When you own a longterm sports contract for $26 million or so, you can do lots of things like get a coach fired or serve as a team's spiritual director. I have in mind Magic Johnson and David Robinson, Los Angeles and San Antonio basketball players of note.
Both have spoken out on controversial issues, and there has been considerable merit in their utterings.
Perhaps you recall that shortly after Johnson signed a LA Laker pact for around $25 million, there was furor about whether Paul Westhead should remain as coach. Johnson made it clear, publicly, he felt Westhead was doing a poor job. It wasn't long before Westhead, now struggling to stay as coach of the Denver Nuggets, was gone. Some said it would've happened anyway, but the popular joke was that Earvin Johnson was indeed magic, because he'd made a coach disappear. (Johnson further validated Al McGuire's declaration he'd never coach in the pros until he was making at least $1 more a year than his highest-paid player.)
But it turned out Johnson had a good feel for what was right and what wasn't. Pat Riley came out of the broadcast booth to become Laker coach, and he led the team to all sorts of titles.
NOW TO DAVID Robinson, the former Navy All-American who at last reports was working on a San Antonio Spur contract that'll produce something like $26 million in his first eight years with the club.
Under the able guidance of former Kansas coach Larry Brown, the Spurs went from one of the worst teams in the NBA to a division championship in just two years. You may question Larry on some things, but you gotta admit he's a tremendous coach, at least until he and his personnel get to bickering, which there was some of last season.
At any rate, the 7-foot Robinson recently declared the Spurs need ``spirit'' to go along with their substantial talent if they are to remain NBA title contenders. Seems all is not serendipity in the Land of the Alamo. Not necessarity because of the coach, but because of several teammates.
``You can have talent but it means nothing if you don't have spirit,'' Robinson said recently. The brilliant center says the Spurs must change their attitudes and demand a higher standard of conduct from each other off the court. When your job is as secure as David's, you needn't worry about the front office. Especially when you're the quality of person Robinson is, and you're correct.
Last season, the Spurs won their second consecutive Midwest Division title with a 55-27 record despite injuries and a series of embarrassing off-court incidents. Coach Brown did a truly miraculous job of holding things together, at least until the playoffs.
SPUR GUARD Rod Strickland broke his right hand in a fight outside a San Antonio nightclub. Later in the season, he was charged with indecent exposure in Seattle. The charge eventually was dropped. Guard David Wingate faced rape charges in Texas and Maryland and missed the first 55 games of the season before being cleared of his legal troubles.
Strickland and Wingate also were at the center of controversy during the Spurs' first-round playoff series against Golden State. The two were seen at a San Antonio bar at 2 a.m. on the day of a game that started at noon. The underdog Warriors eliminated the Spurs from the playoffs.
Robinson said he will try harder this season to assume a leadership role. ``It doesn't make sense to win 55 games and lose in the first round of the playoffs,'' he said. ``That's ridiculous.''
AND DAVID'S job may be easier because of a recent trade which sent controversial center Dwayne Schintzius and a 1994 second-round draft pick to Sacramento for Antoine Carr, a 6-8, seven-year veteran from Wichita State who led the Kings in scoring last year (20.1).
Coach Brown criticized rookie Schintzius' work habits the past year and apparently was glad to get a proven gladiator like Carr in exchange for the problems the ex-Florida bad boy created. Yet it wasn't like Larry didn't have ample warning before he allowed Schintzius to become a first-round draft choice.
The hulking Dwayne with his self-serving antics and oddball hairdo seemed to be in a perennial jam at Florida. There was every indication of danger except ``trouble'' stenciled on his forehead. But Brown has always had a penchant for trying to save souls, the way he did with some troublesome recruits at Kansas. Larry obviously thought he could transform Schintzius from duckling to swan.
Maybe this will be the Year of the Spurs, what with Robinson and Brown combining their efforts to morally as well as physically get the most out of the team.
Thing is, Robinson has about six years left on his hefty guaranteed contract while Brown's is up for renegotiation a lot sooner. Whose shoes would you rather be wearing?