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 Friday, October 27
McHale denies arbitrator's 'fact' news services

MINNEAPOLIS -- NBA commissioner David Stern called it a "shocking" case of fraud. Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor claims that isn't the whole story.

An emotional Taylor, speaking at halftime of an exhibition game Thursday night, said unusual circumstances led him to sign a secret agreement with forward Joe Smith, though he would not say what they were.

Joe Smith

Taylor apologized to Minnesotans for the contract that led to the team losing its next five first-round draft picks, and he took full responsibility for the deal with Smith, though vice president Kevin McHale and coach Flip Saunders normally would be in charge of basketball decisions.

"It would only happen under unusual circumstances," Taylor said. "It happened under unusual circumstances."

Although Taylor took full responsibility, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press reported Friday that Smith signed the secret deal in front of McHale, according to a signed copy of NBA arbitrator Kenneth Dam's report the newspaper obtained.

"Based on what I heard and observed, I conclude that Smith certainly knew that he was signing something having to do with his status as a player, especially in view of the fact that he signed in the presence of his agent and the VP-Operations of the Timberwolves," wrote Dam, according to the newspaper.

McHale is not named in the report, but he is the Timberwolves' vice president of operations. Smith testified in the arbitration hearing, but Dam did not indicate how he determined it to be "fact" that McHale was present. A former University of Minnesota and Boston Celtics star from Hibbing, Minn., McHale could be suspended for his involvement.

McHale, who previously said he was unaware of a written deal, told the newspaper Thursday that section of the report was "not accurate."

An unsympathetic Stern stripped the Wolves of the five draft picks and fined them $3.5 million Wednesday and was harsh in his criticism of the Timberwolves on Thursday.

Ordinary Joe
The Timberwolves are paying a hefty price for a rather average player. Joe Smith made only nine starts for Minnesota last season and did not rank near the top of any major category. Even more alarming: his PPG has fallen every year since his second season, from 18.7 in 1996-97 to 9.9 last year.
    NBA Rank
PPG 9.9* 100th
RPG 6.2 59th
BPG 1.1 35th
* Ranked 5th on T-Wolves

"The fact is, we gave this a lot more thought than the parties in the Minnesota franchise who risked their future by engaging in one of the most far-reaching frauds we've seen," Stern said.

"This was a fraud of major proportions. There were no fewer than five undisclosed contracts tucked away, hoping they'd never see the light of day. This is fraud that ripped to the heart of the (collective bargaining) compact. The magnitude of this stuff is shocking."

Stern's punishment of the Wolves could include one-year suspensions for Taylor and anyone in the organization who took part in the deal.

The commissioner said he hoped to schedule hearings within the next two weeks with Taylor and other Timberwolves officials, possibly including McHale and Saunders, to determine whether they will be suspended.

Stern denied making examples of the Timberwolves for under-the-table deals that supposedly are common, but Taylor said he thought that was the impetus for the severity of the NBA's punishment.

"Obviously, if the commissioner thought we were the first people to do this, he wouldn't have done what he did," Taylor said. "The commissioner must think there's a greater problem here, and this is one way to send the message out."

Taylor also said that he did not understand he was breaking rules of the collective bargaining agreement.

"There are always reasons things happen, though they aren't obvious right now," he said. "If I really thought what we had done was against the rules, it would not have happened. I don't want to give you excuses. Things happen. They're not always as simple as they seem."

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.

It's the loss of draft choices that is particularly damaging to a franchise that will be at or near the top of the salary cap as long as it is carrying forward Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract through 2004. Without draft picks or the ability to pursue high-priced free agents, management will have little room to improve the roster around Garnett.

"We'll still want to field good teams," Taylor said. "It'll be harder, more difficult. We always recognized we were in a small market and it would always be more difficult to attract good players. We'll have to be lucky. I understand that."

Dam ruled Monday that the Timberwolves signed a secret agreement with Smith in January 1999 that was worth as much as $86 million over seven years. Stern voided Smith's current $2.5 million contract and his past two contracts with the Timberwolves, preventing Smith from signing a lucrative contract with them after this season.

Though Smith has said he would like to re-sign with the Timberwolves, NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said the arbitrator's ruling also would allow Stern to void a contract if Smith re-signed.

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