This rising Sun is up for the count

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 01, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Walt Williams played four years at Maryland and is now a rising star with the Sacramento Kings. Jerrod Mustaf left Maryland after his sophomore year and is now a perfect nobody with the Phoenix Suns.

Don't ascribe any deep meaning to this tale of two classmates. Mustaf isn't envious of Williams' splashy debut, or his lottery-pick money. Sitting in the Phoenix locker room before a recent game, he seemed entirely pleased with the direction of his life, if not his career.

Lying in his gym bag was a book entitled, "The Business of Music." Hanging in his locker were T-shirts he designs and sells. Mustaf manages bands, owns a bookstore, runs a public-relations firm -- and that's just in Phoenix.

A budding NBA star? Hardly.

A buddying tycoon? Absolutely.

Mustaf, 23, invests in everything from real estate to computer companies to basketball camps. His private corporation, Jerrod Mustaf Enterprises, is based in Bowie. His father, Shaar, is vice president.

No, he doesn't regret leaving Maryland, even though Williams signed a six-year, $13.38 million contract as the seventh pick in the 1992 draft -- approximately $10 million more than Mustaf received for four years as the 17th pick in 1990.

"What if? I don't think me and him could have blossomed at Maryland like he did and maybe I could have," Mustaf said. "Who knows? Who's to say what would have happened?

"It could have been good. But a lot of good things have happened. The people I've met, the deals I've made, the investments I'm involved in -- that's all because I decided to leave school early."

Mustaf first displayed his pragmatic side at Maryland, so it isn't surprising that his approach to the NBA is strictly business. He views himself more as an independent contractor than a basketball player. "I'm contracting my services out," he said. "They ain't using 'em."

He's on the injured list for the third time this season, after bruising his right thigh March 23 in a bench-clearing brawl with his original team, the New York Knicks. He has played in 25 of the Suns' 68 games and freely acknowledges he wants to leave the NBA's best team.

Club officials publicly dismiss such talk, but Mustaf's name surfaces in trade rumor after trade rumor. It's hard to believe that nine months ago, the Suns signed him to a two-year contract extension worth a reported $4 million.

They had just traded for Charles Barkley to play small forward, and Mustaf was their power forward of the future. The plan made sense, until Mustaf missed the first eight games with a bruised right shin and Barkley moved to power forward because he no longer can guard quicker players.

That cost the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Mustaf his position -- and made the Suns a championship contender. Richard Dumas and Cedric Ceballos emerged at small forward, and Tom Chambers became the backup at power forward. Rather than join the fight for minutes, Mustaf kept getting hurt.

"It's not fair to judge him off what happened this year," Suns coach Paul Westhead said. "He's a talented young player who has some things to learn. He certainly has the ability to play in this league a long, long time."

"We've made an investment in him," added Suns general manager Jerry Colangelo, who acquired Mustaf, Trent Tucker and two second-round draft picks for Xavier McDaniel on Oct. 1, 1991. "After the trade, we felt he was a young prospect. Quite candidly, we feel the same way today."

The fact is, Mustaf would have become a restricted free agent if the Suns hadn't exercised the option on his contract. They chose to give him the extension, and it's a move both sides probably now regret.

Mustaf will take the money, which will push his NBA earnings to approximately $7 million. But this season, he's averaging only 4.0 points, 2.1 rebounds and 9.1 minutes per game. The businessman in him wants a better opportunity.

"I've got a sense they don't want me here, and the feeling's mutual, to be honest," Mustaf said. "But I'm here. I've got a job to do. If I'm called upon to play, I'll do my job. If not, I won't.

"It's more acceptable when you're on a first-place team that is rolling. But what it really boils down to is, "Would you rather play, or win a championship?' I'd rather play, but right now I'm not, and we're hopefully on our way to a championship."

He's beautiful, isn't he?

An NBA player who'd prefer an MBA.

"When it gets down to it, it's a business," Mustaf said. "Hopefully, my business one day will be just like theirs. I'm learning all I can from them firsthand."

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