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Idiocy has its days in the NBA

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 27, 2001


While other NBA teams scout, the Magic skulks.

Its player personnel people go where no other teams dare. Let the Knicks and Cavaliers stake out the college campuses and the tattoo parlors. The Magic is down with Meals on Wheels.

Out of the NCAA and into the AARP.

Clearly, this is the direction the Magic is heading. Why else would the NBA be so wary of Orlando's connection with the Seniors First program in Orange County? Surely there are nefarious motives behind the team's charitable contributions or the league would not have fined the Magic $15,000.

And who says this NBA draft is devoid of quality seniors?

The NBA claims the $15,000 fine imposed on the Magic was for salary-cap violations. The league says the DeVos family was circumventing the cap when it donated $50,000 to Seniors First, a program that strives to empower and enhance the lives of Florida's elderly residents.

The accusation is based on the premise that Orlando guard Grant Hill, the recipient of the team's community involvement award, was allowed to choose which charity would receive the Magic's year-end donation.

Never mind that Hill's name is nowhere to be found on the $50,000 check. Never mind that Hill derives no financial benefit whatsoever from the transaction. Never mind that the Magic has made this same contribution on behalf of a player for the past five years.

Some weasel in the NBA office pointed out that a team might woo a free agent with promises of big-money donations to a favorite charity and so the league came down hard on the idea of spreading its wealth to the downtrodden.

If stupidity were graded by Olympic judges, the degree of difficulty on this decision would be off the charts.

Let's recap as simply as possible:

It was within the NBA's salary-cap rules for the Timberwolves to offer 21-year-old Kevin Garnett a $126-million contract in 1997. But the Magic could not donate $50,000 to an elderly charity group.

The folks at Seniors First were so unnerved by the NBA's stance they offered to pay Orlando's $15,000 fine. This is a program, mind you, that serves about 2,000 senior citizens daily with food, transportation, social activities and home care in and around Orlando, and relies on donations for a good portion of its operating budget.

After offering to pay the $15,000, they discovered the NBA often takes proceeds received from fines and donates it to charities.

"We thought maybe we could get lucky. We could pay the $15,000 and then the NBA could give it back to us," said Sheri McInvale, director of public affairs for Seniors First. "That's how absurd this has been."

It passed absurd last week and is rounding the corner to ludicrous.

The Magic, rightfully annoyed by the league's blundering, has refused to pay the fine and declined the offer by Seniors First to pay it.

Shouldn't commissioner David Stern be stepping forward at this point? Perhaps praise his staff for its diligence in tracking salary-cap violations, but point out these matters should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

And, the commissioner could say with a chuckle and a wink, this case is clearly not an issue of circumvention.

It has been suggested that this type of negative exposure could be particularly harmful because the NBA is dealing with an image problem in middle America. That is irrelevant. Whether it is the National Hockey League, the National Football League or the League of Women Voters, the issue is the same: This is an idiotic, bureaucratic decision no matter who is in charge.

The irony is Hill originally sought no publicity.

In his first visit to a Seniors First facility, he implored the charity organization not to alert the media of his arrival. Now the group has taken calls from ESPN and Sports Illustrated about the donation.

"I could not believe a person of his celebrity could be as humble and as gracious as he was," McInvale said. "It is like he does not even recognize his own popularity. He is just a kind, down-to-earth individual."

So was there any chance Hill was doing a little legwork for the Magic? Maybe scouting the octogenarian crowd?

"Maybe he was," McInvale said. "Who knows, maybe we have a 90-year-old millionaire who will build the Magic a new arena."

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