Barely two months into his new job, team president Wally Walker has made an indelible mark on the SuperSonics by signing Shawn Kemp to a mammoth contract extension.
Not only are the Sonics committed to Kemp for the next nine seasons, they are committed to him for about $45 million over that span.
Kemp signed an agreement yesterday that will add a balloon payment of nearly $20 million for the 2002 season. The sixth-year forward was to report to training camp this morning, three days late.
Yet, Walker didn't make his first major statement as head of the organization merely by signing off on such a staggering sum. He did it by opting for harmony, in a situation begging for some, over whatever business advantage he could have gained for the future.
Walker said he inherited "expectations" on the part of Kemp that some alterations would be made to a seven-year, $25.4 million extension that won't even go into effect until next year.
"Based on those expectations, we decided to try working something out," Walker said, "because that was the fair thing to do."
Walker could have taken the stance that any commitment made by his predecessor, Bob Whitsitt, was not transferable. He knew he needed to avoid setting a negative precedent by even appearing to bend to pressure from a player.
Instead of becoming doctrinaire about the situation, Walker chose to "make a case-by-case decision on what's right." In this case, Walker heeded several factors:
-- Kemp had some justification for his expectations.
-- Kemp is arguably the best player on the team.
-- Walker and Kemp's representatives began talks as long ago as July.
-- An agreement in principal was reached Thursday, before camp began.
The last point is a key one. While Kemp was a no-show at the Sonics' first six sessions, Walker and his agents were hammering out the fine details. Walker and the Sonics can say that the new deal technically was not a response to the holdout.
Walker and Tony Dutt, who along with Jeff Neal negotiated Kemp's original extension, finished the agreement during nearly round-the-clock talks on Friday, Saturday and yesterday morning. Part of the agreement was signed on Saturday; the rest yesterday.
"Philosophically, a guy was under contract; he should have been playing. But, all the heavy lifting was done before camp, and we were in the homestretch of a contract negotiation," Walker said.
The expectations Walker talks about materialized last spring. Neal and Whitsitt agreed that $400,000 in deferred money Kemp earned through the 1993-94 season would be paid up front. The agreement also carried an informal proviso for further discussions.
Neal apparently believed he had a commitment to renegotiate Kemp's contract. Among the significant long-term contracts on the Sonics, Kemp's average salary ($3.28 million per year for eight years) trailed Detlef Schrempf's ($4 million, five years) and Kendall Gill's ($3.8 million, seven years).
The contract matter took on more urgency when the Sonics aborted a draft-day deal that would have sent Kemp to Chicago for Scottie Pippen. The Bulls could not have paid Kemp the deferred money, since they were not the team which owed Kemp the salary. And any commitment by the Sonics to renegotiate probably would not have transferred to Chicago.
After his initial anger and confusion subsided, the effect on his contract became the crux of Kemp's complaint over the aborted deal.
"We didn't trade him at the time," Walker said. "We have no interest in trading him now."
If Kemp needed to hear that, $20 million goes a long way in delivering the message.