T-Wolves fined $3.5 million in Smith case, must forfeit picks

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Minnesota Timberwolves learned what their penalty is for making a secret deal with Joe Smith, and it's the harshest ever. What's more, NBA commissioner David Stern hasn't finished hammering them.

Stern came down hard Wednesday on the Timberwolves, voiding Smith's contract and forfeiting the team's next five first-round draft picks.

He also fined the team a record $3.5 million. Possible suspensions for owner Glen Taylor and general manager Kevin McHale won't be decided until a hearing is held to determine who had knowledge of the secret contract agreement.

``It's a tough penalty. I was reading across the page and the draft picks just kept going,'' Knicks general manager Scott Layden said. ``The money is probably the least of the penalty, but collectively it shows that the commissioner is not soft on circumvention.''

The NBA said the fine was the stiffest ever imposed by the league on any franchise, player or other individual and the maximum allowed. Spokesman Brian McIntyre also said he could not recall any team being stripped of multiple draft choices, let along first-rounders, although he said Stern could have removed more from the Timberwolves.

The Knicks and Dallas Mavericks were among the teams quickly indicating an interest in Smith. The Chicago Bulls, who can pay Smith more than any other team, said they would not comment until reviewing the situation with the league office.

Under an arbitrator's ruling announced Monday, Stern had the right to void Smith's one-year, $2.5 million contract. Stern went even further, voiding Smith's last two contracts and thereby stripping Smith of his Larry Bird rights, which would have allowed him to sign a lucrative extension with the Timberwolves next summer.

``They don't have the ability to do that. They're definitely trying to rewrite the arbitrator's ruling,'' said Smith's agent, Dan Fegan.

The NBA also asked the players association to ``impose appropriate discipline'' against Eric Fleisher, Smith's former agent.

All 29 NBA teams are now free to negotiate with Smith, but it seemed he was ready to re-sign with his current team. But Smith has no financial incentive to remain in Minnesota since he would have to play there for three more years to regain his Bird rights.

``Money has never been an issue for me. It's always been about playing basketball and playing somewhere that I can contribute and be happy. It's never been about money,'' Smith said before learning of Stern's ruling.

Smith made a big financial blunder earlier in his career when he turned down an extension from the Golden State Warriors worth tens of millions of dollars. He went on the market as a free agent and drew little interest before signing with the Timberwolves for $1.75 million before the 1998-99 season.

The Timberwolves said they were ``assessing the ruling'' and had no immediate comment. The players union did not immediately comment.

NBA arbitrator Kenneth Dam found that Smith and the Timberwolves entered into a separate, secret agreement that guaranteed Smith a lucrative long-term deal beginning with the 2001-02 season.

The league has long suspected that such secret agreements exist, but no team had ever been caught before.

``This (penalty) reflects the seriousness of a finding of circumvention,'' NBA attorney Joel Litvin said.

Unless they acquire a first-round draft pick in a trade, the Wolves will not have a first-round selection until 2006.