On Thursday, the Denver Nuggets traded Fat Lever to Dallas for the ninth overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft and a first-round pick in 1991. On Friday morning, Denver traded that No. 9 pick and its own first-round pick in 1990 (15th overall) to Miami for the third pick overall in Wednesday's draft.
Within hours of the second big trade, John Thompson called the Nuggets' general managing partner, Peter Bynoe, to give a brief and vague "No, thanks" to their offer of more than $6 million to be general manager.
Should we connect the dots? Why not?
The Nuggets better hope their pick -- be he Derrick Coleman or Dennis Scott -- is one heck of a player. Because they probably traded their chance to hire Thompson away from Georgetown.
Thompson will win national praise for staying at Georgetown to be an educator of young men rather than go to Denver at twice his college-coach income to administer millionaire adults.
That praise is his due. Thompson is half idealist and deserves credit for it. At 48, and showing signs of high-pressure coaching fatigue, he is staying in a job with twice the stress, twice the work and half the pay so he can do what he's always loved: "coach," in the broadest sense of the word.
But Thompson is also half pragmatist. It's only honest to point out that he may have dumped Denver and its $6 million deal because he smelled a rat.
It's also fair to note that if he took the Nuggets job, Thompson might quickly have shrunk as a national figure. (Who is the Detroit Pistons' GM? How many care?) In a day, Thompson could have been twice as rich, twice as healthy and half as tall. At Georgetown, he has a bully pulpit. In Denver?
At the least, the Nuggets proved on Thursday and Friday that they did not know their man.
Thompson tends to divide the world into people he respects and those he does not. The dividing line is, usually, his sense of the other person's deepest motivations. If he distrusts or dislikes those motives, he has no respect and no time for that person.
On the other hand, Thompson loves to argue with those he respects and, for someone of his stature, does not mind being challenged. It's weird to watch. The same words, from two different mouths, elicit completely different responses from him. He welcomes the concerned criticism of friends while loathing what he sees as the corrosive criticism of enemies.
Thompson doesn't divide the whole world into "pro" and "con," but he's perfectly comfortable classifying others by their relationship to him. In deciding who's who, he listens for distinctions beneath words and believes that actions speak loudest of all.
In Denver, Thompson delt with Bynoe and fellow managing partner Bertram Lee -- the first black owners of a U.S. pro sports team. But Bob Wussler administers 62.5 percent of the Nuggets' stock for Comsat International Video, which means his whisper is louder than everybody else's scream. And Thompson had few dealings with Wussler.
When Thompson reiterates that he wants "control" in any job, what he means is that he wants to answer only to people he respects, like the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, the former Georgetown president. Thompson despises feeling vulnerable or humiliated. He faced too much of that as a child. He wants to be able to trust his authority figures.
If the Nuggets had really wanted Thompson, they should have understood that they had to plug him in -- and romance him -- at the highest level. When Thompson said no to Bynoe he added, "You haven't lost a GM, you've gained a friend." If Thompson had felt comfortable making that phone call to Wussler, he might never have made it.
Even without a close relationship with the real boss, Thompson was close to taking the Denver post. In recent years, Thompson has been through the wars. His duties as U.S. Olympic coach took a toll, as did criticism after the Olympics. Two years of coaching Alonzo Mourning, and having meetings with Rayful Edmond, have not been restful.
Last month Thompson told me, almost wistfully, that he had "no hobby, no way to relax." He said he might start going to obscure afternoon baseball games in city parks to see college and industrial league teams because the crowds were tiny and he could disappear for a few hours. "I forgot how much I loved baseball," he said. "It's so dull."
Thompson was a man ready to hear gentle words about a lot of money and less work. No coaching. No recruiting. Little travel. More home life. Less stomach. Better overall health. Time.
According to Thompson, who has a history of bluntness, he was leaning "very strongly" toward accepting the Denver offer and didn't decide to reject it until Friday. He says media leaks pressured his decision and "hurt the deal immensely." That's plausible. Especially because Thompson and Wussler had no time to become friends.
Still, Thompson might have bitten. Except for those trades. Oh, Thompson was "consulted." But the trades were not specifically his. In fact, Bynoe and Wussler say Thompson had "no input."
Talk about the kiss of death.
If you know Thompson, those deals set off flashing tilt lights. What sort of GM arrives after trades are made with him at the periphery of the process? A weak one.
Let's imagine Thompson's reaction: If I'm the centerpiece of Denver's long-range future, if my judgment is supposed to guide the whole franchise, then why in the world are they cooking up trades and completing them just days before I'm supposed to arrive?
Besides, Lever is a Thompson kind of star -- unselfish, well-rounded, oriented toward defense.
The feeling here is that the Nuggets brass started acting like the Three Stooges last week and, after seeing the gang in action, Thompson recoiled. All of a sudden, the grass started looking browner on the other side. Why leave a job at which you are good, and do good, for one at which anybody might fail?
Also, Thompson hardly can have missed the tone of nationwide coverage of his situation. The undertone was: Will Thompson Leave Georgetown (And His Ideals) To Go Pro (And Grab The Money)? This is, of course, unfair if for no other reasons than the life expectancy and job insecurity of coaches. Even Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Thompson have poor years; a few of them in a row and you get your Genius papers revoked.
On the other hand, it's hard to deny there's considerable moral distance between being an outspoken and symbolic figure at a great university in the Nation's Capital and trying to win NBA games in the Rocky Mountains. Thompson always claims he doesn't know this fellow Saint John with whom he has sometimes been confused. Well, if he'd become a Nugget, Thompson could've said goodbye to that guy forever.
One thing's for sure. Thompson's decision to retain his high ground on the Hilltop is certain to lead to more such cases of mistaken identity. By accident, or on purpose, Thompson has straightened his halo nicely.