Four years ago, then-Charlotte Hornets general manager Allan Bristow was embroiled in a particularly bitter negotiating session when he reached across the table and introduced a surprising, new strategy.
He wrapped his hands around agent Arn Tellem’s neck and began squeezing, reintroducing the sports world to the traditional definition of “choking.” Coincidence or not, Tellem’s client, Kendall Gill, eventually joined the Seattle SuperSonics.
It is safe to say coach Phil Jackson felt the urge to apply a choke hold or two during his contract negotiations with the Bulls, even though that would be very un-Zen-like. The bigger issue now that he has signed, however, is whether acrimony will pollute his working environment with the Bulls so much that it never will be the same again.
From the outside, it would appear to be a Superfund cleanup site, what with the bad feelings among Jackson, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause.
The sports world is littered with stories of ugly contract negotiations. Perhaps Bristow’s actions were severe, but that’s what agents are for: to shield clients from the abuse - usually oral - that can come out of negotiations. But sometimes the rhetoric goes from blunt to razor sharp and it cuts so deep that even if a contract is hashed out, the relationship has been tainted unalterably.
When Marcus Allen sat out for more money with the Raiders, owner Al Davis chained him to his doghouse until the running back escaped to Kansas City in 1993. Eric Dickerson grew bitter not once, but twice, with contract negotiations and eventually was traded two times. Shawn Kemp is so upset the Sonics won’t renegotiate his contract that he vows he never will play again for the team. And so on.
“Ego is what causes most of these problems,” New York Giants GM George Young said. “If you have control over your ego, you don’t get into the problems. And I wouldn’t want to say coaches and players are more guilty than management. You see contracts done and then management trades the player for one reason or another. Of course, nobody is going to say it’s because of the bad feelings that were developed.”
Pete Rose said that each time he negotiated with the Cincinnati Reds, his anger grew and his relationship with club executive Dick Wagner died a little more. Finally, after the 1978 season, it couldn’t be revived. Rose asked for $450,000. The Reds offered about $400,000. Wagner questioned whether many teams would be interested in a 38-year-old infielder. Rose was coming off a season in which he had a 44-game hitting streak and picked up his 3,000th hit.
The Reds took out a full-page ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer to state their case.
“They could have had me for the rest of my life for $450,000,” Rose recalled.
Instead, he signed with Philadelphia for $810,000 a year.
“I left my hometown,” he said. “I hated to leave the fans. I hated to leave my teammates. I hated to leave the people who work for the Reds. But once you’re soured as far as the people you work for who don’t respect you or want you, it’s easy to go.
“I went through it so many times with the Reds. You could almost guarantee I was going to be a holdout every year. So it built up.”
The Reds had violated one of the cardinal rules of employee relations: Don’t speak badly of the talent - at least not to their faces.
“You don’t bad-mouth your players,” Cubs president Andy MacPhail said. “It would be like Gillette criticizing its razors.”
It’s called cutting your own throat. MacPhail would have peripheral knowledge of such things, because it was the pre-MacPhail Cubs who lost Greg Maddux to the Braves three Cy Youngs ago after contentious contract talks.
“It’s important to keep your client out of the battle,” said agent Peter Schaffer, who recently helped negotiate Barry Sanders’ $34 million contract. “Don’t let him get involved in firing the salvos and try to keep him from hearing some of the rhetoric that goes back and forth in negotiations.
“My point during Barry’s contract negotiations was, if you’re the Lions and you know you’re going to pay him the money, why are you risking upsetting a player who has done so much for your team and has been such a team player? Is it worth getting this guy mad?”
Normally, the perception is that coaches are aligned with management, and that’s what makes Jackson’s situation so unusual. He has aligned himself with Michael Jordan. And normally, management goes out of its way to get along with coaches, because there is much more of a need for cooperation. A GM sometimes can insulate himself from a player after nasty contract talks. With management and a coach, it’s often bone on bone, and the friction can be painful.
Will that happen in Chicago? No one knows, but Jackson’s relationship with his bosses hasn’t always been rosy anyway. Now that they have reached agreement on a contract, it could be business as usual.
“Any feelings Jackson has about Reinsdorf are going to be virtually unaffected by this contract negotiation,” one agent said. “They have tolerated each other.”
There are some similarities between Jackson’s saga and what former Bears coach Mike Ditka went through in 1984. Ditka wanted a contract extension, and even though there was much public support for it, nothing was done during the season. Finally, team president Michael McCaskey announced a new deal the week of the NFC championship game.
Despite the season-long bitterness, Ditka’s anger eventually evaporated.
In 1987, when his contract again was about to expire, Ditka received a call from Bears GM Jerry Vainisi, who had moved on to Detroit after the Bears fired him. The Lions would give him whatever he wanted, Vainisi told Ditka. And the two close friends could be reunited.
No, Ditka said, he could suffer McCaskey as long as it meant suffering as the Bears coach.
Can Jackson do the same with the Bulls? There are at least two ways for him to go. He can try to let the bad feelings roll off of him. Or he can take up Allan Bristow’s new Olympic sport:
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