December 03, 2008
It's a cute little story, one destined to become a "remember, the Knicks once tried to sign ..." cautionary tale for general sports columnists and radio hacks, always ending with a haughty "... and that didn't quite work out, did it?"
Michael Jordan flirted — or, more specifically, Michael Jordan's agent David Falk flirted — with the New York Knicks when MJ was a free agent during the summer of 1996. The Knicks had traded a series of outmoded assets for expiring contracts during the 1995-96 season (the first team I can remember actually doing that, and using the salary cap to their advantage), and were replete with cap space entering the 1996 offseason.
Let's let Sam Smith take it from here:
"Though it's also a function of the players there at the time, and the Knicks of 1996-97 were a good team with Patrick Ewing, a healthy Allan Houston and Jordan's best buddy, Charles Oakley. With Jordan, they likely would have been champions. They seemed a lot better prepared to guarantee Jordan a title than they would now with James in two years.
The key was Knicks ownership at the time.
ITT was a part owner and one of its properties was Sheraton Hotels. Though any compensation other than salary has to be included in the salary cap, strange things can happen in the NBA regarding a New York franchise. So the plan being cooked up was to somehow-I never heard quite how-get Jordan substantial Sheraton holdings, perhaps in endorsement money which would be separate from the salary cap and seemingly within the rules."
Oh boy, where to start?
To begin, Allan Houston wasn't on the Knicks when they tried to sign Mike. He ended up signing with them that summer using most of the cap space New York made the desperate attempt to sign Jordan with. Really, signing Michael to a large deal would have left the Knicks with Ewing, Oakley, John Starks, Herb Williams, Charlie Ward, and a whole host of would-be minimum salaried vets that the Knicks would have to go and sign.
They had to go and sign them anyway, following the non-MJ free agent splurge that followed. But because the Knicks would have used all their cap space on one player (MJ) instead of acquiring several (Houston, Chris Childs, Buck Williams, leaving space to trade for Hubert Davis' and Larry Johnson's contracts), all those Scotty Brooks' and Chris Jents' and Dontae' Jones' would have been seventh and eighth men, instead of occupying the end of the bench as they ended up doing for the 1996-97 Knicks. Not exactly a championship combination.
On top of that, Jones is an interesting case. First, he had an apostrophe at the end of his first name, and secondly, there is a good chance New York would have had to renounce the rights to their unsigned rookies (Jones, John Wallace, Walter McCarty) in order to clear about $3 million more for MJ. That might not seem like a big deal now, but New York had huge hopes heading into and out of that draft. Youth was needed. And that's another three spots to fill with minimum deals.
Also, it wasn't anywhere near a likely option. The most Jordan could have gotten out of the Knicks would have probably flown along the lines of half the money he made (over $30 million) from the Bulls in 1996-97. Unlike now, teams that held a player's Bird Rights had no limitations when it came to re-signing players. Chicago could have signed Jordan for $100 million the following season if they wanted to. And while Cleveland can offer LeBron James more than any other team in 2010, the difference between what he can make with his current or new team isn't nearly as great.
That last part is what makes the last line from Smith -- "Perhaps Jordan is telling James now what really went on and what to do." -- so enervating. It sounds good, to mild fans and people who don't usually care about the NBA, but it's wrong on so many levels. I wasn't aware Jordan and James were fast friends, beyond an early acquaintance and the Nike connection. The fact that Jordan is the GM of another team, with potential tampering charges for that skinflint team looming if he did counsel James, seems to have a bit to do with it.
And the "what to do"? Come on. As if James needs any negotiating juice? The Cavs are going to take a half-second before spitting out some max terms for LeBron when he becomes a free agent. They'd do it now, if they could. They'd do it now even if he told them he was going to take 2009-10 off to learn to play the dulcimer.
Jordan needed that juice because he was dealing with Jerry Reinsdorf, an owner that could pay him any amount but might not have wanted to. But he didn't seem to need it in 1997, when he signed an even bigger deal with the Bulls with no other teams even in spitting distance of cap space nearing a third of what Jordan made in 1997-98.
As far as Jordan somehow earning money under the table with the Knicks and some sort of team-sponsored endorsement, um, wouldn't the IRS have to know about that at some point? And wouldn't the NBA have figured that out, with the paper trail and all? This is the same league that was a few months removed from making Magic Johnson sell off his small ownership stake in the Lakers so he could come back for 30-odd games in 1996, so I really doubt that it would have ever been brought to the table. I know Sam is dubious in his re-telling, but you have to be a bit more than dubious with your readers regarding something like this. Quash it.
But that's how it goes with the NBA. It isn't exactly the most popular league out there, so apocryphal tales and exaggerations and the willingness to exclude or in some case distort available facts often seem to be taken as gospel by readers and listeners because they "sound about right." That MJ would want to play with Oakley. That the Knicks and David Falk could pull a fast one on the NBA. That the Knicks were a ready-made contender missing that final piece. That nobody remembers 1996.
Luckily, BDL does. It was a fun year, and we took a lot of notes.