Ah, the bittersweet life of the NBA 10-day player. Here today, gone tomorrow—to the Nets...or wherever
April 08, 1990

During the 1984-85 NBA season, Christopher Aaron Engler was the highest-paid temp in the land. Over one dizzying span, from Dec. 22 to April 11, Engler found work with the New Jersey Nets, the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks.

To say that Engler "played" for those NBA teams would be to overstate the case. For the season, he logged only 82 minutes in 11 games. He scored 21 points and grabbed 30 rebounds. Before the home fans could really get a fix on the 6'11" bearded stranger sitting at the end of the bench, he was usually long gone. But on the whole, Chris Engler had no complaints.

"This is the best way I've found to help pay for my education," said Engler, at that time a University of Wyoming grad who wanted to go to law school but is still playing for a semi professional team in France. "Where else am I going to find a job that pays this well?"

Only in the NBA, Chris. Yes, through the wonder of something called the 10-day contract, marginal players like Engler can almost make a career out of hopscotching from one team to another, staying only long enough to fill a gap caused by an injury to a roster player.

Nobody in the league office or at the NBA Players Association is quite sure who deserves credit for coming up with the idea of the 10-day contract, which came into being in 1976. But both sides see it as a management-labor compromise, and it seems likely to stay. NBA teams can get replacement players quickly and without having to sign them to season-long contracts. And the 10-day players, most of whom come from the Continental Basketball Association, get a big-time opportunity and a big-time paycheck, even if it's only for a little while.

For their services, which in many cases consist of working hard in practice and not falling asleep during games, 10-day players are paid the NBA's minimum salary on a prorated basis. That means that today's temps earn about $6,433 during one 10-day cycle, based on the NBA minimum of $110,000 for a 171-day season. That's not bad. And there's travel, too.

Ten-dayers can sign on for a second 10-day stint when the first one concludes, after which the team must either cut the player or sign him for the rest of the season. Sometimes a 10-dayer hangs on, sometimes he doesn't. Last season, for example, 42 initial 10-day contracts were signed (by a total of 36 players, some of whom signed with more than one team), and 26 were extended to a second 10-day cycle. Fifteen of the 36 players who signed 10-days wound up getting extensions for the remainder of the season.

There is, of course, a certain amount of pride that 10-day players have to swallow, resting, as they do, at the bottom of the NBA food chain. Here's Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan struggling to assess his 10-day-player situation from last season:

"Well, let's see. We had that kid Eric, uh, Eric, oh, what the heck's his last name? Came from the Clippers. Think he went back there after we let him go. Eric, uh...." He meant Eric White, of Pepperdine.

"Then we had another kid in mind. Even came to Utah. Guard, from Loyola Marymount. Don't think he ever played for us, though. Had an injury. Just can't come up with his name. Drafted by Seattle originally. Hmmm...." He was referring to Corey Gaines, who failed his physical and never signed a contract.

"Basically, you sign a 10-day player because you have a lot of niggling injuries and need a practice player," says Stan Kasten, Atlanta's president. "Face it, if the guy were any good, he'd already be in the league." Says Jerry Reynolds, the Sacramento Kings player personnel director and former coach, "Going after 10-day players is like panning for gold. You find there's a whole lot of sand out there." Coming from an organization that at week's end was staggering under a 22-50 record, that's really a low blow.

Fact is, there are genuine NBA players who started their professional lives as 10-day players, such as the Phoenix Suns' Kurt Rambis (given a 10-day by the New York Knicks in 1981), the Cleveland Cavaliers' Craig Ehlo and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Tyrone Corbin (both by Cleveland in 1987). The Golden State Warriors' Rod Higgins, no All-Star but certainly a respected player, signed 10-day contracts with three teams (the San Antonio Spurs, the Nets and the Bulls) during 1985-86 and was released each time. He stuck with the Warriors the next season.

More than a couple of first-round draft picks quickly landed on the 10-day circuit too—most recently Ennis Whatley, Steve Harris, Anthony Jones and Leon Wood. There are former starters, even stars, who wound up as 10-day players late in their careers, such as Marvin Webster, Junior Bridgeman, Otis Birdsong and Greg Ballard. And the 10-day contract has been a refuge for good players who have had troubled careers. Quintin Dailey and Lewis Lloyd, one-time casualties of the NBA's drug policy, are now playing for the Seattle SuperSonics and the Houston Rockets, respectively, after signing 10-days.

But by and large, the 10-day player fits a certain profile: He was drafted in a late round, if at all; he went to the CBA after being cut and then caught the NBA's eye with his hustle, determination and practice habits, rather than with his awe-inspiring talent; he knows his chances of earning a full-time NBA contract are not good, but he is of the hope-springs-eternal persuasion; and he's a fast packer. He has a name like Randy Allen, Mike Champion, Petur Gudmundsson, Eddie Hughes, Pace Mannion, Rob Rose, Paul Thompson, Harold Keeling, David Pope, Joe Binion, Mark Wade, Martin Nessley, Steve Lingenfelter or Claude Gregory, all 10-day players of recent vintage. And let's not forget Mr. Engler, who during the '86-87 season signed 10-day contracts with both Milwaukee and New Jersey. He is probably the alltime 10-Day King.

"The 10-day is cruel in a way, because the odds of a player making it are kind of slim," says the Dallas Mavericks' Brad Davis, a former backcourt star at Maryland who was signed to successive 10-days by the Jazz in 1979 after spending parts of two seasons in the NBA. "But on the other hand, there's always that little chance, and that's all an athlete wants. I can't say for sure, but maybe I wouldn't be in the league today if not for that first 10-day contract."

The important thing for Davis was just getting in the rotation. Do a good job on your 10-day, NBA general managers tell their temps, and at the very least, new 10-day contracts will follow. That is job security in only the broadest sense, but, hey, 10 days in The Show beats ten hundred days in the CBA.

No one knows that better than someone who has been up there, such as Don Collins, a 6'6" guard from Washington State who played four full NBA seasons ('80-81 through '83-84) before landing in the CBA. During the '86-87 season, he begged his CBA coach at the time, Bill Musselman of the Albany Patroons, to get him back to The Show for 10 days, just to recharge his batteries. Musselman persuaded the Bucks to give Collins a 10-day. "Don went up, came back down after 10 days and seemed like a new man," said Musselman. "All he wanted was one more walk through the big time."

Strictly on practical terms, a player who stays up for two 10-days makes more money than he would in an entire 17-week season in the CBA, where salaries seldom exceed $11,000.

"Guys in the CBA talk about 10-days all the time," says Derrick Gervin, brother of former San Antonio great George Gervin, and this season's 10-day success story. "It's everybody's goal down there—even the ones without much of a chance of making it—to start out with a 10-day and build from there." Gervin, 27, a 6'8" forward from Texas-San Antonio, was playing for the CBA's Santa Barbara Islanders when the Nets, who go through 10-day players like some teams go through towels, came calling with a 10-day contract on Feb. 12. "Didn't even cross my mind not to take it," said Gervin. He played well for the Nets, signed on for another 10 days and then had his contract extended not only through this season but also for 1990-91.

In most cases, say Gervin and the other 10-dayers, they are given a warm send-off by their CBA coaches and teammates, as disruptive as their departures might be. "They know it's a business, and they know every single player in the CBA wants to move up," says Gervin. Of course, not every CBA coach is crazy about losing a star player, particularly if it happens at playoff time, as is frequently the case. This season, the Pensacola Tornados, led by 6'3" guard Clifford Lett, beat Albany on the road in the first two games of the CBA's American Conference semifinals. But here came the Chicago Bulls with a 10-day offer on March 25, there went Lett, and up in smoke went Pensacola, which eventually lost the series 3-2.

The CBA is contractually obligated to release its players to the NBA, at any time and to any team. The NBA pays about $700,000 per year for the right to raid the refrigerator, money that the CBA uses to cover its expenses. A team that loses a player during the playoffs is reimbursed an additional $2,000 by the NBA team that signs him. On the surface, both sides are happy with the agreement, but some CBA team officials complain privately that their league is far too willing to be at the NBA's beck and call. Such officials are reluctant to talk on the record, however, because they can be fined by the CBA.

Obviously, players signed to 10-days shouldn't have unrealistic expectations. Musselman believes that the Washington Bullets crushed the spirit of one-time Portland State star Freeman Williams when they signed him to two 10-day contracts during the '85-86 season, then released him even though he had played pretty well. "Freeman was never the same after that," says Musselman.

On only rare occasions is a CBA player in a position to resist a 10-day's siren song, but that's exactly what Albany's Tony Campbell did during the '87-88 season. A first-round pick out of Ohio State who will never be accused of doubting his own abilities, Campbell heard through the grapevine that several NBA teams—including the Los Angeles Lakers, who badly needed a scorer-swingman type like Campbell for playoff insurance—were interested in him. So when the first of those teams came calling, 10-day contracts in hand, Campbell just said no. The lowly Kings were among the suitors, and Reynolds remembers being flabbergasted when he heard that Campbell didn't want to come. "It turned out to be almost like a bidding war," remembers Reynolds. The Lakers signed Campbell to a balance-of-the-season contract on March 30, and gave him a contract for the '88-89 season, too, before letting him go in last summer's expansion draft. He is now scoring 23.5 points per game in Minnesota for Musselman, his old CBA coach.

Although 10-day players rarely have the luxury of being choosy, they would generally prefer to be with a strong team. Ten-day aficionados remember with fondness the case of Chuck Nevitt, a 7'5" NBA knockabout, who in March 1985 signed a 10-day with the Lakers and ended up with a championship ring on his finger. That explains why Jawann Oldham was less than enthusiastic when Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams offered him a second 10-day contract last month.

"In retrospect, I should've known something was up," says Williams. "First, Jawann didn't look happy when I made the offer. Second, he asked me when his check was coming. Third, he was cleaning out his locker during our conversation. He never said no, but the next thing I knew, he had disappeared into the night, only to miraculously reappear on the Laker bench a couple of days later."

Indeed, 10-day players often hear, usually from their agents, that other teams are interested in their services. That was the case with Oldham, who signed a 10-day contract with L.A. on March 5 and another on March 15. One of the NBA's alltime underachievers when he played with Houston, Chicago, New York and Sacramento from 1981 to '88, Oldham was enthusiastic about being with a contender.

"I've been trying to get here for the past five years," said Oldham on March 23. "I'm going to work my ass off for the Laker organization." Nice sentiment, but the Lakers released him two days later.

Typically, the Lakers do not offer very many 10-day contracts—Sacramento's Reynolds theorizes, in fact, that the number of 10-day contracts a team extends is in inverse proportion to its success. En route to a 21-61 season last year, the Clippers signed seven players to 10-day contracts (White, Rose, Dan Popson, Sumpter, Whetley, Ken Bannister, and Kevin Williams), and out of them only Bannister remains on the roster today. A team that uses few 10-day players demonstrates its stability and, as Laker general manager Jerry West acknowledges, its good luck. "In some respects, it says you've been able to escape injury," says West.

One of the Celtics' first 10-day players was signed in February 1978, near the end of their pre-Larry Bird era and during a season they would finish with a 32-50 record.

"Welcome aboard," Celtics immortal John Havlicek told Zaid Abdul-Aziz (nè Don Smith) when Abdul-Aziz joined up with the team in Oakland.

"Boards?" replied Abdul-Aziz. "You want some boards? I'll get you some boards." Ah, the enthusiasm of the 10-day player. Unfortunately for Abdul-Aziz, he saw action in only two games before being released.

Neither did Brad Wright, a 6'11" center from UCLA, see much action (138 minutes in 14 games) after he signed consecutive 10-day contracts with the Knicks late in the '86-87 season. But Wright's stay happened to coincide with Julius Erving's farewell at Madison Square Garden, and there was Wright in the Philadelphia 76ers' locker room after the game, snapping photos of Erving and all his well-wishers. Make the most of your time in the sun, ye 10-day players.

Bruce Kuczenski had one such sunny moment on the day—Feb. 3, 1984, his 23rd birthday—that he made his 10-day debut with Philadelphia. The Sixers were in the midst of an injury nightmare at the time, and coach Billy Cunningham inserted Kuczenski, a University of Connecticut product, into the starting lineup. The late Dave Zinkoff, the Sixers' legendary P.A. announcer, did Kuczenski's intro up big and the entire Spectrum crowd sang Happy Birthday, many of them no doubt wondering who Bruce Kuczenski was. Alas, the K-man's candle blew out quickly after that memorable debut, and the Sixers released him two games later.

One year after that, Atlanta Hawk broadcaster Charlie Criss was actively lobbying for a 10-day contract, something most NBA wannabes just don't have the opportunity to do. Criss, a 5'8" guard who had played 15 games for Milwaukee and Atlanta the previous season, is a persistent sort—he had made it as an NBA rookie at 28 and did not feel he was ready for the scrap heap. Hawk coach Mike Fratello and Kasten did not necessarily agree with Criss's view of his own abilities, but on Feb. 4 Fratello found himself with three injured guards and a note in his mailbox from Criss. It hit Fratello and Kasten at the same time: Why not? The balding, albeit well-conditioned, Criss, then 35, was signed to a 10-day and played reasonably well in four games before returning to the booth, happy that he had made his point.

An even more unlikely 10-day return to action was the one that was made by Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Mike Dunleavy last season. A fine point guard who played nine seasons for four NBA teams before a back injury ended his career in 1984, Dunleavy was mulling over the Bucks' rash of backcourt injuries with coach Del Harris one night.

"I don't know who we can get on a 10-day who's really going to help us," said Harris. Then he added, half-kiddingly: "Unless you want to play." In fact, Dunleavy, after several years of physical therapy, had been working himself back into shape. He was ready, he knew the Bucks' system, and he volunteered, signing a contract on Feb. 19, 1989, just 15 minutes before the team played Chicago.

"I don't think Doug Collins [then the Bulls' coach] wanted me to score," says Dunleavy, "because Michael Jordan guarded me when I got in the game." Dunleavy has twice signed 10-day contracts this season when the Bucks ran into injuries, although he played only 43 minutes in five games. While on the playing roster, Dunleavy said, he got no respite from his coaching duties. As soon as he checked out of a game, sweat dripping from every pore, he flopped down beside Harris and reached for his notepad. Then he resumed charting the Bucks' plays and noting offensive and defensive tendencies.

"I don't think I'll be called on to do it again," says Dunleavy, who turned 36 on March 21. "But I'm not going to rule it out."

Spoken like a true 10-day man.

ILLUSTRATIONROBERT KOPECKYWorld-class splinter collectors like Engler can play for several teams in a single season. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT KOPECKYTeams iron out their problems by pressing 10-dayers into service. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT KOPECKYOld pro Dunleavy put aside his coaching chores to be a temp this season and last. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT KOPECKYThe mike was no match for the court when Criss got a call to glory from the Hawks.