In not much more time than it took them to write a check for, say, $500,000 and mail it off to Seattle, the New York Knicks had hustled big Spencer Haywood into action in Madison Square Garden last Saturday night and folks were standing and cheering the power forward who might be their salvation. In the jubilation everyone could forget that the Knicks had more or less found Haywood in a West Coast fortune cookie, and that they had begun the week with a low-comedy chase after another superstar, named Wilt Chamberlain.
Up in the Garden seats sat Mike Burke, the club's modish president, smiling at the prolonged ovation for Haywood but not daring to blink for fear that when he reopened his eyes, his cookie prize would be gone. The way things had been going for him these past few months, the 6'9" ex-SuperSonic—who played 21 minutes, scored eight points and had eight rebounds in a 100-91 win over Cleveland—could have changed into a Halloween pumpkin.
It had happened before. The Knicks were in terrible shape and everybody knew how desperate they were to find help in the off-season. For a few magic days Burke thought he owned George McGinnis but Commissioner Larry O'Brien stopped that one and McGinnis became a Philadelphia 76er. New York had waved at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wanted to get out of Milwaukee, but lost him to Los Angeles. And then Atlanta, with amazing tunnel vision, effectively denied Burke negotiating rights to Marvin Webster and David Thompson, whom the Hawks had drafted but couldn't sign. Thompson and Webster went off to Denver of the ABA. "Why should we help them New Yorks?" asked Cotton Fitzsimmons, Atlanta's coach and director of player personnel, forgetting that the TV networks view with distaste any league without successful teams in New York and Los Angeles.
All of which brought the Knicks down to opening day consigned by nearly everyone to doormat status in their division and with season-ticket sales off by 1,800. Which is why they began a feverish pursuit of Chamberlain, the 39-year-old volleyball player. It was, as Burke admitted later, a desperation move. Chamberlain hadn't played for two seasons, but perhaps he could provide, if only part-time, the rebounding and defensive muscle the Knicks had so sorely missed since Dave DeBusschere left in 1974. And whatever he might contribute on the floor, he would certainly bring in the cash customers.
The first problem with Chamberlain was that the Lakers said he still owed them a year of playing from his last contract. The 7'1" center replied that he had sat the year out and was therefore a free agent. Burned once by the NBA rules, Burke called L.A. Owner Jack Kent Cooke and asked for permission to negotiate. And what might the Lakers want as compensation?
"Earl Monroe or Phil Jackson, cash and a top draft choice," said Cooke, deciding not to ask for the World Trade Center. Since the last thing Burke could give up was a quality player, the project stalled until Cooke told Burke to go ahead and talk to Chamberlain; they would discuss compensation later.
Chamberlain was delighted. He asked the Knicks to give him "a number"—to make him an offer. And he informed the Lakers that if they felt he owed them another year, he'd be out for practice and would be glad to play—for the $450,000 his last contract called for.
Already saddled with a massive payroll, Cooke was not overjoyed with that idea. He wanted to sell or trade the big man, not pay him, and somewhere along the line Chamberlain got the impression from the Lakers that if he showed up at practice they wouldn't even give him a pair of sneakers. "They said they would embarrass him," says Seymour S. Goldberg, Chamberlain's attorney.
Into the situation stepped O'Brien, who said he was removing Chamberlain from the Lakers' suspended list, thereby making him a free agent. "Fraud!" cried Goldberg. It seemed there was an additional stipulation in O'Brien's decision, which had not been made public but had been communicated to NBA owners. It said: "In the event any team in the NBA signs Chamberlain, it must compensate the Lakers."
"There was no way the Knicks could make an offer," says Goldberg. "The whole thing was an exercise in frustration. How could they negotiate and take the chance of blowing up their team? It was like walking into a booby trap."
Still, Burke and General Manager Eddie Donovan got ready to fly to Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 17 for a meeting with Chamberlain, taking along a Knick uniform—complete with his old number 13—for the benefit of photographers. "We felt confident," said Burke, "but first I wanted to talk to Wilt to see if he really wanted to play as a Knick or just to draw some big money."
But just before they left, Donovan received another phone call: Bill Russell, coach and general manager of the Super-Sonics, and Sonics President Sam Schulman would meet them in L.A. This produced an odd echo for Donovan. In early summer, when everything was turning sour, Russell had called to say he was having "vibrations" about Haywood and would New York be interested in a deal? The Knicks were, of course, but after a few phone calls, Russell abruptly said he had changed his mind and would not trade his superstar.
Since then, however, Haywood, a moody 225-pounder with a great talent for individual play, had told reporters that he was not happy with the Sonics and wanted to be traded, mainly because he felt he was not fully appreciated. He had had a fine regular season (22.4 points per game, 630 rebounds), but had been plagued by assorted ailments and had not performed well in the playoffs.
Russell and Schulman were waiting when Burke and Donovan got to Los Angeles and the four of them drove to Schulman's office. Over several cups of coffee, they discussed a possible deal for Haywood. "Let's let it hang for a while," Burke said. "We've come out to talk to Wilt and I feel that we owe him that first. Let's see what happens."
What happened was that Burke discovered Chamberlain was in Hawaii. "I told Goldberg I'd stay on and meet with Wilt next day and he said Chamberlain was on his way back."
The next morning Goldberg had to tell Burke that Chamberlain was still in Hawaii. Burke exploded and called Schulman, asking him how much he wanted for Haywood. He thought Schulman's figure was high, but said he would consider it. Then he and Donovan headed for the airport.
"As far as I was concerned any deal with Chamberlain was no longer possible," said Burke on Monday when he was back in New York. "I have to feel now that he never really intended to play. Even if he calls now, it's over."
On that day and the next the phone circuits between Seattle and New York were kept busy and finally on Wednesday Burke called Schulman and named a figure: better than $1.5 million—part now and the balance over the next three years. Schulman, whose franchise has had financial problems, said "fine." That was at 7 p.m. At 11, Donovan phoned Burke and reported that Russell had just called to say he wanted to sleep on it. With visions in his head of McGinnis, Abdul-Jabbar, Webster and Thompson all dancing off into the night, Burke said, "Like hell. I can't go to sleep without knowing the deal is set."
So he got Schulman on the phone again. Aside from the money, the Sonics had said they wanted either Gene Short, the Knicks' No. 1 draft choice out of Jackson State, or their No. 1 draft choice in 1979. Now Schulman bound the deal by agreeing to take Short. Satisfied, Burke went to bed.
"The next day I heard the news on the radio while I was taking a shower," said Earl Monroe, half of the Knicks' one outstanding department, their backcourt. "All of a sudden the water got awful warm. He will make things happen."
Few Knicks had been happy with the idea of having to play with Chamberlain, but Haywood was just fine. "His talents are obvious, and there's no question he'll take a lot of pressure off me," said Bill Bradley, who has missed the murderous picks DeBusschere set for him. "The thing is that when we talk about winning, we can talk about it right now. We don't have to keep on kidding ourselves."
"Spencer will generate excitement and that's what it's all about in New York," said Walt Frazier, the Knicks' other super guard, who has personally generated most of the recent excitement in the Garden. "You don't get a year to rebuild if you are the New York Knicks. Either you win right now or this place is a morgue."
At the press conference to introduce Haywood, Donovan was beaming. The week that began with the faintly ludicrous Wilt-hunt had ended well. Donovan told a story on himself. While he was general manager at Buffalo he had drafted Haywood—but in the second round. When he called his new player last week to tell him the news, he said, "Hi, this is Eddie Donovan and we are happy to have you in New York."
Replied Haywood, "How come you took me second in Buffalo?"