MONTHS AFTER THE 1998 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan sat on one side of a giant table inside a Manhattan conference room. It was the site of a bargaining session between NBA owners and players. The league was embroiled in a lockout. The season was in jeopardy. But Jordan had other unfinished business to attend to.
A group of players sat with Jordan, who was an advocate for the union despite being weeks away from announcing a second retirement. There was one microphone in front of the six-time NBA champion and another in front of Dave Checketts, president and CEO of Madison Square Garden, who sat alongside seven owners and commissioner David Stern on the other side of the table.
The players said they wanted a larger piece of the NBA’s growing revenue, for which Jordan’s global fame was a driving force. The owners wanted to regulate a salary system that had allowed Jordan, on his own, to eclipse an entire team’s salary cap in each of the prior two seasons — thanks to the convergence of his massive worth and the league’s Larry Bird Rights rule.
Jordan and Checketts had, by Checketts’ own admission, never spoken, but their histories were deeply intertwined. In his 1980s tenure as a Jazz executive, Checketts had drafted both John Stockton and Karl Malone, who had just lost to Jordan in consecutive Finals appearances. While running the Knicks from 1991 to 2001, Checketts, and his teams, had been ousted by Jordan’s Bulls four times. (The Knicks were bounced a total of five times by the Bulls during the Jordan era.)
Now, Jordan stared at Checketts, as the occupants of the room settled into place for the proceedings, and leaned into the microphone.
“Still trying to beat the Bulls, are you?” Jordan said. A knowing look passed between the two men. Left unsaid was a paradigm-shifting signing from two years earlier — Jordan to the Knicks — that never came to be. It was a potential move, if the rumors were to be believed, that threatened to alter the NBA’s balance of power in the summer of 1996. It came at a time when the beginning of increased player power and movement coincided with Jordan, at his apex, becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
This is the oral history of that negotiation, the NBA’s financial forces that made it a possibility and the subsequent fallout. It was a realignment of star power that could have ended one dynasty and created a new one. That is, again, if you believe the rumors.
IT WAS JUNE 16, 1996, when Michael Jordan, in full uniform, lay face down on a United Center carpet. He gripped a basketball in his left arm 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 his father, James, was murdered.
For the 32-year-old Jordan, the 1995-96 season was a redemption tour. He had led the NBA in scoring (30.4 PPG) and won his fourth MVP en route to a then-record 72 wins. Heading into the 1996 Finals, the Bulls had lost one playoff game, sandwiching sweeps of the Heat and Magic around a five-game dispatching of the Knicks.
It was, well, the Michael Jordan of contract years.
And behind the scenes, Chicago had reason to worry. Not only would Jordan hit the open market for the first time, but both coach Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman had uncertain futures with the Bulls, too.
In New York, following a five-year run that had started with Pat Riley’s arrival in 1991 and peaked with a trip to the 1994 NBA Finals, when Jordan was out of the league, the Knicks were primed for a shake-up around a 33-year-old Patrick Ewing. Aging point guard Derek Harper and veteran forward Anthony Mason, key role players during New York’s aforementioned run, had played their last games in orange and blue.
In Checketts’ mind, heading into that summer, the team just wasn’t good enough to win a title.
Sam Smith, Bulls beat writer for the Chicago Tribune and author of The Jordan Rules: The summer sort of dragged on, Jordan technically a free agent, but [no team other than Chicago] had money to pay him. There was nowhere he could go. Then, I had heard this thing about the Knicks.
Mike Wise, former Knicks beat writer, New York Times: The biggest thing for them was competing with the Bulls, trying to scale Mount Michael. As the ’90’s progressed, and it became Michael’s league, you needed at least one complementary Hall of Famer to your superstar to win it all.
Smith: The Knicks, of course, were very frustrated about losing to the Bulls constantly. And they lost in the Finals to the Rockets even after Jordan [retired the first time] — and New York is always looking to do a big splash.
Frank Isola, former NY Daily News writer: Checketts, [Knicks GM] Ernie Grunfeld, they would’ve moved heaven and earth to get [Jordan]. They were trading guys and then taking back contracts of guys in the final year of their deal.
Grunfeld: If we could have gotten it done financially, we would have dropped everything else. Believe me. In the media, Jordan’s camp let the word out that, if he didn’t get what he wanted from Chicago, he would look at other things.
Checketts: So leading up to the offseason in ’96, we created a lot of cap space and, as a result, there was a tremendous anticipation in New York for what we could do with it. We had a plan.
THAT PLAN HAD already started on Feb. 8, 1996, with the NBA’s trade deadline approaching. The Knicks made two trades over the course of 10 days, including dealing veteran forward Charles Smith, which returned players on expiring deals and opened up $10 million of much-needed cap space.
By March 8, 1996, the Knicks — having gone 4-9 since the All-Star break — fired Don Nelson, Riley’s successor for 59 games during the 1995-96 campaign, and tabbed assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy to guide the flawed roster for the rest of the season. A sea change was inevitable.
Isola: Checketts was always thinking big. The Knicks tried to get Charles Barkley. They were always desperately trying to get that second superstar. You would’ve had Ewing. That would’ve been a championship team.
Grunfeld: That was a rumor, basically. I mean, look, you always have your phone lines open, you always make calls and find out who’s there who’s available, but I never felt like the Barkley thing was close to happening. And that was really later in his career. I don’t think Patrick gets enough credit for what a great player he really was. [Eight] years in a row he played [at least 79 games], averaged 25 points, 12 rebounds and two-and-half, three blocked shots. Our team was built around Patrick, and we wanted to put the right pieces around him.
Isola: I think Michael Jordan would have sufficed for a second superstar if they had gotten him.
Smith: [David Falk, Jordan’s agent] always had this fantasy that he could pull all his players on the same team — his biggest players — and control that team. It would be like a shadow GM. I think that was kind of a dream of David’s.
Falk: Most of my critics would never say I wanted to be a shadow GM for the Knicks. Do you know what they said? People called me the shadow commissioner, not a shadow GM. That’s insulting. I never had a desire to do that. [But] I had a very strong feeling in 1994 that, in 1996, there’s going to be unrestricted free agents [the earliest in a player’s career it had ever been and no restricted free agency]. The rules changed; the values of players changed.
Grunfeld: If you can become a free agent earlier — an unrestricted free agent — it gives the player a lot more leverage.
THE NBA’S 1996 free-agent bonanza was the first of its kind. Wise, then the Knicks’ beat writer for the Times, wrote then that it was the “the greatest collection of National Basketball Association free agents.” It was, in many ways, a precursor to the attention given to LeBron James’ “The Decision” and “The Hamptons Five,” the contingent present for Kevin Durant’s recruitment by the Warriors.
So in 1996, with a new CBA that made it easier than ever to be an unrestricted free agent, the market was flooded with young talent. There was 24-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. A 26-year-old Alonzo Mourning. And Juwan Howard … Gary Payton … Dikembe Mutombo … Reggie Miller … Allan Houston — as many as 165 in all, many of whom were entering or within their primes.
But with no max salary or luxury tax in place at the time, the only restriction was the salary cap. And the Bulls owned Michael Jordan’s Bird rights, which allowed teams to go over the $24.4 million cap to pay their own free agents. In other words, for Chicago — and Chicago only — there was no limit to what they were allowed to pay Jordan.
Russ Granik, former NBA deputy commissioner and lead CBA negotiator: [After the 1994-95 season was played with a no-strike-no-lockout agreement], there was a lockout imposed [in 1995]. At the same time, there was a turnover in management of the union. And the new head of the union was a guy named Simon Gourdine, who used to work for the NBA. And there were some people that, politically, didn’t think he was the right guy.
Falk: I don’t think the league was afraid of Simon. I don’t think they feared him.
Jeffrey Kessler, NBA players’ union attorney: A group of players led by Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan led an effort to decertify the union because they thought the deal [CBA negotiated but not yet signed] was a sellout.
Falk: If the union was not capable of doing its job, then the logical step would be to decertify, which would give the players more leverage. The union didn’t have the capability of negotiating a proper deal. So we actually urged the players to decertify.
Granik: Buck Williams was the [union] president. And he supported Gourdine and the existing structure of the union. And a group [represented] by Kessler tried to eliminate the union.
THE 1995 LOCKOUT, the first in NBA history, began on July 1 and ended on Sept. 12, when the vote allowed the union’s old guard to agree to terms on a new CBA. After Jordan’s Bulls won the 1996 title, the deal was still unsigned into July, when the two sides fought over final details. That spawned another brief work stoppage — the “famous 20-minute lockout,” Kessler says.
The new deal was officially announced on July 11, 1996. By 5 p.m. on that day, the biggest free-agency period in the history of the NBA began.
Falk: I allowed all my premiere class to become free agents in 1996. We had Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard, Kenny Anderson, Armen Gilliam, Chris Gatling. It was like a chess board.
Checketts: The Knicks, historically, were just horrible about cap management. … [But] we were going after Allan Houston first. He was our No. 1 target. And if Allan didn’t sign with us, we’re going next to Reggie Miller. But before we went off on the road to get everybody, my first call was to David Falk [about Jordan].
Isola: This was the one time the Knicks had money. They would give [Jordan] as much money as they could.
Checketts: I would have done anything I possibly could have put together that could have passed league muster to get [Jordan].
Falk: There was no team in the league that could offer him a fraction of what the Bulls could, so the only issue … was developing the comfort level between him and the owner, that what Jerry [Reinsdorf] was comfortable paying him was something that Michael was comfortable accepting. Had nothing to do with other teams. It was really a one-horse race.
AS THE THIRD OVERALL PICK 12 years prior, Jordan had joined the scuffling Bulls, who had made the playoffs just once in the previous seven seasons and had never made it past the conference finals in their history. The franchise savior had signed for $6.3 million over the life of his seven-year rookie deal. The salary cap had gone into effect for the entire league for the first time in 1984-85, Jordan’s rookie season. It had been set at $3.6 million.
Magic Johnson was the league’s highest-paid player at the time, after negotiating an unprecedented contract, which began in 1984. By June 1985, Patrick Ewing — the prize of the first draft lottery — was taken by the Knicks with the first overall pick. Ewing was represented by Falk.
Falk: Magic signed a terrible rookie contract that was for five years. After his [second] year, his agent wants to renegotiate a deal with Jerry Buss. [Magic was an] NCAA wonder, [Finals] MVP. The Lakers were one of [five] teams subject to the cap in [1983-84 before the rest of the league in 1984-85], so they did a 25-year deal for $25 million.
Smith: The way they did it within the restraints of the salary cap, it was an innovative thing. And it was a huge story at the time because nobody had ever gotten a contract of that magnitude.
Falk: As a big Magic Johnson fan, it’s a crime that Magic had that contract. I got interviewed by CNN the next day and they asked me, “Do you think this is the Armageddon of sports?” I said, “By the time this contract starts in 1984, Magic is going to be crying because he’s so far behind in the market.” Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, those guys never got paid big money because every time they saw another player that they felt wasn’t as good as they were make a lot of money, they’d go renegotiate the contracts. Magic’s contract started [at the beginning of the 1984 season]. On Sept. , 1985, Patrick Ewing signed a contract for $32 million for 10 years.
AS JORDAN APPROACHED free agency in 1996, a Sports Illustrated story blared: “The $40 Million Man … No Matter How Lucrative a Contract Free-Agent-to-Be Michael Jordan Signs, He Won’t Get What He’s Worth.” That story estimated that Jordan made $44 million in 1995 (including endorsement income) despite a 1995-96 basketball salary accounting for just 9 percent of that number.
Ewing was the league’s highest-paid player in 1995-96 with a salary of $18.7 million — a one-year balloon payment that was significantly higher than his salary in any other year of his deal. Still, with so many big stars testing the free-agent waters, it was expected many other salaries would be similar or exceed Ewing’s.
Falk: Michael Jordan is the Taj Mahal, so there are no comps and, in that kind of an environment, while he has great value, it’s not necessarily easy to determine what’s fair. Jerry Reinsdorf is one of the smartest, most-astute owners I’ve ever dealt with in professional sports but, when you’re dealing in unchartered territory, it’s not easy …
B.J. Armstrong, Jordan’s teammate with the Bulls from 1989-93; 1995, current NBA player agent: What’s the true value of a player like Jordan? I think that’s what you’re negotiating against.
Leonard Armato, Shaq’s agent: The superstars started to realize that the franchises were all built around them. So one player in the NBA could make a massive difference to a franchise. It’s not like that in any other sport.
Grunfeld: Within two or three days [of winning the 1985 lottery], the Knicks sold 3,000 or 4,000 season tickets.
Van Gundy: The truly elite drive winning throughout time. It’s not a huge list. If you took LeBron James, the salary cap squashes his true value to a franchise. And I know that’s hard to fathom because the numbers are extraordinary, and anybody would be happy with that salary. And yet if there wasn’t a cap on an individual player, and it was just, this is what you can spend on your team, I would suspect maybe LeBron would get 80% of that.
Falk: Do you think that LeBron James, when he signed with Miami, was worth the same as Chris Bosh? So, why did he get the same as Chris Bosh? The rules changed on maximum salaries. When Michael Jordan signed, they didn’t have maximum salaries. His value, easily, could have been $100 million a year. … [Jordan] told me he never wanted me to give Jerry Reinsdorf or the Bulls an indication of what I thought it would take to sign him. He just wanted to know, without being pushed or leveraged, what the Bulls felt he was worth. And so [when free agency started], he had instructed me not to make any offers to anyone. When the Bulls called and they asked what it would take to sign, I explained to Jerry Reinsdorf that Michael wanted the Bulls to make their best offer. And he would just simply say yes or no. It’s like a sealed bid.
Isola: There was no way that he wasn’t going to cash in on everything that he accomplished, and they were still a great team. Jordan was still great by the summer of ’96, so he had to pay him. It was almost like a services-rendered fee, but he was getting it for potential as well. If they would’ve low-balled Michael Jordan, which would’ve been completely insane, I could’ve seen him coming to the Knicks.
Falk: Reinsdorf was a very smart guy and said, “David, that may be the dumbest thing you’ve ever said to me. There is no way I’m going to do that. You’re telling me that if I give you the wrong number, then I’m going to lose the greatest player of all-time, and I’m not going to have a chance to respond?” I said, “Look, this is the way Michael wants to handle it.” He said, “I would like to give you the first digit of what I think is a fair number and I want you to tell me [if] that’s the appropriate digit.” I said, “OK, that sounds reasonable.” And he asked one of the most famous questions in the history of sports: “Does the first digit start with a two?” And there was a very, very, very long pause on the phone. And I said, “No, Jerry, the first digit does not start with two.” [But] we know that this is going to be a seismic decision because you’re asking your team to pay 45% higher [than the next-highest paid player in the league]. Did LeBron James make 45% more than Kobe Bryant? There’s never been a player that made 45% more than the next-highest-paid athlete ever. Reinsdorf has to really let this sink in. Sometime that night while he’s thinking about it, we had a conversation with [Checketts].
Checketts: I just said, “All of our cap room, all of it, can be yours if Michael will come.”
THE PROBLEM FOR the Knicks: “all of our cap room” constituted $9.45 million. Even if Jordan took all of it, he wouldn’t even be the league’s highest-paid player — never mind one paid commensurate with his unprecedented accomplishments. In New York, barring some other means to drop tens of millions of dollars into his bank account each year, Jordan would continue to be dramatically underpaid.
Late in the 1987-88 season, Jordan — finishing up his best individual season and coming off a legendary Slam Dunk Contest win — had reworked his contract. He had signed an eight-year, $26 million deal, with an annual haul that started at $2.15 million. That deal would expire in the summer of 1996.
Falk: In 1988, Jordan had three years left on his contract. You don’t get free-agent money when you’re not a free agent and you have to renegotiate. His first year was done by my first boss. It was one of the worst contracts, probably, in the history of the league.
Smith: [Jordan’s rookie deal] was the only contract, to my recollection, that the Bulls ever renegotiated.
Falk: Before Michael Jordan, there wasn’t marketing in the NBA. It was unheard of for a team sport athlete at that time, particularly in basketball.
Armato: We saw Jordan as the ultimate pitch man, which he was, and incredibly successful.
Wise: Michael Jordan makes [the salary from his 1988 contract] in a Hanes commercial now.
IN THE THIRD season of Jordan’s reworked 1988 deal — 1990-91, which Jordan capped with his first championship — the NBA began massive television contracts with NBC (four years, $601 million) and TNT (four years, $275 million), almost quadrupling its combined TV revenue. As a result, the salary cap, which was tied to that revenue, rose to eight figures for the first time.
Isola: It always used to blow those guys away. The guys that were drafted in the early ’80s? By the time ’96, ’97 and ’98 roll around, they can’t believe the money that guys are making.
Falk: When you have a system like that where the players want to lock themselves into these long-term deals for security, if you’re the league, why on earth do you ever want to change that system?
Armstrong: The league at that particular time was growing. Television was the driving force. There was more revenue. And everyone, the league and the owners and the players, was fighting for their piece of the pie.
IF HE SIGNED with the Knicks, Jordan would have been robbed of a famous foil on the sport’s biggest stage. Though they were close friends, Jordan relished reigning over Ewing’s Knicks — an annual Broadway revival of the previous year’s result.
The Bulls’ first-round sweep of the Knicks in 1991 led to New York hiring Riley, who in turn built a brutish and bruising squad that took Chicago to seven games in 1992. Then in 1993, the Knicks took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. Their Game 2 victory came after Jordan’s well-publicized trip to Atlantic City.
The Bulls won the series’ last four games, including a Game 5 thriller at MSG known simply as “The Charles Smith Game,” at the end of which the Knicks forward couldn’t convert on four go-ahead layup attempts. It epitomized the Eastern Conference hierarchy in the ’90s. The Bulls won their third title later that month, and Jordan retired for the first time before the following season.
Unable to bring New York a championship — the only blemish on his Hall of Fame résumé — Riley resigned in the summer of 1995. Riley reportedly turned down a $3 million-per-year offer, the most lucrative ever at the time, for reasons that he said “had absolutely nothing to do with money” — but instead with control over personnel decisions. Checketts, for his part, said at the time that Riley wanted part-ownership. There were irrevocable differences, divorce was inevitable, and the Knicks, after filing tampering charges, traded Riley to the Heat for a first-round pick and $1 million.
Either way, Riley’s cachet and gravitational pull with free agents, which became evident later in Miami, left with him. But New York remained Jordan’s favorite place to play.
Isola: When he came to the Garden he just had a flair. We would always play up the fact that [Jordan] was a New Yorker [born in Brooklyn], and he just always seemed to put on a show there.
Armstrong: Everyone loved to play in New York because New York has a different energy. So the respect that you have for the New York fans and the New York fan base, in particular, they were great. I mean, Pat Riley was the head coach. There was Patrick Ewing. They were one of the best teams in the league at that particular time.
Van Gundy: From the time Coach Riley came to the time that Jordan left, the second time, the competition between the Bulls and the Knicks was really high-level stuff. Now, unfortunately for us, in New York, when Jordan was there, we never got over the hump.
Isola: He just loved beating the Knicks. I always felt like somehow, some way that dude will find a way to beat you. You’re not going to beat him four times.
Checketts: There’s no one that had the same kind of will that he did, and especially to play in the Garden. … David promised me an answer really quickly.
IN SPIKE LEE’S 1997 basketball memoir “Best Seat in the House,” Jordan made that clear. “New York was right downstairs. The Bulls — all they had to do was mess up,” Jordan said in the book, telling Lee in hindsight that there was a chance he could have played for the Knicks if the circumstances were right — namely if coach Phil Jackson came along for the ride. (Through representative, Jordan and Reinsdorf declined to be interviewed for this story. Jackson did not respond respond to a request for an interview.) But it wasn’t quite that simple. Creating a market for Jordan, one in which leaving Chicago was worth it, would take unprecedented action.
Smith, who wrote the New York Times best seller “The Jordan Rules,” reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 — accompanied by an artist’s rendering of a No. 23 Knicks jersey — that ITT Corporation, which owned both the Knicks and Sheraton hotels, was the vessel for potential unprecedented action. Smith said ITT was targeted as the source of $15 million to lure Jordan, who could have been the face of a national hotel chain.
That plan, Smith wrote, was the brainchild of David Falk.
And that plan, on its face, would have been an illegal circumvention of the salary cap, according to the CBA, which forbade any agreement in which “basketball services” were paid for via a “sponsor, business partner or third party.” It was discretion that the NBA took very seriously. Consider: The NBA voided contracts for less, including that of center Chris Dudley, who signed for seven years with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1993, because it claimed Dudley was skirting cap rules with the structure of his contract. The NBA didn’t win that one. Three years later, in 1996, the league voided Juwan Howard’s $105 million contract with the Heat for a salary cap violation two weeks after it was inked. The league’s chief claim was that Miami first had a tacit agreement with Mourning, its own free agent, and didn’t have the capital to sign Howard. After the NBA, the union and the Heat faced off, Howard ended up back with the Washington Bullets for the same amount of money.
But Jordan was not Juwan Howard. He was a one-man cash cow for the NBA. And New York was the league’s biggest market. With its cap limit in mind, the Knicks’ brass was set to make its case to Falk, in person, at his office in Washington, D.C., where it would inquire about several of his free agents.
It turned out that, when Checketts and Grunfeld arrived, a July 11 bout between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota at Madison Square Garden ended with a melee that spilled from the ring into the crowd. Before Checketts could enter Falk’s office, he got a call from his executive assistant, who was watching the chaos from a 14th-floor Garden perch. He had to turn around and take the private plane back to New York and deal with an irate Mayor Rudy Giuliani, among others. An in-person Jordan-to-the-Knicks pitch from Checketts wouldn’t happen, but Grunfeld headed in anyway.
Grunfeld: [Falk] had four or five teams lined up to meet with him about his clients. [The conversation] was more about Juwan and some other clients. Jordan’s name came up.
Regardless, all Checketts could do, according to league rules, was offer Jordan the cap space he had created. Which is what Checketts, to this day, says he did — by phone.
Checketts: I only gave him a day to think about [the offer of all the money under the Knicks’ salary cap]. And [Falk] came back and said he can’t make a decision that fast. And there was part of me that wanted to wait, but I felt it would be a disaster if we waited, and then Michael wouldn’t leave Chicago, and we would have missed out on really good players.
Falk: I’m not here to contradict Dave; Dave and I are really good friends. … I was the one that told him … that we were going to need to make a decision in 24 hours because there’s only a certain amount of capital in the system.
Smith: The Bulls knew he couldn’t go anywhere. They knew if the Knicks promised any sort of a deal under the table, there were severe penalties. All I’d heard was — from some sources with the Bulls and some outside — that the Knicks were trying to do something. Maybe Jordan takes a million-dollar deal minimum and then — wink, wink — he gets an island in Fiji.
Checketts: David Falk had told us to spice up what we were doing under the cap with a nice package from our parent corporation in terms of stock options or room nights or something like that.
Falk: I don’t recall ever having a conversation about signing with ITT. … I don’t ever recall getting to the point where we were discussing auxiliary income. … I would say that if there ever came a time where I saw that we’d have to have serious discussions with the Knicks … as someone who probably understood salary cap as well as anyone in the world, I would try to understand what flexibilities there were in the cap.
Checketts: I want to be crystal clear about this: We never offered anything like that. It would have been a cap violation, and the NBA would have come in and counted whatever value we would have given it and anything else [against the cap]. And the company itself, ITT, would have been really under scrutiny to its shareholders for doing something for a division of the company but taking value away from their shareholders in the hotel business. So that was David Falk’s idea, was not mine and nothing was ever offered across the table.
Rand Araskog, former chairman and CEO of ITT Corporation: No, we avoided that on purpose. Any enticement was: It’s New York. That would give us an unfair advantage. In fact, the team wouldn’t stay at Sheraton hotels. They already had a deal with The Regency. We didn’t do anything special like that. David Stern was very tough on stuff like that. David loved the NBA, but I don’t think he was particularly fond of corporate owners.
Checketts: There were no discussions with the NBA about it because I understood what the commissioner and his office would say. You have to count that as cap room. If the parent company wants to give anything of value, including a one-night stay in The St. Regis in New York, it was counting toward the cap. I promise.
Granik: The league didn’t work that way because we always realized that, if you have rules, you got to enforce them against everybody.
TWENTY-EIGHT TEAMS always had something in common: None of them had Michael Jordan — or anyone like him. And Jordan had Falk, who still believes the charge of an agent is simple: get your guy what he’s worth. But Jordan’s worth was astronomical, an undefined number that challenged even Falk, whose clients would sign for more than $400 million combined in the summer of ’96.
Armato: We talked about [extra compensation] all the time, especially with a top player. You just have to be able to show that whatever you were doing wasn’t tied specifically to circumventing the cap and the contract. For example, Shaq had a deal with the Orlando Magic, and he also had a deal with Amway. They were owned by [Amway co-founder Rich DeVos]. But we did that deal after he’d already signed with the Magic, and it wasn’t tied to his original contract at all. At the time, Disney was talking about trying to buy the Lakers. I was talking to Mike Ovitz, who was the president of Disney at the time, and he said, “We’ll bring Shaq in, and we’ll do all this stuff with him.” So there’s a lot of that that was going on in the way of conversation, but I don’t know real specific instances where it actually happened in a way that was definable. …
Falk was creative and was aggressive, so I’m confident that he was trying to — or at least looking at — make it so they would force the Bulls to pay more. You want to use every piece of leverage you have to get the maximum benefit for your client. So whatever the rules are, you try to exercise the rules to the fullest. And if you can bend the rules a bit without breaking them, in order to benefit your client, you’ll do that. It happens all the time.
AFTER FALK GOT OFF THE PHONE with Reinsdorf, with the deal not yet completed, and after he spoke with Checketts, he spoke a second time with Reinsdorf, who now knew what it would take to keep the game’s best player. He knew the offer would have to start with a “3.” And so it was then that the deal, essentially, was done; free agency had begun on the evening of July 11, and Jordan and the Bulls agreed to a one-year, $30.14 million contract on July 12. Regardless of whether Reinsdorf was aware of any potential ancillary earnings that the Knicks might have been able to provide, Jordan got the largest single-season contract in the history of American team sports.
Falk: And Reinsdorf knew we had a conversation [with the Knicks]. I’m not a surreptitious person. I’m a very blunt guy. Jerry knew that the issue wasn’t that another team was going to push us. It was a question of just simply he had to make Michael feel comfortable.
Grunfeld: Obviously, who wouldn’t have interest in Jordan? I don’t know how close [Jordan came to signing in New York]. I think maybe they were using the Knicks as leverage to try to drive the price up … a lot.
Wise: Riley said to me the last time I interviewed him [that] his greatest regret was not putting the right people around Patrick to get him a title. They never got Patrick a complementary Hall of Famer and by the time they got him real help his body started to break down.
Isola: Now it’s almost like a running joke, these teams using the Knicks as leverage. Jordan coming to New York would’ve been a whole different thing.
Smith: It was Falk driving a lot of it, but that’s his job, to create as much leverage he can for his clients.
Falk: My goal was to put him at a level that would stand the test of time and demonstrate that he was the greatest player of all time. The fact that it took 17 years for someone to catch up [Kobe Bryant surpassed Jordan’s 1996-97 salary in 2013-14, when he made $30.5 million, and, at the time, trailed only Jordan’s 1997-98 salary of $33.1 million] made me feel good that we did a good job.
IN 1997, in a move ostensibly unrelated to losing out on Jordan, the ITT Corporation sold its 50% share of Madison Square Garden Sports and Entertainment to its partner, Cablevision.
And even though Jordan did not switch teams, the summer of 1996 permanently changed the history of the NBA. Jordan won two more titles in Chicago and sealed, at the time, an unimpeachable case for best player ever. The Knicks signed Allan Houston and Chris Childs, and traded for Larry Johnson, instead of giving all their money to Jordan. They went to the NBA Finals with that group in 1999. That same year, James Dolan replaced his father, Charles, as MSG’s chairman. Since then, the Knicks, in search of their first championship since 1973, have accumulated the most losses in the NBA.
And it isn’t just that they’ve been losing. Before this season’s surprising playoff push, the Knicks had oscillated between dysfunction and irrelevance en route to the dissolution of everything that might have lured Jordan all those years ago. Perhaps taking a cue from Jordan, star free agents — notably, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010 and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019 — have been rumored as franchise saviors before going elsewhere. After Durant chose the crosstown Nets in free agency — the embodiment of the Knicks’ fall from grace — he said that kids don’t look at the Knicks as they once did. They’re not “cool.”
Wise: [Media who covered the Knicks are] thinking to ourselves, “Wow, the New York Knicks have just made a huge splash. They got ‘Grandmama’ [Johnson];’ a reserve point guard with a chip on his shoulder; and one of the great emerging shooters in the history of the NBA. If they don’t unseat Michael Jordan, at least they’re going to give him a real battle.
Lori Hamamoto, Knicks PR director in 1996: Before I started working there, the Knicks were the envy of all teams because they did everything in a first-class manner. At the league meetings, they would go to dinner as a [group]. Oh my gosh, they take everyone out to dinner? Nobody else did that. It was all about winning. It was professional.
Wise: Madison Square Garden being the mecca of basketball rings true in only one way anymore: it’s become a great place to visit. It’s become a pilgrimage. But it’s not the place you’re going to live. It’s not the place you want to stay. New York is not a great free-agent destination. It hasn’t been for years. While Madison Square Garden holds this sort of gravitas among basketball people, playing for that franchise doesn’t. The Knicks have almost separated themselves from the building.
MORE THAN ANYTHING, though, the summer of 1996 changed the rules, both literally and figuratively. It created buzzwords among NBA teams and media: cap space; expiring contracts; pitch meetings. Those things existed before 1996, but not as necessary parts of teams’ rebuilding processes. The 1999 CBA eventually added a max salary requirement and luxury tax, concrete steps to regulate the system.
And it was a seed for change in the hierarchy of the NBA, where empowered players began to hold all the leverage. Just as Jordan signed one-year deals in his last two seasons in Chicago, Durant declined the player option three times with Golden State.
Armato: Shaq was the beginning of the movement of players actually starting to take control of their destiny and shaping the future of franchises. That didn’t happen before then, and now it happens regularly. I mean look what LeBron did; he shaped the Miami franchise. And he shaped Cleveland, and then he went to the Lakers.
Grunfeld: Back in the ’90s — and obviously before that — very few top players went to another team. And right around that time, around the mid ’90s, is when players started to move around a little bit because there was so much free agent money out there.
Wise: [The offseason] not only continued to grow, it grew exponentially. That’s all anybody talks about in the offseason now. Can we get this guy? There’s always a blockbuster trade. The idea that a small market like Oklahoma City could be in the NBA Finals in 2012 with three future Hall of Famers — Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden — and none of those guys play there anymore-that’s just crazy. Player movement is what it’s about. The NBA offseason is greater than any baseball hot stove season now. [ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski], God bless him … he answers his phone in the shower.
Van Gundy: Through the lens of back then, it would be hard to fathom [Jordan going to New York]. Through the lens of today, anything’s possible.
Falk: We single-handedly changed the salary structure of the NBA dramatically.
Smith: [Jordan to the Knicks] was a great fantasy story. It had all the elements of a great fiction plot, based on a true story. It could have happened.