MILLIONS FROM HEAVEN

The Atlanta Hawks' Jon Koncak was a center of little renown—averaging 6.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, career—until he signed a six-year contract worth $13 million. Now other lesser NBA players should find gold at the end of the rainbow
November 06, 1989

In a preseason game at the omni, Jon Koncak of the Atlanta Hawks rises up for a baseline slam a split second before Mike Brown of the Utah Jazz rises up to nullify the shot. Two career reserve big guys with similar stats, skills and roles—one filthy rich, the other just, oh, comfortable—going at it. This time comfortable (Brown, $550,000 per year) nearly sends filthy rich (Koncak, $2.2 million per year) to the promised land.

Brown pins the ball against the glass and hits Koncak with a body check that sends the seven-foot, 260-pound center into a spinning, flailing arc toward the Omni floor. Koncak lands on his back with a resounding thud. The crowd gasps. It appears that Brown mutters something as Koncak lies writhing. Slowly Koncak rises, limps to the free throw line and shoots two free throws, missing each badly. He calls timeout and with the help of the trainer staggers to the training room.

Is Brown angry about Koncak's newfound wealth, about the 26-year-old's recently signed six-year deal with the Hawks for an astonishing $13.1 million, or is this your basic NBA territorial how-de-do?

"Just a foul,' " says Brown later. "Just bodies going in opposite directions."

In truth, it may have been logic and reason going in opposite directions. We all know that NBA superstars make big money. Subconsciously we may even want them to make huge amounts, the same way peasants of yore wanted their kings to be outfitted in gold-threaded robes. Magic Johnson ($3 million this season), Larry Bird ($2.7 million), Michael Jordan ($2.5 million)—we can deal with them making bundles of cash. What are we to think, though, when Jon Koncak (Jon Contract?)—a hardworking, congenial, but remarkably ordinary NBA player (6.2 points, 6.1 rebounds per game career average)—earns that kind of money? Maybe we should simply sit back, take a deep breath and try to understand the economic, social and legal forces that are turning the NBA into the equivalent of a state lottery—with Koncak, and maybe every other player, holding a winning ticket.

Wait for a moment, though, because right now Koncak himself is not thinking at all about wealth. As the game continues out on the court, Koncak lies in the training room alone, on his stomach with an ice pack on the small of his back. He is in deep pain. His legs went numb for a moment after he hit the floor, and he feared that his back was broken. He still doesn't know if everything is in place back there. Indeed, he will miss the last six exhibition games with a deep contusion to his coccyx because of the crash. He landed so hard that there are about 10 small red stars near his tailbone, the imprint of a section of his mesh jersey. Let's see, that's just over $1.3 million per star.

Koncak laughs through the pain. He has been beat up before in the NBA—eight root canals, four crowns and a false tooth, just in the mouth department—but such abuse comes with the turf. "When you retire you can get your teeth redone," he says.

And when you retire after earning his salary—all guaranteed, all cash—you can do just about anything you want.

"Hey, I can't justify what they offered me," he says with a careful shrug. "But what was I supposed to do? Say no? The league is changing. I think maybe this is just the start."

It almost certainly is the start of a financial hurricane in the NBA, one that will see money flying everywhere and players of all calibers earning larger and larger salaries while the league itself flourishes from its growing global popularity and the revenue from increased gate receipts, advertising, marketing and TV deals. Koncak is not alone among obscure NBA players who are raking in the dough. Portland guard Terry Porter, who has never been an All-Star nor led his team past the first round of the playoffs, signed a six-year deal with the Trail Blazers last summer for $13.2 million. His backup, Drazen Petrovic of Yugoslavia, who played in Europe last year, signed on for four years for $5 million. Veteran Jim Petersen, a center-forward of no particular distinction, recently signed with the Sacramento Kings for $8 million for six years. And guard Sedale Threatt (rhymes with "treat"), a career 7.3-points-per-game scorer, recently inked a $2.6 million, four-year deal with Seattle.

"It's a whole new world out there when it comes to money," Cleveland vice-president and general manager Wayne Embry said. "And it's pretty scary."

Weird is more like it. The money just happens to be there, and the old rules about proving your worth before getting rich just don't apply anymore. In fact, even having great worth isn't really that important anymore. All a hoopster has to do is get into the league and wait, briefly, through free agency or competitive bidding, for his time to come.

"Thirteen million," says Koncak softly, still amazed. "Thirteen million!"

As Mike Brown dresses in the Jazz's locker room, he says that he isn't jealous of Koncak, and he seems to mean it. "I'm happy a young man with a family can make that kind of money," Brown says. "I have three or four millionaires on my team already. In two years I'll be a free agent, and if it's meant to be, I'll get mine. Jon's salary helps us all."

Indeed, it does, and only the shortsighted players fail to realize that. "A backup center helped everybody," says the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins, one of the league's superstars. "I can't feel jealous. There's no question he helped my contract directly." Hawk management renegotiated Wilkins's contract ($14 million for five years) just before signing Koncak. While many of the players are happy for Koncak and for what it portends for them, management is dismayed about parting with more of its cash. Contracts like Koncak's "create unrest, ill feelings, and I don't think it's fair," says the Los Angeles Lakers' general manager, Jerry West. "In some respects it's disgusting."

Maybe it is, but it's here to stay, simply because people like the NBA's pizzazz, and they're willing to pay to watch it. Baseball is the summer game, football is impersonal, hockey is provincial—but basketball is an action sport with players you can see and hear. It translates well to other cultures, and the rest of the world is rapidly catching up with the U.S. in skill level and enthusiasm for the sport. Foreign leagues, once odd little circuits with lead-footed men playing in 1920s uniforms, now have become competitive markets that offer real financial alternatives to American players. "Last year 60 countries got the NBA on TV," says Hawk president and G.M. Stan Kasten. "We're getting close to having an NBA game of the week shown in the U.S.S.R. The gap between us and the rest of the world is getting smaller every day."

Revenue taken in by the NBA has increased from $110 million in 1980 to a projected $500 million this season. And the salary cap, the total amount of money that each team is allowed to spend on its players yearly, has gone from $3.6 million in its first year (1983) to $9.8 million today. There are only 12 players per team, so everybody except fringe players who sign for the league minimum of $110,000 should see big pay increases every time they get a new contract. "And the cap has never gone down," adds Koncak's agent, Steve Kauffman. The cap actually has increased by an average of 18.7% over the last seven years. As Jazz center Mark Eaton says of Koncak's contract, "In another two or three years, it might not seem that big a deal."

But it is now, and it's interesting to see how Koncak pulled the whole thing off.

To begin with, he played out the option year on a four-year contract that paid him $675,000 last season. "The Hawks tried to sign him in February," says Kauffman. "What they offered was in the five-year, $5 million range. I was able to tell him to just say no."

Kauffman figured, correctly, that the salary cap was going up and that, as always, there was a shortage of good, big men in the league, which would drive Koncak's value up. "Before the season we purchased as much disability insurance as we could," says Kauffman, "and I guess we just were lucky."

Indeed, they were. In July, Koncak became a restricted free agent, meaning he could bargain with any team, though the Hawks retained the right to match any offer he received. As fate would have it. the NBA champion Detroit Pistons had lost power forward Rick Mahorn to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft, and they promptly came after Koncak as a replacement. "We think he's an emerging star in this league," said Piston general manager Jack McCloskey. Koncak had played reasonably well (6.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) at the end of the '89 season, starting the final 16 Hawk games after starter Cliff Levingston suffered a back injury. Atlanta went 13-3 in those games, and Koncak was seen as a comer, one of those hustling guys who could look bad while making the team look good. For the season he had more blocks (98) and steals (54) than in any other year, but he averaged only 4.7 points a game, the lowest of his career.

Still, such is the demand for big men in the league that the Pistons offered him the wacky amount of $2.5 million for one year. "We were only going to ask for two million," says Koncak, still amazed. Had Koncak accepted the offer and Atlanta not matched it, he would have been an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and able to search freely for some really big dough from any team. But Atlanta raised the bid with its six-year deal, and Koncak opted for instant millionairehood rather than more gambling.

"You just don't let assets of yours walk away and get nothing back for it," said Atlanta coach Mike Fratello, once Koncak was safely back with the Hawks.

Portland coach Rick Adelman called the deal ludicrous, and Golden State general manager and coach Don Nelson said there "must be some sort of war between Atlanta and Detroit." Certainly the Hawks didn't want to see Koncak go to a team in their own division and have him come back and beat on them five times a year. But Fratello says that the Hawks needed him simply because he is "the consummate team player. He'll take a pounding, be our third or fourth scoring option, play team defense, hit the boards, change opponents' shots. Someday our Hall of Fame center [Moses Malone] isn't going to be here anymore, and Jon will fill in."

The Pistons insist they weren't deranged in their bidding, either. Even All-Star Isiah Thomas, who makes a paltry $1.1 million a year, understood the niche Koncak could fill. "I look at it this way," says Thomas. "You're baking a cake, and you want it to be the perfect cake. The recipe calls for four cups of sugar, and you only have three. O.K., how much are you willing to pay for that fourth cup of sugar? Our position was he could help us win another title."

Koncak now drives a new Porsche, one of the few concessions he has made to his sudden wealth. He and his family—pregnant wife Darlene and 3-year-old daughter Jessica—plan to move into a bigger house soon, but there aren't too many more material things he wants. Koncak bought Darlene a large diamond ring after he signed the contract, and when he surprised her with the gift on a silver platter covered with orchids at a dinner party, she burst into tears. "When he said in front of all my friends how much he loved me, well, even the men were crying," says Darlene.

Koncak pulls into his driveway and looks at his lawn. One of his pleasures in life is mowing the grass; he can't imagine having somebody else do it, no matter how rich he may become. He has had to change his phone number a couple of times to keep the investment guys and money leeches from hounding him. "John's such a nice guy that he was talking on the phone all day long after the contract," says Darlene. "Everybody had a deal for him."

Koncak goes into the house and pulls out his contract. He looks at the simple math, all the zeros behind the dollar signs, the six-year total, and shakes his head. He looks at the contract often, as baffled as anyone could be. "Even after taxes, after paying Steve, after living expenses and the ring, I still can put a million dollars in the bank," he says.

Koncak's economic and sporting past is rather unremarkable. Raised in Kansas City, Mo., in a middle-class home, the third of Don and Helen Koncak's four children, Jon was, as he says, "the classic late bloomer." He went to Southern Methodist on a basketball scholarship and slowly developed into a fine rebounder and defensive force. He finished his college career as SMU's alltime leader in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage and its second-leading scorer. He played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medal basketball team and was the fifth choice overall in the 1985 NBA draft, by the Hawks.

When Darlene, whom Jon had known since high school, first went down to SMU from Missouri to live with him—they married after his junior year—she slept in a sleeping bag in the dorm room he shared with two roommates. They had to borrow $2,000 from a friend to pay for their wedding, and it was with great delight that they read the numbers on Koncak's first NBA contract. "I was an industrial engineering major at school, and I still have a semester to go," says Koncak. "I'll get my degree, but tell me—isn't this a better-paying job?"

John Salley, the Pistons' power forward and center, would eventually like a big-money deal, too. He says he has laminated and framed the newspaper article describing Koncak's contract. "When I go into Jack McCloskey's office at the end of the season, I'm going to walk in and lay it down on his desk," says Salley, who must decide whether to play out his option next year; he is in the fourth year of a five-year contract for $2 million.

A world-weary Kasten shrugs as he explains how the NBA has rocketed into the global village, how the sun never sets on a general manager's search for that one big stud who can quickly turn a franchise around.

"You look at every freaking body you can over six-ten," he says. "Sometimes you do dumb things. God knows, I have. But in 20 to 30 years we'll have five seven-footers on the floor on one team. Somebody will. Look at this." He points to a photo on the wall of his office: It shows him standing next to somebody who looks like a giant Baby Huey.

"I'm not a midget," says Kasten. "That sucker is huge!"

Who is it? It's a prospect, one Jorge Gonzalez from Argentina—7'6½", 403 pounds. Kasten had him tested. Gonzales is not a pituitary giant; he's just huge.

"Can he jump?" asks Kasten. "No. Why should he? He can dunk standing."

On a blackboard Kasten has the names of other prospects, big men mostly, from nine countries. An NBA team will do a lot to find, hire and keep a big man.

"We spent more than we should have for Jon," says Kasten. "That's as far as I'll go. I had to confront the options. And what it comes down to is, the roster is always more important than the payroll. We want to win."

So does Koncak, and as he thinks now about his future earnings and his current good fortune, he states firmly that there is some real responsibility that comes with big money, above and beyond elbowing for position in the lane. "When my career is over, I may work for a charity or with the community somehow," he says. "I have a responsibility to give back, and I will do that. I have to."

It is always nice to have thoughtful people reaping the benefits of a system, no matter how strange that system may be. Certainly, Jon Koncak will use his money wisely. But that can't change an observer's gut feeling of despair at not having gotten a chunk of that system. As Seattle's Xavier McDaniel says of himself and his playmates, "Let's face it, we're all overpaid." But it's great work if you can find it.

PHOTOTHEO WESTENBERGERKONCAK SAYS HE REALLY CAN'T JUSTIFY WHAT THE HAWKS OFFERED HIM, BUT, HE ADDS, "WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO? SAY NO?" PHOTOJOHN BIEVERACCORDING TO FRATELLO, THE DAY WILL COME WHEN KONCAK (32) WILL HAVE TO REPLACE THE 35-YEAR-OLD MALONE (RIGHT), A FUTURE HALL OF FAMER TWO PHOTOSANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBASOME OTHER MEMBERS OF THE NBA'S LUCKY BUCKS CLUB: PORTLAND'S PORTER (TOP), SACRAMENTO'S PETERSEN (CENTER),
SEATTLE'S THREATT
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOTHEO WESTENBERGERAFTER THE CONTRACT WAS SIGNED, DARLENE GOT A DIAMOND RING ON A SILVER PLATTER FROM JON; JESSICA SETTLES FOR A RIDE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)