Doffing salary cap, Magic shows financial grace

MIKE LITTWIN

September 28, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

When I saw the story yesterday morning on Page 9 of the sports section, I almost spilled my Froot Loops (funny, I haven't hit many homers recently either). There, buried deep in the paper, was the best sports story of the year: ATHLETE GIVES BACK MONEY TO TEAM.

This is news, folks. This is not simply man bites dog. This is man marries dog and moves next door.

Do you need any more evidence that the Greed Decade is officially over? Donald Trump is nearly broke, Ronald Reagan nearly forgotten and Charlie Keating nearly in jail. Malcolm Forbes is gone. Leona, call your service.

What I'm trying to say is, nobody wants to know what we can do for Al Franken anymore.

And now, professional athletes -- who have come to personify greed in our country and about whom money-grubbing is considered a nice thing to say -- are leading us into a kinder, gentler day.

It starts with Magic Johnson, who took a pay cut of perhaps as much as $200,000 a year, for the good of his team, the Los Angeles Lakers. You see, the NBA has a salary cap for each team, and the Lakers, who wanted to trade for swing-man Terry Teagle, couldn't take on his $600,000 a year and still stay within the limit. Enter Magic, or as he's now known, Deep Pockets.

The conversation went like this:

Magic: How much you need?

Lakers: Oh, nothing much. Coupla hundred grand.

Magic (reaching into his pocket): You got change?

Does this give new meaning to the give-and-go or what? I hope you understand how phenomenal this is. We have an athlete, who, like many athletes, stalks into the GM's office and demands to renegotiate his contract, except this one is demanding less money. The Lakers, in effect, received a rebate on the deal, which is why I can't help thinking of Terry Teagle as a Plymouth Sundance.

Now, you say Johnson makes $3.1 million, exclusive of endorsements, so he isn't exactly worrying about hitting the lottery. While it's true that Johnson is comfortable, he still forked over $200,000, or 6 percent of his salary, which is probably a higher percentage than you'd give your company to hire a new swing-person. If we each agreed to give 6 percent back to the U.S. government (which is, of course, so far over the cap that the Hubble telescope, even if it worked, couldn't find the top), there wouldn't be any deficit. Call it the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings-Magic act.

Johnson is in Spain, apparently making even more money on this trip than he'll ever have to give back. I wonder if he has plans for it. The problem with being so publicly generous is that once word gets out, suddenly everyone has a story. If a guy doesn't need a few thousand bucks to fill up his car, then his Filipino mail-order bride turns out to be Imelda Marcos with 15 crates of goods following her, c.o.d. Even as I write this, I'm sure they're lining up outside Magic's palatial home. Suddenly, he's Monte Hall, pockets stuffed with money, and the people on his lawn are dressed like vegetables, or basketball players, just waiting to hear him say, "Come on down."

Certainly, there is a trend at work here, and it's playing hell with our favorite stereotypes. Earlier, Michael Jordan had given up $450,000 so that the Chicago Bulls could afford Dennis Hopson. It has been rumored, though, that Jordan gave back the money in shoes that he happened to have in his closet. Charles Barkley made a similar offer, but the Philadelphia 76ers couldn't figure out what to do with the extra money. As Los Angeles Times writer Mark Heisler wrote, Magic is one guy who can honestly say he gave at the office. I wonder if John "Hot Rod" Williams is listening.

Of course, not all players are so generous. Just watching them play, you wouldn't figure Joe Barry Carroll or Mark Aguirre would give anything up, especially a basketball. There is no salary cap in baseball, so Cal Ripken won't be put to the test. Besides, if there were a cap, the Orioles would be so far below it, they could add Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco to the roster and still have enough money left to pay the rent -- all of the rent.

According to the Lakers, Johnson came to general manager Jerry West months ago suggesting that he would give up a portion of his salary if it meant getting a player who could make a difference. Since Magic has made his name as the most selfless player in the game -- they've been saying for years that James Worthy ought to give Johnson half of his salary -- it only figures he would do whatever he could to help the Lakers win. Even when the Lakers make a trade, he gets the assist.

We've known all along that Johnson -- whatever he makes -- is pro basketball's ultimate money player. We just never dreamed he'd volunteer to give some of the money back.

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