The Denver Nuggets' ownership group that has put a $6 million-plus lure in front of Georgetown Coach John Thompson to become the team's general manager is a historic collection. But that hasn't saved the threesome from absorbing more than its share of lumps in its eight months of running what has become one of the NBA's most chaotic franchises.
With the help of NBA Commissioner David Stern, Chicago businessmen Bertram Lee and Peter Bynoe last fall became the first black owners in a major U.S. team sport. When Lee and Bynoe's effort to buy the Nuggets began sputtering, Stern persuaded the video entertainment subsidiary of the Washington-based Communications Satellite Corp. to provide most of the funding for the purchase -- a feat accomplished with a call to Comsat executive Robert Wussler, formerly the number two man in Ted Turner's sports/television empire.
The result has been something less than a smooth operation, however. The Nuggets' general manager post already has changed hands three times since the team was sold, with Pete Babcock holding the job twice before going to the Atlanta Hawks.
That left a void in running the club's basketball operations -- which is still unfilled. Coach Doug Moe and his assistant, Allan Bristow, assumed general manager-like responsibilities for much of the second half of the season. But now Bristow has gone to the Charlotte Hornets and Moe, at least according to reports in Denver, may not be on the job much longer.
The Nuggets have been searching for a general manager for nearly two months. In addition to Thompson, they had shown interest in John Nash, new general manager of the Bullets, and Minnesota's Billy McKinney.
"In any business situation, when you have a change in ownership, there's an adjustment involved," a league executive who viewed the team closely last season said yesterday.
"At least they didn't come in with any preconceived notions: 'We have to fire the coach, we have to fire the GM and start over.' But now it looks like they're replacing all of their decision-making people."
None of Denver's owners was available to comment yesterday; neither Bynoe nor Wussler returned phone messages at his office. But it appears Thompson's attractiveness is due at least partly to his dominating personality that promises to make him a stabilizing force for what has been a mostly unstable reign.
"That we've had our problems is clear," said team president Carl Scheer. "It's always been interesting around here."
The drama began last summer, when Bynoe (a real estate developer who runs the public authority that is building a new stadium for the Chicago White Sox) and Lee (a banker and broadcast executive with offices in Boston who had made several attempts to buy a major sports franchise) began negotiating to purchase the team from Houston businessman Sidney Shlenker.
They failed to raise the $65 million asking price, even after Shlenker twice extended the deadline for payment. That's when Stern brought Wussler and Comsat into the picture, and within weeks the company agreed to take a 62.5 percent stake in the team for $17 million. Comsat plans to market the Nuggets on pay-per-view TV.
Bynoe and Lee put up $8 million to hold the remaining 37.5 percent interest and were left as the club's managing partners. Then the real fun began.
Bynoe and Lee had announced during the buying process they had hired David Checketts from the Utah Jazz to be the team's president; Babcock, who had been president and general manager, was to be general manager only. That lasted for three months, until Checketts bailed out when the deal appeared dead.
Thus began a scramble for leadership. Wussler reportedly disagreed with Lee and Bynoe for much of the year on the subject of who should run the club; Wussler wanted a proven basketball man, while the others wavered between that and opting for a business-marketing whiz.
Jon Spoelstra was hired in November as president and general manager, with Babcock being demoted to chief of basketball operations. But Spoelstra was forced out in February, and negotiations with Babcock to release him from his contract were halted so he could resume general manager duties. He left for Atlanta not long after.
The Nuggets later hired Scheer, but most of the GM duties fell to Bristow and Moe.
There was more confusion. The Nuggets signed backup center Blair Rassmussen to a seven-year, $17.5 million contract, then asked his agent a week later if negotiations could be reopened. The club told the league Lee would be handling trades, but he left for France two weeks before the trading deadline and the league had to notify teams to contact Bristow instead.
Attendance lagged near the bottom of the league all season, declining by 881 per game from 1988-89. Moe and star player Alex English feuded much of the year. Bynoe has promised big changes.
Said Scheer: "No one wants to have another year like the last one."
Staff writer David Aldridge contributed to this report.