Big money seals deal, ready or not

April 15, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is the wrong decision but not a mistake, a contradiction possible only in the financial Disneyland that is pro basketball.

Joe Smith isn't ready for the NBA. He needs at least another 25 pounds and at least another year of emotional growth to steel himself for the lonely grind of hotels, arenas and airplanes.

His adjustment is going to be rough, much rougher than it would have been had he waited another year or two.

He might get broken in half trading elbows with the Otis Thorpes and Karl Malones next year.

Just look at their thickly muscled bodies, then look at his, and you can see what is going to happen.

But no matter what happens to Smith as a Clipper or a T-Wolf or whatever he becomes, he is probably going to have more money than he can ever spend, enough to guarantee that he won't have to seek another job for the rest of his life.

Knowing that, how can anyone say he is making a mistake?

If your son came to you with the news that someone wanted to pay him $50 million to do something he loved, what would you tell him to do?

The advice offered to Smith in this space was: Don't go, Joe. Because it is clearly a mistake as a basketball decision. Because you can count on one hand the players who have left college after two years and thrived in the pros.

Beginning your NBA career when you aren't ready physically is the surest way to shorten it, or wreck it.

But Smith's decision isn't about basketball. It is about money. Nothing but that.

Smith is being graceful when he says he thinks he's ready to play in the pros, because what he is really ready to do is put his name on a $50 million contract, and you can't say that without sounding greedy.

But he isn't being greedy. Don't accuse him of that. He is just using common sense. He didn't ask anyone to offer him $50 million, and some team is going to, anyway.

It's the money, stupid.

That's why Smith has left himself an out, saying he'll refrain from signing with an agent until after the draft. If the NBA adopts a rookie salary cap before then, Smith's first contract could drop from $50 million to $5 million. With so much less to lose by staying in school, Smith might decide to stay at Maryland and try to win a national championship. He can do so as long as he hasn't signed with an agent.

Either way, the size of his pot of gold, nothing else, is what will make up his mind for him. The rumor that he might come back if he doesn't like the team that drafts him is untrue. Underclassmen who enter the draft can't re-enter it until the year after their class graduates. In other words, if the Clippers take Smith in June, they'll hold his rights for the next three years. He can't avoid them.

It's the money, stupid.

And as long as it is there, the big pot, he is crazy not to go pro.

The chances that it won't be there are slim.

There is a good chance that a rookie salary cap will indeed be part of the NBA's next collective bargaining agreement -- many of the older stars are for it -- but time is growing short for there to be a new agreement by the draft on June 28, 74 days from now. Every day, chances

grow slimmer that a cap will affect this year's rookies.

The hope of a last-minute agreement is the last hope for Maryland basketball fans, Smith's teammates, coach Gary Williams and anyone else who wants Joe back.

Don't bet a nickel on it.

The truth is that this is the right time for him to go, even if he isn't ready physically. His value has only one place to go, and that's down.

Right now, his stock among pro scouts can't get much higher. They see an All-Star in the making with the 25 pounds he'll add, and project him as one of the top five picks in the draft, possibly even the first if things break right. It's understandable. Once he adds the weight and experience, he should be a monster with his 15-foot shooting range, his ability to finish his drives and his remarkable rebounding sense.

Of course, he's going to win big regardless, sign a contract worth millions no matter when he goes. So, goes one argument, he should stay in school a little longer and enjoy being a kid. He certainly won't get a second chance at that.

But Smith has more serious concerns than that. His mother has raised seven children with little money and support. She still works long hours at a Norfolk, Va., hospital.

The minute her youngest son signs his pro contract, she can relax for the first time in her life. Relax forever.

As far as Smith is concerned, that can't happen soon enough.

"It's time for me to give something back," he said yesterday at his news conference in Norfolk.

Like, money.

A whole lot of money.

Which, in this case, is all that matters.

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