This is the fourteenth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
In the multi-million world of the National Basketball Association (NBA), you better believe that teams are pouring over every single collective bargaining agreement looking for any loophole that they could use an advantage over the other teams in signing free agents. In fact, NBA history is filled with examples of teams that looked for advantages without finding a legal reason to do what they wanted to do.
However, when teams try these sort of maneuvers, they’re typically for top-of-the-line players that they are trying to acquire. For the Knicks, though, they spent months in the summer (and fall) of 1997 fighting for the right to pay millions of dollars to…Chris Dudley?!?
Read on for the details!
What is perhaps even stranger than a team going to arbitration in an attempt to sign Chris Dudley is the fact that the 1997 incident was the second time this sort of thing happened with Chris Dudley!! Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the fourth round of the 1987 NBA Draft (the seventy-fifth pick overall!), Chris Dudley became a fairly capable back-up center by the time Cleveland dealt him to the New Jersey Nets in the middle of the 1989-90 season (the Cavs just had a stacked front court with Brad Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams and Larry Nance). In New Jersey, Dudley was once again a reasonably capable back-up center and by the end of his time there, he was paid a salary commiserate with a decent back-up center (over $1,000,000 dollars in 1992-93). After the 1992-93 season, Dudley became an unrestricted free agent. He would then sign a seven-year deal with the Portland Trailblazers for $11,000,000. The deal was definitely on the low side for a free agent back-up-level center at the time, especially an in-demand player like Dudley. The Nets, for instance, offered him $10 million more dollars than Portland over less years. In the first year of the contract, Dudley would make under $800,000 (just enough for the Portland Trailblazers to sign him under the salary cap). However, what really drew the NBA’s ire was a clause in the contract where Dudley could opt-out of his contract after the first year and become an unrestricted free agent once again.
That clause was significant because according to the rules at the time, all you needed was to play for a team for one year for that team to gain your “Larry Bird rights,” where they could then go over the salary cap to pay you whatever they felt like. The NBA felt that this was clearly an attempt to make an end run around the salary cap, that the Trailblazers and Dudley clearly had an under-the-table deal for Dudley to play one year at a low salary, opt out and then re-sign for big money. The NBA then voided the contract. The Trailblazers and Dudley responded by taking the NBA to federal court, where ultimately, the judge ruled in Dudley and the Trailblazers’ favor – the opt-out clause was allowed. At the time, Dudley insisted that there was no secret agreement. Dudley would actually miss most of the 1993-94 season to injury, but sure enough, after the season he opted out and then re-signed with the Trailblazers for more than double the original contract in 1994.
The NBA quickly voided Dudley’s contract, as they did a number of other players who had just signed deals including one-year opt-out clauses, including Horace Grant with the Orlando Magic. This time around, when the case went to court the NBA won, with the courts agreeing that these opt-out clauses were, indeed, attempts to circumvent the NBA collective bargaining agreement (the fact that everyone started doing them was a good sign). However, since Dudley’s deal had already happened, he was allowed to keep his deal. The new ones, though, were voided (Grant worked out a new deal with the Magic).
Well, three years later, the Knicks were looking to add a back-up center to Patrick Ewing following the 1996-97 NBA season. The Trailblazers, meanwhile, as was their wont, had just spent a great deal of money to sign free agent Brian Grant. Dudley was no longer a priority in Portland, but they got along with Dudley (he loved his time in Portland, I presume that’s why he eventually decided to run for Governor of Oregon) so the Trailblazers tried to work out a trade for him where he could get a good home.
By this time, “Bird Rights” were only provided to players who stayed with a team for at least three years. However, then, as it is now, players could retain their “Bird rights” if traded after qualifying. And Dudley (who was an Economic major at Yale University) discovered that if he opted out of his deal, he could re-sign with the Trailblazers at whatever figure he wanted to and still retain his “Bird Rights.” So first, Dudley opted out of his contract and then re-signed with the Trailblazers for $1.13 million, the exact same salary that John Wallace was making for the New York Knicks. This allowed him to be dealt straight up for Wallace, which was important because the Knicks were over the salary cap so could only do deals where they were giving up like salaries (specifically, the Knicks traded Wallace for Dudley and the Blazers then flipped Wallace to the Toronto Raptors for a first round draft pick).
Once again, the NBA stepped in and voided the contract, charging that the Knicks and Dudley had a secret agreement where he would re-sign with the Knicks the next season for a much larger salary once they had secured his Bird Rights (the fact that the Detroit Pistons had a four-year/$16 million contract offer for Dudley on the table once he opted out was a good indication he had a deal coming from the Knicks for more than that). They charged that this was simply a way for the Trailblazers to pick up a draft pick while helping a player they liked get another big deal from the rich team of his choosing, all while circumventing the point of the salary cap. While awaiting the results of the arbitration ruling, Dudley temporarily signed a league minimum contract with Portland (something like $240,000).
While the Knicks were just coming off a season where they had a ruling go against them (the ruling on the suspensions of a number of Knick players during the 1996-97 season), this time the arbitrators ruled in their favor. Not just once, but a number of times, as the whole process stretched out from August of 1997 until the last three-arbitrator panel making the final ruling in October of 1997. The arbitrators simply noted that Dudley was exercising rights allowed him by the collective bargaining agreement and if he felt keeping the rights to allow the possibility of a big contract after one year was worth taking a small contract the first year, then that was okay (provided they could not prove that there was a secret deal, which the NBA could not). By the way, naturally, the next season Dudley re-signed for a big-time contract (something like $20 million over three years).
Soon afterwards, though, an NBA team was specifically caught dealing under the table, as the Minnesota Timberwolves were trying to do a similarly sneaky deal with Joe Smith with an agreement beyond the terms of the contract. The NBA came down on them like gangbusters (voiding the contract and taking multiple first round draft picks away from the Wolves), making it a lot more difficult for teams to work out these sort of “wink wink” deals with players. That does not mean that they no longer happen, though. There was at least one example of a player, Richard Jefferson, opting out of his contract last offseason that ended up helping his team out, cap-wise, after which Jefferson then re-signed for a lucrative longterm deal. While who knows if there was actually any sort of “wink wink” deal there, it certainly is reminiscent of the deals of the 1990s.
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!