Bullets sign Howard to contract, too 7-year, $98M deal sets up legal showdown with punished Heat

Miami salary cap at issue

If Bullets keep All-Star, they may lose No. 1 pick

August 06, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- As strange as it sounds, Juwan Howard and the Washington Bullets were reunited yesterday.

"We are completely hopeful that Juwan is here to stay," said Bullets general manager Wes Unseld, after signing the All-Star forward to a seven-year contract worth an estimated $98 million.

That was the same figure that induced Howard to sign with the Miami Heat on July 13. But five days ago, the National Basketball Association voided the contract, ruling that Miami had exceeded the salary cap in agreeing to pay Howard $9 million this coming season.

Yesterday, NBA general counsel Joel Litvin gave the Bullets permission to renegotiate with Howard. And Unseld needed only several hours to hammer out the deal with Howard's representative, Curtis Polk, working for David Falk's Washington-based management group.

"This is unprecedented," said Polk, referring to the bizarre circumstances that put the 6-foot-9 forward back in a Bullets uniform.

But Howard's absence from the hastily arranged news conference at the USAir Arena last night was an indication that this Bullets deal was not a certainty.

Last Friday, the Heat went to court in Florida, challenging the NBA's decision to make the contract invalid. Dade County Circuit Judge Joseph Farina issued a temporary injunction prohibiting Howard and the NBA from entering into and/or approving an NBA contract until arbitrators settle the dispute over Howard's contract.

The hearing will take place before Aug. 15.

"The Howard-Washington contract is subject to the terms of the injunction issued by a state court judge in Florida, to the extent those terms are valid and binding," the NBA said last night.

According to Polk, the arbitrators must determine whether bonus performance clauses in the contracts of Tim Hardaway and P. J. Brown were valid, and whether Miami exceeded the salary cap. The league said the Heat "incorrectly calculated their available cap room" by excluding the bonuses.

According to the recently signed collective bargaining agreement, bonuses that are deemed difficult to achieve do not totally count against a team's cap. The bonuses the Heat included -- such as total victories -- initially were deemed as difficult to achieve.

But the NBA later said it believed those bonuses were not difficult to achieve, which would cost Miami against the cap.

The arbitrators -- who have not been selected yet because the league and the NBA Players Association have been unable to agree on candidates -- also could rule against the Heat if they determine that Miami agreed on a contract with Alonzo Mourning before reaching a deal with Howard.

David Osnos, the Bullets' legal counsel, said the team's agreement with Howard "would not be fully effective until certain legal issues regarding the arrangement between Howard and the Heat are resolved."

If the Bullets clear all these hurdles, they will lose their first-round draft choice in 1997, according to wire reports.

They said NBA commissioner David Stern made this ruling because the Bullets had signed forward Tracy Murray and center Lorenzo Williams after renouncing their rights to Howard.

Howard, who had rejected an earlier $90 million offer from the Bullets to join Miami, reportedly rejected overtures from several other teams yesterday to return to Washington, where he played his first two NBA seasons.

Said Polk: "Juwan told me Wednesday, that before making a definitive decision, he wanted to know if the Bullets could re-sign him, and, obviously that is what happened today."

A No. 1 draft choice in 1994, Howard led the Bullets in scoring last season (22.1) and was second in rebounding (8.1). He was regarded as the court leader and cornerstone of a young team.

His defection, plus the losses of Robert Pack and Jim McIlvaine, again put the Bullets among the projected NBA also-rans. But with Howard now expected to share the frontcourt with former Michigan teammate Chris Webber and Gheorghe Muresan, plus the recent addition of point guard Rod Strickland, the Bullets could become playoff contenders.

Asked if he felt any animosity had been created between Bullets management and Howard, Unseld said, "There is no bad blood between us. We said Juwan was a very special person and a great basketball player when he signed with Miami, and we feel exactly the same way today."

The Bullets received heavy criticism from the media and fans for failing to re-sign Howard in the first place, but Unseld said, "I don't think our credibility suffered much. We've done a lot of things to make this a better team since last year," referring to the acquisition of Strickland from Portland, plus free agents Murray and Williams.

Despite the court action by Miami, the players association supported Howard in seeking to protect his interests.

"We felt Juwan should have the right to negotiate another contract," said Ron Klempner, the union's assistant general counsel.

But he told the Miami Herald that he believed the Heat's contract will be upheld. "The NBA's claims are frivolous," Klempner told the Herald.

Heat coach Pat Riley and executive vice president Dave Wohl declined to comment on yesterday's developments, the Herald said.

Howard's stats

1% Juwan Howard's career statistics:

.. .. .. .. .. .. G .. Reb .. Ast .. Pts

1994-95 Wash . . 65 .. 545 .. 165 .. 17.0

1995-96 Wash . . 81 .. 660 .. 360 .. 22.1

Totals . .. ... 146 . 1205 .. 525 .. 19.8

Pub Date: 8/06/96

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