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Players 'Worth More Dead Than Alive'

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

In the summer of 2000, Joe Kleine was driving just outside of Fayetteville, Ark., when his agent, Jeff Austin, called and told him to get to a fax machine immediately. The Portland Trail Blazers wanted to pay Kleine $1.2 million and package him with Jermaine O'Neal to get Dale Davis from Indiana.

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Kleine was 38. His playing days were over, and he thought Austin was kidding. When Austin assured him it wasn't a joke, Kleine pulled over, found a fax machine and signed the deal -- a windfall that was just $35,000 less than the highest salary of his 15-year career.

"I thought I had just hit the lottery," said Kleine, who had scored 11 points in seven games in the previous season in Portland. "My closest, dear friends in the NBA told me that I was worth more dead than alive."

Kleine benefited from a salary cap loophole that allows players to be eligible to be traded if they haven't filed retirement papers and their teams haven't renounced their rights. It has been done for years, but two recent trades brought the practice under some scrutiny.

To get Jason Kidd, the Dallas Mavericks needed Keith Van Horn, who had been relaxing with family and dealing with business interests in Colorado after making his last appearance in the 2006 NBA Finals. To get Pau Gasol, the Los Angeles Lakers needed Aaron McKie, who was serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Van Horn was paid $4.3 million for agreeing to help the Mavericks balance salaries, as required by the league. McKie, 35, received a prorated salary of $1.5 million just for going to Memphis.

"There is no question it looks unusual," said Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of league and basketball operations.

But Litvin added that the league's collective bargaining agreement allows teams to use several creative measures to get complicated trades done. Teams can trade salary exceptions -- cap space, essentially -- instead of players. Players who have suffered career-ending injuries have been used in trades.

"So unrenounced free agents fall into that category," Litvin said. "In our view, if the guy has been out of the league for less than two years, at that age, it's hard to say he can't still play if he wants to."

Mavericks General Manager Donnie Nelson said the team always had considered signing Van Horn, 32, before using him to complete the most "wild, wacky and weird" trade of his career. "Keith was engaged and thinking about coming back before this happened," he said.

Litvin said that before approving the deals, the league needed assurances from McKie and Van Horn that they would make an effort to report to their respective teams and play. If, say, the San Antonio Spurs tried to sign-and-trade 52-year-old Moses Malone, "that would be something that would not pass our smell test," Litvin said.

McKie has yet to play for the Grizzlies, and after not playing in more than 20 months, Van Horn may never play for the Nets. One Eastern Conference general manager said the league will have to look into changing the loophole in the next collective bargaining agreement. Litvin wasn't so sure.

Kleine, meanwhile, was waived before ever playing for Indiana, but he was grateful. A co-owner of Corky's Ribs & Barbecue in Little Rock, Kleine sent the Trail Blazers a care package of ribs. Now an assistant basketball coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, Kleine said he still hasn't filed his retirement papers. "Keep hope alive," Kleine, 46, said with a laugh. "Lightning may strike twice."


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