checketts].
Checketts: I was just saying: All our space in the capital, everything we have, can be yours when Michael comes.
Jordan and the Bulls have always kept Ewing and the Knicks out of the Eastern Conference Finals. AP Photo/Fred Jewell
PROBLEM FOR THE NIX: Our total available space was $9.45 million. Even if Jordan took it all away, he still wouldn’t be the highest paid player in the league – let alone a salary befitting his unprecedented performance. If there were no other way for New York City to transfer tens of millions of dollars a year into his bank account, Jordan would continue to receive a significantly lower salary.
At the end of the 1987-88 season, Jordan, who had ended his best individual season with a legendary slam-dunk, renegotiated his contract. He signed an eight-year, $26 million contract with an annual salary of $2.15 million. This contract expires in the summer of 1996.
Falk: In 1988, Jordan had three years of his contract left. You don’t get free agent money if you’re not a free agent and have to renegotiate a contract. His first year was led by my first supervisor. It was perhaps one of the worst contracts in league history.
Smith: Jordan’s rookie contract is the only contract the Bulls have renegotiated, if I remember correctly.
Falk: Before Michael Jordan, there was no marketing in the NBA. At the time, that was unheard of for team athletes, especially in basketball.
Armato: We saw Jordan as a man who had a gift for presenting information, which he did, and with incredible success.
Weiser: Michael Jordan now earns [his 1988 contract salary] in Hanes commercials.
Michael Jordan in conversation with Spike Lee during the 1991 NBA Finals. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
In the THIRD season of Jordan’s revised contract in 1988 – 1990-91, which Jordan ended with his first championship – the NBA began signing huge television contracts with NBC (four years, $601 million) and TNT (four years, $275 million), nearly quadrupling their combined television revenues. As a result, the salary cap for this compensation reached eight figures for the first time.
Isola: This always amazed the boys. The guys who were recruited in the early ’80s? With the ’96, ’97 and ’98, they can’t believe these guys are making money.
Falk: If you have a system where players are willing to sign long-term contracts for security, why would you as a league want to change that system at all?
Armstrong: At the time, the league was in full expansion. Television has been a driving force. Revenues were higher. And everyone, the league, the owners and the players, were fighting for their share of the pie.
Patrick Ewing (left) with Knicks teammate Charles Oakley. BRIAN BAHR/AFP via Getty Images
If he had signed with the Knicks, Jordan would have been on the biggest stage in sports without his famous fletcher. Although they were close friends, Jordan enjoyed ruling Ewing’s Knicks, the annual Broadway revival of the previous year’s result.
The Bulls’ first-round victory over the Knicks in 1991 led New York to hire Riley, who in turn built a relentless and fearsome team that took Chicago to seven games in 1992. Then, in 1993, the Knicks led 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals. The win in Game 2 came after Jordan’s much-discussed trip to Atlantic City.
The Bulls have won the last four games of the series, including Game 5 at MSG, known simply as the Charles Smith game, in which the Knicks forward failed on four crucial shot attempts. That sums up the Eastern Conference hierarchy in the 1990s. The Bulls won their third title that month, and Jordan retired for the first time before next season.
After failing to lead New York to a championship – the only blemish on his resume – Riley resigned in the summer of 1995. Riley reportedly turned down an offer of $3 million a year, the most lucrative at the time, for reasons he said had absolutely nothing to do with money – instead, he wanted control over personnel decisions. Checketts, for his part, said at the time that Riley wanted partial possession. The disagreements are irrevocable, the divorce is inevitable and the Knicks trade Riley to the Heat for a first round pick and $1 million after being accused of cheating.
Either way, Riley’s credibility and free agent appeal, which later turned out to be in Miami, went with him. But New York is still Jordan’s favorite place.
Isola: When he arrived at the garden, he had a premonition. We always stressed that Jordan was a New Yorker (he was born in Brooklyn) and that he always did the show there.
Armstrong: Everyone liked playing in New York because New York has a different energy. The respect you have for New York fans, and especially the New York fanbase, is great. I mean, Pat Riley was the head coach. Patrick Ewing was there. At the time, they were one of the best teams in the league.
From Gundy: From the time Coach Riley arrived until Jordan left, the competition between the Bulls and the Knicks was truly at a high level for the second time. Unfortunately, when Jordan was in New York, we never got beyond that point.
Isola: He loved to beat the Knicks. I always had a feeling this guy would find a way to beat you. You can’t hit him four times.
Checketts: There is no one with the same will as him, and certainly not to play in Gardena-Gröden. … David promised me an answer soon.
In Spike Lee’s 1997 basketball memoir, The Best Place in the House, Jordan made it clear. New York was right on the line. The Bulls – all they had to do was screw up, Jordan says in the book, and he tells Lee afterwards that there was a chance he could have played for the Knicks if the circumstances had been right – namely if coach Phil Jackson had come along. (Through their representatives, Jordan and Reinsdorf declined to be interviewed for this article. Jackson did not respond to a request for an interview). But it wasn’t that simple. It would take unprecedented action to create a market for Jordan worth leaving Chicago for.
Smith, author of the New York Times bestseller The Jordan Rule, reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 – along with a photo of a Knicks jersey bearing the number 23 – that ITT, which owns both the Knicks and Sheraton hotels, is a potential vehicle for unprecedented action. According to Smith, ITT was chosen to raise $15 million to bring in Jordan, who could become the face of a national hotel chain.
This plan, Smith writes, was David Falk’s idea.
And that plan in itself would be an illegal circumvention of the salary cap according to the CBA, which prohibits any arrangement in which basketball players are paid by a sponsor, business partner or third party. The NBA took it very seriously. Message: The NBA has voided minor contracts, including center Chris Dudley’s seven-year contract with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1993, because Dudley allegedly circumvented cap rules by structuring his contract. The NBA did not win this game. Three years later, in 1996, the league voided Juwan Howard’s $105 million contract with the Heat because he had exceeded the salary cap two weeks after signing. The league’s main allegation was that Miami initially entered into an unspoken agreement with Mourning, its own free agent, and did not have the resources to contract Howard. After the rift between the NBA, the union and the Heat, Howard returned to the Washington Bullets for the same money.
But Jordan was no Juwan Howard. He was a cash cow for the NBA. And New York was the biggest market in the league. Given the cap hit, Knicks management wanted to visit Falk in person at his Washington, D.C., office to inquire about several free agents.
When Checketts and Grunfeld arrived, the fight between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota on July 11 at Madison Square Garden ended in a fight that spilled out of the ring into the crowd. Checketts had barely entered Falk’s office or he received a call from his assistant about the chaos on the 14th. Guided garden floor. He had to turn around and take a private plane back to New York to face the wrath of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and others. Checkett’s personal bid for Jordan Nix did not go through, but Grunfeld accepted it anyway.
Grunfeld: Four or five teams wanted to talk to him about his clients. The conversation] was more about Yuvan and other customers. Jordan’s name came up.
Either way, all Checketts could do under league rules was offer Jordan the vacated spot on the roster. That’s exactly what he did, according to Checketts – on the phone.
Checketts: I just gave him a day to think [about offering all the money under the Knicks’ salary cap]. And [Falk] came back and said he couldn’t make a decision so quickly. Part of me wanted to wait, but I felt like it would be a disaster if we waited and Michael didn’t leave Chicago and we would miss out on some really good players.
Falk: I’m not here to disagree with Dave; Dave and I are very good friends. … I was the one who told him…we had to make a decision within 24 hours because there is only a certain amount of capital in the system.
Smith: Bulls knew he had nowhere to go. They knew they risked serious penalties if the Knicks promised a deal under the table. All I’ve heard – from some sources with the Bulls and others – is that the Knicks are trying to do something. Maybe Jordan will agree to a minimum deal of a million dollars and get – wink, wink – an island in Fiji.
Checketts: David Falk advised us to spice up what we do under cover with a nice package from the parent company in the form of stock options, overnight stays or something similar.
Falk: I don’t recall having a conversation about signing a contract with ITT. … I don’t recall us ever talking about fringe benefits. … I would say that if there ever comes a point where I see us having to seriously negotiate with the Knicks … As someone who probably understands the salary cap better than anyone, I would try to figure out what the flexibility is under the salary cap.
Checketts: I want to be very clear on this point: We’ve never proposed anything like this before. That would have been a violation of the limit, and the NBA would have intervened and counted the value we would have given and everything else [against the limit]. And ITT itself would be scrutinized by its shareholders for doing something for a division while hiding the value of the hotel business from its shareholders. So it was David Falk’s idea, not mine, and nothing came up.
Rand Araskog, former president and CEO of ITT Corporation: No, we avoided it on purpose. All the temptations were there: It’s New York. This will give us an unfair advantage. In fact, the team did not stay at the Sheraton hotels. They already had a contract with The Regency. We have done nothing special in this regard. David Stern was very strict about things like that. David loved the NBA, but I don’t think he liked the owners of the company very much.
Checketts: There was no discussion with the NBA because I understood what the commissioner and his office would say. Think of it as a place in the capital. If the parent company wants to donate something of value, including a night at St. Michael’s, they can. In St. Regis, New York, she invoked the limit. I promise you that.
Granik: The league didn’t work that way because we always understood that if you have rules, you have to enforce them against everyone.
The TWENTY teams have always had something in common: None of them had Michael Jordan – or anyone like him. And Jordan had Falk, who still thinks a cop’s job is simple: get his man for what he’s worth. But Jordan’s value is an astronomical and uncertain number that defies even Falk, whose clients gave him a contract worth more than $400 million in the summer of 1996.
Armato: We have always talked about [additional compensation], especially when it comes to a top player. You just have to be able to show that everything you did was not specifically intended to circumvent the cap and contract. For example, Shaq had a contract with both the Orlando Magic and Amway. They were owned by [Amway co-founder Rich DeVos]. But we made this deal after he had already signed with the Magic, and it had nothing to do with his original contract. At the time, Disney was talking about trying to buy the Lakers. I talked to Mike Ovitz, who was president of Disney at the time, and he said: We bring Shaq in and do all that stuff with him. So there’s been a lot of talk about that, but I don’t know of any specific cases where that’s actually happened in a way that can be determined. …
Falk was creative and aggressive, so I’m sure he was trying – or at least considering – making the Bulls pay more. You must do everything possible to provide maximum value to your customer. Whatever the rules are, you try to follow them as much as possible. And if you can bend the rules a bit without breaking them for the benefit of your client, you do it. It happens all the time.
After FALK disconnected REINSDORF’s phone while the deal was still in the works, and after speaking to Checketts, he spoke a second time to Reinsdorf, who now knew what he had to do to keep the best player in the game. He knew the sentence had to begin with the number 3. And so the deal was essentially done; free trade began on the evening of July 11. and on the 12th. In July, Jordan and the Bulls agreed to a one-year, $30.14 million contract. Regardless of whether Reinsdorf was aware of the Knicks’ potential additional revenue or not, Jordan was given the largest single-season contract in the history of American team sports.
Falk: And Reinsdorf knew that we had had a conversation [with Nix]. I’m not a closed person. I’m a very direct guy. Jerry knew it wasn’t because the other team was trying to push us around. It was a problem that needed to be addressed so Michael would feel comfortable.
Grunfeld: Of course, who wouldn’t be interested in Jordan? I don’t know how close [Jordan was to signing in New York]. I think they used the Knicks as leverage to raise the price. …. much.
Weiser: Riley told me the last time I interviewed him [that] his biggest regret was not having the right people around Patrick to get him the title. They were never able to add Patrick to the Hall of Fame, and when they did give him real help, his body began to deteriorate.
Isola: It’s almost a joke now: These teams use the Knicks as leverage. Jordan’s arrival in New York would have been very different.
Smith: Falk has led most of this game, but his job is to create as much leverage as possible for his clients.
Falk: My goal was to get him to a level that would stand the test of time and show that he was the greatest player of all time. The fact that it took 17 years for someone to catch up with Jordan [Kobe Bryant surpassed Jordan’s 1996-97 salary in the 2013-14 season, when he made $30.5 million, and was then second only to Jordan’s 1997-98 salary of $33.1 million] made me feel like I was doing a good job.
In 1997, seemingly unrelated to Jordan’s loss, ITT Corporation sold its 50% stake in the Madison Square Garden sports and entertainment company to its partner Cablevision.
Although Jordan did not change teams, the summer of 1996 changed NBA history forever. Jordan won two more titles in Chicago and was named the undisputed best player in history at the time. The Knicks signed Allan Houston and Chris Childs and traded Larry Johnson instead of going for Jordan. They reached the NBA Finals with this group in 1999. That same year, James Dolan succeeded his father Charles as president of MSG. Since then, the Knicks, who are looking for their first championship since 1973, have suffered the most losses in the NBA.
And it’s not just that they’re losing. Before this season’s surprising playoff appearance, the Knicks were balancing between dysfunctional and meaningless on the path to dismantling everything that would have attracted Jordan all those years ago. Perhaps following Jordan’s lead, free star agents – including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010 and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019 – were called saviors of the franchise before leaving for elsewhere. After the Nets selected Durant – the height of the Knicks’ decline – he said kids don’t admire the Knicks like they used to. You’re not cool.
Weiser: The media covering the Knicks] are like: Wow, the New York Knicks just made a splash. They picked up Granny [Johnson], an outspoken reserve point guard and one of the best shooters in NBA history. If they can’t take out Michael Jordan, at least let them give him a real fight.
Lori Hamamoto, Knicks public relations director in 1996: Before I started working there, the Knicks were the envy of every team because they did everything first class. During the league rounds, they met to eat as a group. Oh, my God, they’re inviting everyone to dinner? No one else has done it. Everything was focused on victory. It was professional.
Weiser: That Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball is no longer true in one respect: It has become a very pleasant place to visit. It has become a pilgrimage. But that’s not where you’re going to live. This is not the place you want to stay. New York is not a good place for free agents. This hasn’t happened in years. While Madison Square Garden has a similar appeal to basketball players, this franchise does not. The courtyard was almost separate from the building.
But more than anything, the summer of 1996 changed the rules, literally and figuratively. For NBA teams and the media, this has led to words like this: Free space; expiring contracts; start-up meetings. These things existed before 1996, but not as necessary parts of the team rebuilding process. In 1999, the CBA added a maximum wage requirement and a luxury tax, concrete steps to regulate the system.
And that was the beginning of a change in the NBA hierarchy, where power players began to pull all the strings. Just as Jordan signed a one-year contract in his final two seasons in Chicago, Durant declined the player option three times in Golden State.
Armato: Schuck started a movement where players began to take control of their own destiny and determine the future of franchises. It didn’t happen before, but now it happens regularly. Look at what LeBron did. He left his mark on the Miami franchise. He formed Cleveland, then went to the Lakers.
Grunfeld: In the 1990s – and of course before that – very few top players changed teams. And around that time, in the mid-90s, one player after another was transferred because there was so much money available for free agents.
Weiser: The offseason didn’t just continue to grow, it grew exponentially. That’s all they’re talking about now in the offseason. Can we get this guy? There is always an opportunity to make an exceptional sale. The idea that a small market like Oklahoma City could be in the NBA Finals in 2012 with three future Hall of Fame candidates – Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden – and none of them are playing in this city yet is just crazy. The player’s movement is what it’s all about. The NBA offseason is now more important than a baseball season. God bless him… he answers the phone in the shower.
From Gundy: From the perspective of that time, it would have been hard to imagine [Jordan going to New York]. Through the lens of today, anything is possible.
Falk: We have single-handedly dramatically changed the salary structure of the NBA.
Smith: Jordan to the Knicks] was a great fantasy story. It had all the elements of a great science fiction story based on a true story. It could have happened.
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