Abe Pollin, Arnie Heft and Earl Foreman buy Bullets for $1.1 million. -- 1964
Majic Johnson signs contract seen as $1 million annually for 25 years. -- 1981
The latest four-letter expletive his fellow owners would like to see deleted from the National Basketball Association is Buss. They see this Los Angeles maverick as recently rocketing an already dollar-dizzy sport toward insanity, by signing Johnson to a contract estimated at $85,000 per month and possibly luring the the Bullets' most appealing player, Mitch Kupchak.
Jerry Buss apparently has made Kupchak an offer he cannot refuse, for about $6 million over seven years. Having blanched and then found it nearly impossible to swallow for quite a while, the Bullets seem to be preparing us for what they have insisted all along would not happen: Kupchak leaving, taking his charges and baseline jumpers for somebody else.
If that happens, the Bullets will have taken a risk far greater than they thought, and lost. They could, and should, have gotten Kupchak to sign for much less months ago. He wants Washington-area roots, is anything but an athletic drifter. He also is not a cornerstone, a player good enough for a team to build its on-the-court tactics and off-the-court financial base around.
Larry Bird is a franchise, a basketbal Rolls-Royce. So are Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone. Healthy, Kupchak is a Mercedes-Benz convertible. The Bullets have been treating him as though he were a sedan, underestimating that such as Buss and Ted Stepien are willing to overbid for everything on the lot.
Two decades later, the sporting world is nothing like the one Abe Pollin entered. If he cannot make himself pay one man close to what his entire team once was worth, that is understandable. But he may be pinching too many pennies at a time his rivals are bulldozing money toward players.
Stepien, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is going after the first checkbook championship in pro basketball, having botched any possible run at a title the traditional way. He has a chance at a fool's double, to also ruin this chase by making rich men out of the wrong players.
The rest of the league is laughing at him for giving free-agent center James Edwards about $800,000 when somebody better might be available soon through the draft, for paying Scott Wedman something like $750,000 when the Cavaliers already have an exceptional player, Mike Mitchell, at the position.
Stepien may be that rare sporting person capable of failure no matter how much money he has or how favorable his team's drafting position. Given the choice between a power forward and a toad, his Cavaliers might opt for the smaller leaper.
"The teams with money don't have to lose very long," Bullets' General Manager Bob Ferry said. "If you have enough money, you can keep making mistakes. You could spend a lot of money here and still be third best (in the Bullets' division, behind Boston and Philadelphia)."
What Ferry seems to be implying is that there are no free-agent players available this year worth the price. In the traditional sense, that may be true. But Kupchak says, quite sensibly: "The Bullets aren't going to get me any cheaper."
Pollin surely is twisted in several directions when he considers Kupchak or signing any glittering free agent. There are few players an owner should want more than Kupchak, no better combination of energy and goodwill.
But Pollin must wonder if he can get a reasonable return on any extraordinary investment, if there is not a customer ceiling for basketball in Washington. Surely, he looks at two numbers, 12,789 and 1,898, and winces. The first is the average home attendance the year after the Bullets won the NBA championship, the second the increase over the year before.
The season after the best in their history the Bullets still were playing to about two-thirds capacity. Could anyone Pollin signs sell proportionately more seats?
Without Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, he does have a vastly smaller payroll. There ought to be enough money available to pay Kupchak. But can he afford to pay one player, who rarely has started in his entire pro life, nearly what both those former Bullets made?
It's a new world even the brave fear, one Pollin thought for sure ended with the demise of the ABA and interleague bidding. Now either zanies, like Stepien, or owners in cable-television cities, like Buss, are reestablishing the NBA as a players' market. And perhaps scaring buyers Pollin had nibbling for the team.
Who can blame Kupchak, having promised to stay with the Bullets if they would pay him $100,000 a year under his best offer, for taking a Buss ride to L.A.? Are the Bullets now the corner grocery competing against supermarkets? If they match his best offer and try to trade him, who else would assume such a salary?
At best, the Bullets will be ordinary next season. Worse, they do not have a choice in the first round of next year's draft. They will not be playing for Ralph Sampson or Sam Bowie, two possible franchise carriers who are likely to turn pro after their junior seasons.
The Bullets do have at least two ways to become dramatically better. Pollin can enter the free-agent market with Buss-like enthusiasm, keeping Kupchak and then gobbling up a special player or two next year after this season shows him the honest abilities of such as Ricky Mahorn and Jeff Ruland.
The other avenue is to make the Bullets sensational buy first destroying them. No team wins an NBA championship without players either chosen among the first few in the draft or who command a handsome free-agent price. If Pollin decides to let Kupchak go, he should do the same with his two Kevins, Porter and Grevey, and Greg Ballard.
Present whatever draft-choice package is necessary to get the most high-choice choices. And then be bad, spectacularly awful, Dallas-like, so future Unselds and Birds are available. Every excellent team in every sport once was dreadful.
Pollin's major alternatives involve either of two simple, yet significant acts. He either opens his wallet as far as it will stretch, or closes it completely.