When Mel Turpin was "Traded" to Spain

Yesterday, in the wake of the Josh Childress news, a TrueHoop reader mused about the possibility that one day it might be possible for an NBA team to trade a player to an overseas team.

Far-fetched, huh? That's what I thought.

Then we learned, later in the day, that in fact such a thing had apparently already happened. There are records of a sort, and media mentions, of the time in 1988 when the Utah Jazz traded Mel Turpin to Spain's CAI Zaragoza in exchange for Jose Ortiz.

Some checking with the Utah Jazz, however, reveals that it was a trade-like agreement, but not actually a trade. At the core of the deal was the synchronized release of two players from existing contracts -- with the expectation that each would then sign with the other franchise.

So there really still is no precedent for an NBA team trading with a non-NBA team, as far as I know.

Jonathan Rinehart of the Jazz PR staff (who is up to his eyeballs in Rocky Mountain Revue) was nice enough to talk to Scott Layden, David Fredman, and (Ortiz's agent at the time) Warren LeGarie to get the specifics.

"The Jazz drafted Jose Ortiz in 1987," explains Rinehart. Ortiz, I should point out, is a legend of Puerto Rican basketball, and had been a standout at Oregon State, where he played alongside Gary Payton for a time. He made smaller waves once he got to the NBA. "Ortiz was on the Puerto Rican national team, however, and was interested in playing in the 1988 Olympics. At that time, if he had come straight to the NBA, he would not have been eligible to play for his country at the Olympics. So he signed a three-year contract to play in Zaragoza, with an NBA out."

(That means he had a clause letting him get out of his contract before three years if he was leaving for the NBA.)

"After his year in Spain," Rinehart continues, "negotiations began to get Ortiz to the Jazz. The Spanish team was interested in some kind of compensation in exchange for letting him go. They were interested in Mel Turpin, and the Jazz had a delegation over to scout him.

"An agreement was struck that Zaragoza would release Ortiz -- a player whose NBA rights the Jazz already owned -- from his Spanish contract so that he could sign here, and about the same time the Jazz would waive Mel Turpin, who would then sign with Zaragoza. It was billed as a trade in the media at the time, but in fact it was not a trade, because there was no framework to make a trade with a team outside the NBA. The Jazz placed Turpin on waivers on September 7, 1988, and he cleared waivers on September 9. We signed Ortiz about that same time."

So, as it happens, we really have no precedent for future players like Josh Childress being traded to foreign teams -- instead of leaving for nothing. However, thanks to the people in Zaragoza and at Salt Lake City, we do have precedent for teams using negotiations and outside-the-box thinking to get some value from overseas when they might lose a player for nothing.