‘Don’t Screw Up the Team’

[In October 1971, Earl Monroe entered his fifth NBA season with the Baltimore Bullets. He wanted out of Baltimore in the worst way. Over the next few days, I’ll post mostly cut material from my recently published book, Shake and Bake, that chronicles one of the testiest trades in NBA history. Here’s part 3, “Don’t Screw Up the Team.”]

Baltimore, October 27, 1971—Since first demanding that the Bullets trade Earl Monroe, Larry Fleisher had now whittled down the list of acceptable franchises to one. the New York Knicks. For Fleisher, it was simply the best fit. The Knicks were a veteran team that remained in the NBA championship hunt. New York fans would be sophisticated enough to appreciate Monroe’s magic act whenever he flashed his Earl the Pearl mystique. But most of all, team president Ned Irish had the finances at hand, if needed, to pay Abe Pollin’s hefty severance fee and tender Monroe a top-dollar contract. 

Fleisher had called Pollin several days ago with his revised trade demand. Pollin reportedly opined that Irish, a tough negotiator and notoriously opportunistic trading partner, would smell blood if the Bullets asked the Knicks to take Monroe. The defending Eastern Division champions would get nothing in return.  How would that be fair?

“Don’t screw up the team,” Pollin pleaded. “Earl is half of our franchise.”

“He doesn’t want to play for you,” Fleisher answered. “He wants to play in New York.”

After repeating the threat of free agency and playing the obligatory ABA card (revealing the ABA’s Indiana Pacers were sniffing around for Monroe), Fleisher reportedly ended the conversation with a condescending word to the wise.  

“Look, Abe, you’d better trade Earl while you still can get something in return. Call Ned Irish.” 

Pollin hung up the phone feeling resentful. Why was an agent bullying him to make a trade that was against his interests? Agents negotiated contracts; they didn’t hold knives to an owner’s throat and issue ultimatums. From Pollin’s perspective, he stood on solid legal ground. Monroe was in the option year of a valid NBA contract with the Bullets. If he caved to Fleisher’s pressure, what signal would that send to this new breed of agents? That their blackmailing of owners was an acceptable means to a more-lucrative end. Pollin told his staff that he felt morally obligated not to let Fleisher and Monroe get away with breaking the contract. 

In close consultation with his lawyer, Pollin had already sent letters to Fleisher and Monroe informing them to anticipate serious consequences for their recalcitrance. Fleisher bridled at the officious, how-dare-you tone. Among NBA superstars, Monroe had hands-down the worst contract in the league. His two-year deal, which Fleisher negotiated in 1969, paid Monroe a near minimum-wage of $40,000 per season, plus $200,000 in deferred payments for his “consulting services” beginning in 1979. Translation: Monroe would receive a front-office job with the Bullets and a nominal salary when he retired. The letter therefore’ed and whereby’ed ahead to declare that Monroe’s recent walkout constituted a breach of contract. Ergo, Monroe forfeited the $200,000 in deferred payments.[i] Translation: You’re fired, unless of course, Monroe relented.

As luck and acrimony would have it, the letter coincided with the latest in Fleisher’s own brinksmanship. Fleisher had arranged for Monroe to attend Knicks’ home games and insinuate his way onto the team. He also had dished to the New York Post’s popular sports columnist Milton Gross, suggesting Honest Abe wasn’t being totally honest about the Monroe affair.

This marked the second-straight season that a newfangled agent challenged a pro basketball owner in the court of public opinion to get his way for a client.[ii] In this morning’s newspaper story with the headline “Earl’s Case,” Fleisher questioned Pollin’s integrity for dragging his feet on the promised trade and arranged for Gross to interview the disgruntled Monroe. Hardly “The Clam” with Gross, Monroe opened up that Pollin expects “loyalty to the organization, but the organization has no loyalty to you.”

“How about [playing for] the Knicks,” Gross asked right on cue.

“I’d love to,” Monroe answered.[iii]  

Pollin read the article today and felt his temperature rise, especially at Monroe’s audacity to doubt his “loyalty.” Pollin called the emergency meeting with Sachs and Coach Gene Shue to weigh their options. Their solution:  Hit Fleisher back—harder. 

Baltimore, November 4, 1971—Harder came a week later when Abe Pollin released a lengthy statement to the press that rebutted the New York Post article and set the record—and the content of his character—straight. Pollin, admitting Monroe’s “no loyalty” statement had irked him, named three instances when he had personally intervened to help his star. Pollin said he handed him a $10,000 bonus check to help his mother purchase a house, loaned Monroe money when a local bank wouldn’t, and paid off a tax lien.  

“If all these involvements are an indication of my disloyalty to Earl Monroe, then indeed I must be considered guilty,” he concluded.  

Pollin then claimed to have honored Monroe’s trade request. But Pollin also claimed he had received no serious offers in return. “I am resolute in this matter, and I pledge to Bullets’ fans that I have no intention of making just ANY trade for Earl Monroe merely because he does not want to play in Baltimore,” Pollin concluded with good effect. “I will, however, agree to a fair trade for Earl since only that kind of a trade will enhance our chances of bringing another championship to Baltimore.”[iv]

While Pollin wrapped up his vow of honesty, Fleisher stood inside a telephone booth at Washington’s National Airport. On the other end of the line was Alan Goldstein of the Baltimore Sun fishing for a comment on Pollin’s news conference. Fleisher refused. But he dropped his guard long enough to admit that Pollin’s lamentation on loyalty was misguided. Monroe had never claimed in the New York Post that Pollin was disloyal to him.

“When [Monroe] was talking about loyalty, he was actually referring to what happened to his old roommate Fred Carter and Kevin Loughery,” said Fleisher. “Carter was traded two hours after he signed his Bullet contract, and Loughery was gone two days after he signed his.  What Earl was trying to get at in Milt Gross’ column was the whole player-owner relationship.” [v]

“What’s your deadline for a trade?” Goldstein asked.

“I don’t want to set any definite deadline,” Fleisher answered.  “But if Earl isn’t traded soon, we are going to have to do something.”

“What’s something?”

“We will try to reach some sort of agreement with one of the other twenty-seven pro basketball teams.”[vi]

Fleisher hung up the phone and squeezed through the accordion door into the bustle and blare of the airport terminal. He wondered about Pollin’s endgame. Pollin clearly no longer was fighting to keep Monroe in town. His statement had mocked and betrayed his star attraction, and an angry Monroe already had called Fleisher to declare that this was the final straw.

Monroe’s response was utterly predictable, leaving Fleisher to wonder why Pollin would push back and escalate the situation? It wasn’t as though Pollin had to pacify the season-ticket holders. Since buying out his partners three seasons ago and becoming the franchise’s majority owner, Pollin had been clear about his future plans. When his Baltimore Civic Center lease expired at the end of this season, he would relocate the team to greener pastures closer to Washington.

Fleisher could recall an exchange that he’d had with Pollin two years ago while negotiating a contract. “I don’t understand you,” Pollin calmly leveled, though with an undertone of indigence. “I’m absolutely convinced [the offer on the table] is fair.” It was as though Pollin considered his reality more real than Fleisher’s. Maybe that was the point. Pollin always had to be right. He couldn’t let Monroe, Fleisher, or the damn New York Post get away with spattering mud on his formerly spotless public image. As Fleisher liked to quip, Pollin was the “great liberal Rabbi,”[vii] a self-styled do-gooder who traveled an enlightened philanthropic path to build a more compassionate world. He was a friend to Israel, gave liberally to all the right social charities, and didn’t just talk but rolled up his sleeves to help house the poor in the District of Columbia.

For Fleisher, the problem was Pollin’s actions as an NBA owner weren’t nearly so enlightened. He supported the reserve clause, headed the NBA Merger Committee to kill competition and expand the league’s monopoly, and championed lower player salaries. For all of his genuine affection for some of his players, Pollin drove one of the hardest bargains in the league. Consider the plight of Stan Love, Baltimore’s top rookie and the ninth college player selected in the 1971 NBA draft. Love asked the Bullets for a slightly ambitious $750,000 over five years. Pollin countered with $300,000 over five years. Final offer. Not feeling the love in Baltimore, the Oregon All American nearly signed with the ABA for twice the Bullets’ offer but balked at the last minute because the money wasn’t guaranteed.[viii] Pollin inched up his offer, and Love signed for half his original asking price.  

While some applauded Pollin’s principled stand on inflated rookie contracts, Fleisher wasn’t joining in the bravos. He knew of Pollin’s propensity to go too far to win a tough negotiation. Take rookie Phil Chenier. Baltimore drafted Chenier last September in the NBA’s first Supplemental Draft for college hardship cases to gain early entry into the league. The Bullets did so apparently unaware[ix] that Chicago already had signed Chenier to a secret league contract and, but for Baltimore, would have taken him in the Supplemental Draft. Chenier, although surprised by the turn of events, flew east assuming Baltimore would honor his lucrative contract with Chicago.

That’s when Chenier got a second big surprise. Pollin rejected the Chicago deal and floated a new contract worth significantly less. Pollin’s ploy, which flouted an unwritten NBA policy to honor league contracts, backed Chenier into a corner. He couldn’t return to college after declaring for the NBA draft. Neither did he have an ABA offer to spook the Bullets into upping the ante. Chenier was, after all, NBA property.  His options were to sue Baltimore to honor the league contract, jump to the ABA for more money and hope Baltimore didn’t sue in a fit of crocodile tears for breach of contract, or travel the path of least resistance and accept Pollin’s lesser offer. Chenier chose the latter, becoming possibly the first NBA rookie ever to swallow a significant paycut before playing his first pro game. 

Pollin recently went a little too far again to bolster the Bullets’ banged-up frontline. Detroit had placed second-year forward Terry Driscoll on the NBA’s 48-hour waiver list for any team to claim for a small fee. First come, first serve. But because of Driscoll’s rather hefty $100,000-per-year contract, most general managers assumed he would go unclaimed and become a free agent, leaving any interested party a chance to double back and renegotiate Driscoll’s contract for half the price. But Baltimore didn’t want to risk losing Driscoll. The Bullets claimed him off waivers and, against NBA rules, quietly asked Driscoll to take a $40,000 paycut. Driscoll refused and caught the next flight home.  The Bullets relented and brought back Driscoll at full price but reserved the right to waive him in December when the team became legally liable to pay his full salary for the remainder of the year. Driscoll and his wife now rented a room in the Lord Baltimore Hotel, unsure of where they would spend Christmas. 

As Fleisher made his way through National Airport, stories like these kept him on his guard. Pollin was a skilled adversary. So was GM Jerry Sachs. But Fleisher had reason to believe that despite the latest drama, things might be headed toward resolution. Pollin, though stating publicly that he had “no intention of making just ANY trade,” already had called New York’s Ned Irish to discuss his interest in Monroe. Pollin also would testify before Congress in five days to push for an antitrust exemption and ultimately an NBA-ABA merger. Did Pollin really want a high-profile contract dispute providing fresh fodder for Senator Ervin to advise the NBA to put its house in order before asking for an antitrust exemption? But there would be no way of avoiding the Monroe issue on Capitol Hill, if Pollin didn’t act soon. Fleisher was sure of it.  After all, Fleisher had arranged for Monroe to testify during the hearing alongside Pollin.  

[i] Goldstein A, “Monroe Offered Rich Pact,” Baltimore Sun, November 16, 1971.  The cited numbers are up for debate.  In his 2013 autobiography Earl the Pearl, Monroe and writer Quincy Troupe state that Fleisher called and “told me that he had worked out my contract with the Bullets for $140,000 a year for two seasons.  I would get $100,000 per year and the other $40,000 per season would be deferred and that money would accrue with interest.” (p. 237).  However, a statement that Pollin issued in 1971 placed Monroe’s base salary as $40,000 and the deferment as $100,000 per season.  Salaries and deferments within this range are repeated at least three times in the statement, and both Baltimore newspapers carried these same numbers.  Either way, Monroe was underpaid for his superstar status.  The question is how egregiously?  

[ii] Last season, lawyer/agent Al Ross publicly called Denver Rockets owner Bill Ringsby a racist for allegedly making lowbrow comments about Spencer Haywood.  Ross used the allegation to bolster his case that Haywood should be free to jump from the ABA to the NBA.  Ringsby sued Ross for defamation of character.  

[iii] Gross M, “Earl’s Case,” New York Post, October 26, 1971.

[iv] Pollin A, “The Statement,” Baltimore Sun, November 5, 1971.

[v] Goldstein A, “Monroe May Seek Own Deal,” Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1971.  Kevin Loughery learned of the trade while waiting for his order at McDonald’s.  Jim Palmer, the star pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles pitcher, walked up to him and said, “Sorry to hear about the trade.”  See Klingaman M. “Catching Up With . . . Kevin Loughery,” Baltimore Sun, October 25, 2012.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Cole L, A Loose Game:  The Sport and Business of Basketball, Bobbs-Merrill, 1978, p. 60. 

[viii] Love S and Rapoport R, Love in the NBA:  A Player’s Uninhibited Diary, Saturday Review Press, 1975, p. 9-10.

[ix] Bob Ferry, Interview with author, April 2014.

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