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Contracts: when NBA players play themselves

A combination of bad advice and hubris can cost players millions

Gus Martins

Former NBA star Latrell Sprewell two decades ago turned down a $21m contract extension, foolishly exclaiming that he “had a family to feed.”

Unless he was preparing his offspring as future candidates for “My 600-Lb. Life,’’ his comment was highly misguided. Sprewell never got another offer, and despite making close to $100 million in career earnings, he allegedly fell on hard times, although it’s never quite clear if athletes in these situations go completely broke or just lose portions of their vast earnings.

One might think the cautionary tale would serve as notice to players entering contract negotiations. The “betting on oneself” notion has no shortage of adherents. But when it goes wrong, it fails spectacularly.

A bigger risk-taker (and loser) was Malden native Nerlens Noel who back in the 2017-2018 season refused a four-year $72 million offer from the Dallas Mavericks. He was just 22 and was coming off his rookie contract for one that could set him up into perpetuity. That decision cost him $53 million in lost earnings.

“He was somehow convinced he was going to get a deal he was not going to get,’’ said veteran agent Frank Catapano, 80. “I like Nerlens. I thought he could become a Bill Russell-type player. He could run, block shots, protect the rim and score in the paint. But I don’t think he was willing to put in the work to get to that level.’’

Catapano said he was involved in getting Noel traded from Philadelphia to Dallas and would be in line for some type of secondary agent’s commission from Noel, who by then had moved onto new agent Happy Walters.

The drama seemed to unfold after Noel was apparently seduced by agent Rich Paul, of Klutch Sports, who is alleged to have told Noel he could get him a max contract, something from $100 million to $125 million.

After playing through the next four seasons and barely making more than $4 million per season, Noel finally got a three-year, $30 million deal from the Knicks. He currently is embroiled in a lawsuit against former agent Paul, who he claims convinced the No. 6 overall pick in 2013 that he could get a better deal.

Paul, meanwhile, filed a countersuit alleging Noel owes him a 5% fee on a $4 million contract and wants the case settled in arbitration as the league’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates.

A combination of greed, bad advice and short-term thinking at times by the players and agents all play a part in these quagmires that probably test the faith of even hardcore fans.

“I don’t think it’s the agent’s fault, the good or bad of it, but more along societal ideas that as an athlete you are entitled to it and you should make it forever,’’ said Catapano.

“It’s also about the over-aggrandizement of young people and making them feel they are more important than they are,’’ Catapano added. “These are young men who don’t understand the value of the money they are making. They are superstars before they are grown-up people.’’

Noel has averaged just 7.3 points per game over his career to go along with 6.3 rebounds. He’s made just 15.3% of three-point shots in an NBA era that wants even its centers to play away from the basket and make three-point shots.

A 6-foot-11-inch role player, Noel appeared to be seduced by Paul, a young and fashionable NBA agent, who has a stable of high-profile stars like Lebron James, John Wall, Ben Simmons, Zach Levine, Anthony Davis, and many middle-level players as well.

Noel was never that caliber a player and it cost him dearly. Catapano, whose relationship with the NBA goes back a half century, said he witnessed things change dramatically from a bygone era to now, where seemingly anything goes.

Noel found out the hard way after his dealings with Dallas fell through as Paul allegedly distanced himself until he stopped taking Noel’s calls.

Paul seemed to show a bit of inexperience in the handling of Ben Simmons beginning last summer as his client was undergoing a highly-acrimonious time with the Sixers. Simmons demanded to be traded out of Philly following what he perceived as a veiled criticism from his coach during last year’s playoffs ouster by Atlanta.

During that time, Simmons needed the right public relations team to advise him on how to skillfully address the situation. Especially after he had signed a $169.65-million five-year extension with the Sixers. The 25-year-old instead at some point showed off a $2 million sports car purchase.

Two other questionable decisions include that of ex-Celtics guard Dennis Schroeder, who turned down a four-year, $84 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers last year, thinking he could get a bigger haul. He didn’t and was signed by Boston to a one-year deal for under $6 million.

Victor Oladipo was in line for a $110 million extension by the Pacers, but apparently didn’t want to be in Indiana any longer. Traded to Houston, he nixed a two-year, $45 million offer from the Rockets. He’s made about $100 million, and if he returns to his former stardom now with Miami he could once again cash in.

Noel’s situation never caused public outcry. He simply hurt himself by somehow agreeing to turn down such a lucrative and fair offer.

“I never made a dime off him,’’ Catapano said of Noel. “He fired us. He was not going to get the deal that he thought. Happy Walters and our group had really pointed him in the right direction. But he went to Rich Paul instead, and now he’s suing him. I try to check in on him to see how he’s doing. He’s a nice kid in a lot of ways.’’

Catapano, a commercial real estate developer and most recently owner of a stable of horses, keeps tabs on his old friends but said the kidney dialysis he undergoes three days a week keeps him close to his New Hampshire home.

He said he counseled a former client, who died more than a decade ago, away from investing a large sum of money into a restaurant that failed. Had that money gone into the type of reliable commercial real estate holdings he has, Catapano said, it would have produced 12% per annum.

“I’ve represented guys like Michael Adams, John Bagley, Sam Mitchell, Hayward Workman, David Wesley, Scottie Brooks, Dana Barros,’’ he said. “They were all very loyal guys. I’ve had too many names to mention. But that loyalty left. These players today have a twisted version of what money is. They blow it like you can’t believe. I don’t know what I would have done with the money at that age. The money comes easy and there are enough hangers-on and then there are family members. It’s just not that easy for some of them to make out.’’

athletes, contract negotiation, NBA, Sports