Jilted Riley can only fume as Bullets, Howard dream

August 13, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

LANDOVER -- Talk about injustice. Billy Joel lost Christie Brinkley. Lyle Lovett lost Julia Roberts. But the Bullets get to keep Juwan Howard.

What was it Howard said when he left the Bullets for the Miami Cheat a month ago?

"It was only a two-year marriage. I hate that we had to have a divorce."

Evidently, so did that noted matchmaker, NBA commissioner David Stern. And now Miami coach Pat Riley is in a jealous rage, having been left at the altar.

Poor Riles, accused of circumventing the salary cap, ripped almost everyone in the NBA yesterday, and who could blame him?

Losing a player to the Bullets is like losing a lover to Pee-wee Herman.

It couldn't happen. It shouldn't happen. It never happens.

But, for some bizarre reason -- a tattletale third party, a sudden devotion to cap integrity, a league grudge against the Cheat -- it did.

Riley called the Bullets' signing of Howard "a new low in my 30 years in the NBA" and launched enough conspiracy theories to make five Oliver Stone movies.

On the cap question: "We did not forget how to add. . . . The only thing we miscalculated was somebody's animus for us."

On the league's motives: "They simply wanted Juwan to go back to Washington, maybe with the new arena and all."

On Howard: "I knew basically there was too much risk to fight this war for somebody who didn't want to be here."

Great stuff, but here's what Bullets coach Jim Lynam said yesterday when asked when he thought the Heat's contract with Howard was suspicious.

"Want my hustler's street instinct?" Lynam said. "The day it was signed."

Riley a scam artist?

Say it ain't so, Alonzo!

We won't bore you with a detailed explanation of why the Bullets got to keep Howard, but suffice it to say that we should all be so lucky when it comes to courtship.

Imagine an average slob trying it the Bullets' way.

Insult a woman on the first date?

Didn't mean it.

Allow a wealthy rival to sweep her off her feet?

Couldn't help it.

Get her back and live happily after?

Planned it all along.

The Bullets don't deserve Howard, but now that they've got him for seven years, they might even make the playoffs for the first time since 1987-88.

"This time we will be there," Howard said. "I guarantee you that."

"We don't just want the playoffs," team president Susan O'Malley interjected. "We want the ring."

Howard swiftly addressed the absurdity of that statement, all but telling O'Malley to pipe down.

"You have to first walk before you run," he said.

Heck, the Bullets barely knew how to crawl when it came to dealing with their most valuable player since Wes Unseld.

The only reason they were in this position is because they botched Howard's first contract, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent after two years.

Naturally, Howard developed into an All-Star -- this, after former general manager John Nash had the gall to compare him to first-round bust Danny Ferry.

So, what did the Bullets do when the big moment hit, with their new downtown D.C. arena under construction and their entire credibility at stake?

They made Howard a first offer of $78 million -- or more than $20 million less than what he signed for with the Heat about six seconds later.


Curtis Polk, the man representing Howard for agent David Falk, said he could understand the Bullets' misjudging the market -- "Nobody knew for sure what it would be" -- but that was no excuse.

The Bullets knew they had to keep Howard.

And still, they blew it.

They're lucky the NBA disallowed Howard's Miami contract. And they're lucky the league and players union allowed them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign Howard as their own free agent.

"We didn't get it done the first time -- I didn't get it done the first time," said Unseld, the team's GM. "But when the second time came about, I was determined to get it done as quickly as possible."

O'Malley said only 11 season-ticket holders asked for their deposits to be refunded, but the Bullets obviously recognized their mistake. Why else would they have coughed up the additional $20 million?

"It surprised me how one guy -- a young guy -- touched so many people in this area," Howard said. "It put a smile on my face, but also a hurt on my heart.

"I cried. I cried many times. My family, friends, Curtis, they all saw that, witnessed that. They knew how I felt about the situation."

Especially when it turned out that the Bullets were the only team in position to match the Heat's contract and make him a $100 million man.

Other teams kept conducting business as usual, making trades, signing players, reaching their caps. Polk estimated that Howard could have lost between $25 million and $50 million if the Heat fought for him in a protracted arbitration battle.

That possibility ended when the league and NBA players association reached an agreement Saturday, paving the way for Howard to return to the Bullets and putting the Heat, as Riley put it, "in a box."

"I asked many times to talk to Juwan about this, and I never got a telephone call from him or David Falk," Riley said.

"All I needed was an answer: 'If we are going to fight this war for you, will you come?'

"We offered Howard and agent David Falk a contract of a lifetime, and for them to turn their back for whatever reason is unconscionable."

Sour grapes, perhaps, but how could Riley not suspect a conspiracy?

He's the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the NBA, and he just lost out to Pee-wee Herman.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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