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Saturday, December 4, 2010
Phil Jasner leaves a lasting impression

By Larry Coon

Phil Jasner, the Philadelphia Daily News’ beat writer for the 76ers since 1981 and a Basketball Hall of Famer, passed away Friday. He left his mark on millions of people, directly and indirectly. Here’s the story of my one interaction with him, back in 2000.

I started my FAQ (cbafaq.com) in 1999. In the first couple years I was still learning how the NBA worked. I still am, frankly, but back then my learning curve was much steeper. If some CBA-related event happened in the league I’d dissect it, identify which rules controlled it, and make sure I understood why it was legal.

One of those events occurred in 2000, when news broke that the Minnesota Timberwolves had circumvented the salary cap by making an under-the-table agreement with power forward Joe Smith. By their secret arrangement, Smith would sign three consecutive below-market contracts. At the end of three such contracts the Wolves would have Smith’s Bird rights, and could re-sign the player for any salary up to the maximum. They would then make Smith’s sacrifice up to him with a large, long-term deal.

Undisclosed agreements and promises of future contracts are strictly forbidden in the NBA. When the league found out about it they came down hard on the team, including owner Glen Taylor and GM Kevin McHale. They took away five first-round draft picks, fined the team $3.5 million dollars, and suspended Taylor and McHale for a year (they ended up taking leaves of absences instead, in return for which the league returned one of the draft picks).

The league also voided Smith’s current contract with the Wolves, of course. But interestingly, they also voided Smith’s two previous contracts with the team, which were already completed. It was easy to figure out the logic -- if they just voided Smith’s current deal the Wolves would retain Smith’s Bird rights, and could simply re-sign him to an Early Bird contract. By also voiding his previous contracts the league erased Smith’s entire history with the team, leaving the Wolves unable to re-sign the player to anything more than a minimum-salary contract. This was all part of the news on the day commissioner David Stern announced the Wolves’ punishment.

But nobody seemed to figure out another angle to this story. Bird rights are conveyed to the player’s “prior team,” which the collective bargaining agreement defines as the team for which the player was last under contract. If Smith’s Minnesota contracts were erased from the record books, then it meant the Philadelphia 76ers suddenly became Smith’s prior team -- and since Smith had completed a three-year contract with the Sixers, that team therefore inherited Smith’s full Bird rights.

Obviously, situations like this one aren’t detailed in the CBA -- it’s a matter of correctly interpreting the existing rules. This is when we would try to contact people working in and around the league for advice. One of my guys would say, “We should call X,” and usually manage to get that person on the phone with us. On this occasion it was Jasner.

Remember, this was back in 2000, when most of the media didn’t know or care about CBA issues. Still, we got Jasner on the phone, explained the logic, and picked his brain on what the Sixers might want to do. He was skeptical that the Sixers would have any interest in adding Smith to the team, but his interest was piqued when I explained sign-and-trade transactions and how the Sixers might be able to leverage Smith to obtain an asset they did want.

Nothing ultimately came of the Philadelphia angle -- the Sixers didn’t make a move, and Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons. But what left a lasting impression on me was Jasner. He didn’t know me from Adam, yet he took a call from two strangers, patiently sat through an arcane explanation of league rules, and offered a well-considered opinion of the team’s thinking in this situation. My one conversation with Jasner influences me to this day -- following his lead, I always try to give time to those who ask for it, even if I don’t know that person from Adam.

The NBA lost a legend this week. Rest in peace, Phil -- and thanks.