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BACKDOOR PLAY
The Nuggets used all manner of cunning to lure Antonio McDyess
from the Suns

When Nuggets general manager Dan Issel was an All-America center
out of Kentucky in 1970, the ABA's Kentucky Colonels whisked him
off to Florida and stashed him there until he signed on the
dotted line, rather than risk losing him to the NBA. No wonder
he understood the value of insulating Antonio McDyess, the
24-year-old free-agent power forward who was reduced to tears
last week as he agonized over choosing between Denver, his first
NBA team, and Phoenix, the one he played for last season.

As the Nuggets were about to announce last Thursday that he had
chosen them, McDyess, still tormented by doubt, abruptly
canceled the 3 p.m. press conference. Some of those doubts were
fueled by a phone conversation McDyess had with forward LaPhonso
Ellis, a close friend whose rights were about to be renounced by
the Nuggets so that they could sign McDyess to a six-year, $67.5
million deal. The fact that he wouldn't be playing alongside
Ellis in Denver was news to McDyess, so he tearfully called Suns
point guard Jason Kidd and told him he was uncertain about
joining the Nuggets. Phoenix guard Rex Chapman joined Kidd on
the line, and when he asked McDyess if they should fly to Denver
to talk with him, McDyess said yes. "It was clear he was really
struggling," Chapman says.

McDyess then instructed Tony Dutt, one of his agents, to call
Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo and ask whether McDyess
could still return to Phoenix; Colangelo assured Dutt that he
could. What followed in the next 12 hours is a tale of intrigue
that lends a new and bizarre meaning to the term free-agent
frenzy.

When Issel learned that Chapman, Kidd and Suns forward George
McCloud, another one of McDyess's close friends, were in a
private jet bound for Denver, he realized it was time to change
tactics. Until then he had avoided pressuring McDyess. Now Issel
summoned first-year coach Mike D'Antoni, assistant coach John
Lucas and point guard Nick Van Exel to Denver from the team's
training camp in Colorado Springs to help close the deal. They
made the 60-mile trek in a blinding snowstorm, passing several
accidents on the treacherous roads.

In the meantime Issel and Nuggets owner Charlie Lyons huddled
with McDyess and his agents, Dutt and James Bryant, in a locker
room at McNichols Arena, where a sold-out NHL game between the
Colorado Avalanche and the Calgary Flames was less than an hour
away. When McDyess mentioned that Avalanche goaltender Patrick
Roy was his favorite player, the Nuggets brass asked Roy in for
a quick pregame visit. He presented McDyess with the goalie
stick he had planned to use that night.

By the time the three Suns had landed and were in a limo headed
to McNichols, the hockey game had started and McDyess had moved
to Lyons's luxury box. Chapman called Dutt on his cell phone and
arranged for a 9:30 p.m. meeting with McDyess at the Embassy
Suites hotel. With more than an hour to kill, the Suns parked
outside the arena, hoping McDyess might slip out through the
players' entrance. Chapman says he asked a security guard to
tell McDyess they were waiting. After a few minutes a different
guard returned and told him, "I just talked to Antonio, and he
said, 'Beat it.'"

"I told the guy, 'You're lying,'" Chapman says. "I pressed him
and then he finally said, 'Look, I'm just telling you what I was
told to come out here and say.'"

Issel and Lyons continued to court McDyess in the box, awaiting
the arrival of D'Antoni, Lucas and Van Exel. McDyess had stayed
with Lucas, formerly the 76ers coach, while in Philadelphia for
a workout before the 1995 draft; Van Exel, who is also
represented by Dutt and Bryant, had become a good friend to
McDyess over the summer. When Van Exel arrived, he spent 15
minutes alone with McDyess and persuaded him to come back to the
Nuggets--despite the Suns' ability to pay him at least $20
million more. "If Antonio had left that arena without some kind
of handshake deal," Issel says, "we were in trouble."

As 9:30 neared, the Suns players headed to the Embassy Suites
and waited. According to Chapman, Dutt phoned them at 9:35 and
said McDyess was running late. "Then," Chapman says, "a half
hour later we get a call from some guy named Ted who tells us
Antonio was tired and confused and wasn't going to talk to us or
anyone else that night. We asked for him to put Antonio on the
phone. He wouldn't do it."

McCloud called McDyess's pager 25 times but didn't get a reply.
At midnight Chapman scanned the lobby one last time and ran into
Bryant, Dutt and Van Exel as they were checking in--without
McDyess. "I went up to Tony Dutt," said Chapman. "He was wearing
a Denver Nuggets sweat jacket. I asked him what was going on. He
told me Antonio had made up his mind to play for Denver. I told
Tony that I was O.K. with that, if it made Antonio happy. I
mean, he's the sweetest guy in the world. All I wanted to know
was why did they have to put him through all this?"

McDyess says he chose Denver because the Suns failed to showcase
him in their offense last season. As for why he never hooked up
with Chapman, Kidd and McCloud, McDyess says it wasn't until the
press conference after he signed his new deal last Friday
afternoon that he learned from a reporter of his former
teammates' trip to Denver.

Dutt insists he did not withhold any messages or information
from McDyess. "The truth is, he was very confused," Dutt says.
"He was being torn in a hundred directions. It was too much
pressure for one kid to handle."

Asked what would have happened if he had met with the Phoenix
players last Thursday, McDyess says, "I probably would have been
more confused than ever. I love those guys."

But could they have changed his mind? "I don't know," says
McDyess. "Maybe."

Post-McDyess Fallout
THE SUNS ALSO RISE UP

One day after McDyess signed with the Nuggets, the Suns landed a
handsome consolation prize: free-agent forward Tom Gugliotta. He
received a six-year contract worth $58.5 million, which was some
$19 million less than he could have made by staying with the
Timberwolves. It's also possible the Pistons would have thrown a
better deal Gugliotta's way, but while he was weighing offers
from the Suns and the Lakers, Detroit decided to fill its power
forward spot with Loy Vaught, even if it meant overpaying him
(five years at $23 million).

When the season opens, Vaught, 30, will attempt to become the
first player in NBA history to play following spinal fusion
surgery, which he had in December. Despite the risk, the Pistons
figured it was better to have Vaught in the fold than to wait
for Gugliotta and possibly come up empty. Detroit also acquired
the injured Christian Laettner (torn Achilles; out until March)
from the Hawks. "Loy's got a big jump shot, and he's a terrific
rebounder," says Detroit coach Alvin Gentry, "and he's ours."

For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
www.cnnsi.com.

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