It's French for 'the dell'

No ex-Washington Bullet role player gets more love than Ledell Eackles. We're sure of it. Wizards fans don't perk up to talk about Doug Overton or get misty for LaBradford Smith. But in the Mid-Atlantic region and among NBA fans of a certain vintage, Eackles just stirs the heartstrings, or something.

And for good reason: The man was blog gold.

Having been reminded of this massive, overwhelming interest, courtesy of the excellent Bullets Forever, we bring you a closer look from "Ledell: The Carnivore's Dilemma." (A biography that we must begin writing, post-haste). Today, we clarify Eackles' infamous holdout of '90.

Chapter Nine: The Contract Dispute

In the summer of 1990, Eackles was coming off his ball-hogging second season (having tallied the aforementioned 29.5 usage rate) and entering restricted free agency; meanwhile, the Bullets had traded Jeff Malone, a 24 ppg shooting guard who was a Rip Hamilton prototype. Though they didn't know it at the time, the roster decisions made that summer would help decide the franchise's future for the next half-decade. After two straight lottery seasons, the team was teetering on the brink of its early '90s tailspin; however, the Bullets weren't that removed from a five-year playoff run, albeit a run that ended five straight times in the first round, so had some legitimacy left and were looking for a bounce-back year.

Statistical analysis being what it was in 1990, the Bullets decided that to contend with the loss of Malone, they needed another "20-point scorer" (forget efficiency) to pair with the aging Bernard King, who had about one great season left in him. And as Eackles had been the team's best bench gunner, he and his agent (a New Orleans judge named Eddie Sapir, who was a real character) thought they had leverage.

They didn't.

Well, maybe they did.

But they sure didn't know to use it.

On his rookie contract, Eackles had earned about $315,000 per year, and Washington was prepared to more than double his compensation to roughly $800,000 per year (these were the days of an $11 million salary cap). Which is why the team was legitimately shocked when an "insulted" Sapir came back and asked for superstar money, at $2 million per season.

Now, forget Drexler and Malone (and Joe Dumars and Reggie Miller and David Robinson and the numerous other All-Stars who made $1 million or less)--a $2 million salary would vault Eackles squarely into Michael Jordan ($2.2 million) and Larry Bird ($1.6 million) territory.

Which was totally reasonable, because all three were in that famous McDonalds commercial (Eackles snuck in and ate Jordan's Big Mac when the other two were trying to shoot it through the window).

Anyway, the dispute went on all summer and into training camp, with the posturing between the Bullets' front office and Sapir playing out in the media (even as Eackles good-naturedly visited DC and hung out with the other players and staff). The Washington Post and Times dutifully carried regular updates: Eackles was going to go play in Greece; the Bullets offered to stamp his passport. Eackles would shop his wares around the league; the Bullets said they'd pack his suitcase. And so on. Eventually, as October rolled around and with no other team even biting on an offer sheet, Sapir realized he'd backed himself into a corner. From the Times, on the eve of the Bullets 1990 season opener:

Eackles' agent, Judge Eddie Sapir, originally sought a four-year, $8 million contract but has lowered his demands considerably. He's believed to be willing to accept a deal paying Eackles in the range of $1 million per season. The Bullets' offer apparently didn't come close.

"I bent over backwards to make it work," said Sapir. "The club just isn't going to evaluate Ledell like {Charlotte's} Muggsy Bogues or {Denver's} Michael Adams. Those are guys getting over a million dollars a year. They're getting the market value. You're going to tell me Ledell isn't as good as those guys?"

[Actually, those guys weren't getting over $1 million per year, and yes, they were better than Ledell.-- Crucifictorious]

"It's not that Eddie Sapir is asking for something that is unfair. I'm asking for rock-bottom market value. No way in the world can I give Ledell away. It's just unfair now."

Even if it was unfair, Sapir's demands continued to plummet as the games started and the Bullets played it cool. By the time Sapir finally caved to GM John Nash, several weeks into the season, Eackles was 20 lbs. overweight and left with a deal that was for a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars less than the Bullets' original offer.

Chubby and in the doghouse, another opportunity blown. Such was life for Ledell Eackles.

You can fault Eackles for being selfish and wildly over-estimating his value, but more likely he just got snookered by Sapir, a New Orleans judge/councilman/sometime sports agent. Sapir had cultivated Eackles when the latter was a basketball star at the University of New Orleans, even having Ledell work at his office part-time as a copy boy. While Sapir had a lot of experience negotiating contracts--he was the agent for Billy Martin, the repeatedly hired-and-fired manager of the Yankees--Eackles was the first NBA player he represented.

Given what happened, likely the last, too.

For the Bullets' sake, this wasn't a particularly proud moment; not having Eackles in training camp and the season's first month was clearly a blow to the rotation, as the team got off to a slow start and never recovered. Some of the games without Eackles, the team labored to score; Bernard King put up 45 points in one early loss to the mighty, previously 0-7 Sacramento Kings, while the other 10 Bullets who logged game time combined for just 37 points. Sapir's negotiating mantra had been, "Ledell wants to get paid like one of the players of the '90s." Well, it was a bad omen that Eackles didn't, as the Bullets were hardly players across the decade. The team eventually eked out 30 victories in 1990-1991 and then went another four years before winning even 26 games.

Still, while Nash's tenure as Washington's GM wasn't fraught with success--no playoff appearances and a lot of 20-win seasons, alhough he did bring in Webber, Howard, and Muresan--this was one time when he did shine. When told that Eackles would rather sit out a year than accept Washington's initial offer, Nash replied, "We've been in the lottery the past two years with Ledell. We can be in it without him."

(Of course, Eackles inspired his share of one-liners. After he once scorched the Milwaukee Bucks for 37 points, then-Coach Wes Unseld said, "With Ledell, you never know what you're going to get. Tomorrow, he may not make the team bus.")

Thus informed, we head off to pen our next entry in the Ledell Eackles saga--Chapter 15: Roman Candle--which we will write while wearing our glorious '98 bench t-shirt. Go with God (Shammgod), Wizards fans.

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 16:32,


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