Paul Westphal understands that, for a client of Howard Slusher, patience not only is virtuous, but lucrative as well. Gus Williams' paycheck is making up for a year of lost time in Seattle; John Jefferson is alive and earning in Green Bay. Both withheld their services on Slusher's counsel.
But Westphal, late of the Seattle SuperSonics, grows impatient. This is not a routine holdout. For one thing, there seems to be a question as to whom Westphal is holding out from. Seattle reportedly offered $200,000, a figure that Westphal and Slusher have rejected, and he has not received a serious offer from another NBA team. He is without bargaining leverage. He is recently injured and growing older. He is working out at Seattle Pacific University.
In Year One of the National Basketball Association's right-of-first-refusal era, designed to ease player movement from team to team, Paul Westphal, one of the game's most creative and talented players, can't go anywhere. The four-time all-star with a shot of spun gold remains in legal limbo with no home court.
When healthy, Westphal reportedly earned $700,000 a season. Now the Sonics think he is worth only $200,000 annually and some reports say that Sam Schulman, the team owner, wants to pay Westphal only for the games in which he is physically able to play. Milwaukee signed Bob Dandridge to a similar contract this season, then released him. Westphal says he wants $500,000 to $700,000.
"I understand how the game is played," Westphal said recently. "I know who my friends are. I'm not bitter. I have no right to expect any differently. There's a lot of people in the world looking for a job who'd like to work for one-tenth of what I made last year. I have no inalienable right to play basketball. But I think it is strange, considering what I've accomplished and what I can accomplish, that things are as uncertain as they are."
Apparently, there's a question about his foot--a stress fracture last season, a clean break last August. Apparently, there's a question about his age: 31. There most definitely is a question about his free agent status. Slusher and the NBA Players Association believe he is free to find employment with no strings attached. The NBA says Seattle owns the right of first refusal. There is no precedent in the courts.
And this is where Westphal's patience wears thin. When and if he receives an offer he can't refuse from another NBA team, some legal arm-wrestling likely will ensue. Westphal says he will sign. The NBA is certain to challenge. Arbitration will drag on through a large gray area in the collective bargaining agreement.
"I have no doubts I'll be playing this year," Westphal said. "It's how and when, not if. The problem is that I would have to win my freedom, over a period of months. One side stalls, the judge is busy . . . What good is freedom if I win it and can't play? It may be immaterial."
According to the collective bargaining agreement, a player has 165 days after the season ends to present his original team with an offer sheet from another club. The original team has 15 days to match the offer. In order to ensure that players do not come back with offer sheets in midseason, thus disrupting rosters that are already full, the agreement stipulates that, if the player has not come up with an offer sheet, and the original team offers the player last year's salary within a certain time limit, the player must accept that offer or sit out the rest of the year.
Slusher met with Schulman the Wednesday before Christmas in Los Angeles in what apparently was an unproductive session -- "Sam is filled with Christmas spirit. He thinks he's Santa and he thinks I'm Scrooge," Slusher said. He maintains Seattle waived its right of first refusal by not tendering Westphal a salary offer.
"It's our position that he's totally free," Slusher said, "like the 18th player on a team, who's been cut. They didn't want him . . . ."
The NBA legal minds strongly disagree.
"I have met with (Seattle General Manager) Zollie Volchok and advised him that there is no question that he has the right of first refusal," said Russell Granik, the NBA's legal counsel. "There is no precedent for this in the courts, although I understand Dandridge considered himself a free agent when Washington didn't make an offer. However, he then chose to go the offer-sheet route."
Underscoring the impending legal question is a simpler one: why is the rest of the NBA so reluctant? And why didn't Seattle offer Westphal, at the very least, last year's salary? Because of an inopportune cut to the basket during a summer game at the University of San Diego. At that point Westphal was recovering from a stress fracture. This time he broke the fifth metacarpal cleanly.
"It's bad it happened then instead of three months earlier," Westphal said, "but it's good because it ended the stress fracture. I've been playing unrestricted."
According to Slusher, the report issued by Seattle physician David Karges says, "In all of my years' experience, I've never had this fracture reappear." But in professional basketball, "stress fracture" connotes Bill Walton. Bill Walton connotes disaster. The stress fracture is basketball's equivalent of a torn rotator cuff in baseball.
"There is only one parallel," Westphal said, "and that is that he (Walton) had a stress fracture and I had a stress fracture. It's a different bone. His injury was career-ending. Mine is not. People are mentioning it out of ignorance. Mark Aguirre broke the same bone as me, the fifth metacarpal, and I don't see him hanging it up."
In fact, no one wants to risk serious money, the time expended or the legal bother when the end result is certain arbitration.
"Teams are reluctant to get involved," said Schulman. "It's difficult to talk about. I'm very fond of Paul, I really am. I hate to be in a position where I'm bargaining with a person's life. But I'm in a difficult position, and I find no one stepping forward to help me graciously. I'm ready to sit down with Slusher and work something out, if they would accept my philosophy, and lower their sights based on the risks . . ."
Translate: lower the asking price.
"I would call him," Schulman said, "but I understand he's shopping around, and I'd rather have him shopping from his fullest extent, and take it from there."
A number of teams have expressed interest, most recently the San Diego Clippers. Slusher considers none of them serious.
"You have certain groups of owners, pockets of owners," Slusher said. "You've got the owners who are really being forced out of the game economically. It's clear, for example, that the Washington franchise does not want to compete economically to any great extent. They're not in to get players, they're only there to match the small offers, like Kevin Grevey. Then there's that group that is entrepreneurial in nature; all they want to do is buy a club and get headlines. And, of course, there's that group that doesn't want him because he doesn't fit their team.
"But you have a player who's completely healthy, who's 31--and the history says that at age 31 you don't get forced out; look at Oscar (Robertson) and Jerry West and Hal Greer--and you have a lot of people who are unwilling to pay the money to return a great player to the game."
Westphal doesn't appreciate having to shop door to door.
"I know they all (the owners) play a different game," he said. "Some teams are saying, 'If we win, we'll make money.' Some are saying, 'We might make money if we win, but more if we lose.' Some are trying to get better draft choices.
"The teams that try to put out the best product do put out the best product. The teams that flounder-- well, it's not because they want to flounder, but their floundering is self-inflicted. They either don't know what they're doing, or they're winning the game they're playing. They have the team for a tax writeoff, or to impress their friends in Beverly Hills."
A number of owners have offices--and friends--in Beverly Hills, including Schulman.
"It's unknown how well Paul can play," Schulman said. "If he sets his sights in that area and knows he gets paid to play, then I'm prepared to take a certain calculated risk. It's in Paul's best interest to work something out with us. These (legal) fights take six months. I think I must be partly right. If I wasn't, he'd be getting other offers and I'd have the opportunity to meet them." Fair treatment for a guard with a lifetime field goal percentage of 51 percent? Whose injury has been insured by Lloyds of London?
"Fair? I don't think fairness is the right word," Westphal said. "They've treated me how they've chosen to treat me. I have no right to expect otherwise. I think instead of 'fairly,' the word should be 'intelligently.' And I guess that remains to be seen."