This past summer, a handful of players bucked the trend so prevalent in professional sports nowadays, and in doing so may have shifted the balance of power in the NBA.
Horace Grant, Brian Shaw, Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale all eschewed the big bucks, at least initially, to join teams they view as championship contenders this season: Grant and Shaw in Orlando; Manning and Tisdale in Phoenix.
For them, less means more.
"I'm not just playing the game for the money," said Shaw, who turned down opportunities to make $2-million a year to accept a one-year deal worth $695,000 _ less than half what he earned last season in Miami _ to play for the Magic, which several pundits have predicted will face Phoenix in the NBA Finals.
"I love playing the game," he said. "I like winning. It's not any fun sitting at home in May and June watching your colleagues playing. For me, that was the main reason I'm here. I want to have the opportunity to win a ring or several rings. Taking a pay cut was a major step in trying to obtain that."
Ah, the ring.
Money can't buy it.
You can only earn it.
"Sitting at home 20 years from now, reading the record books and seeing your name there for winning a NBA championship, there's nothing like it; it's a step below spiritual," said Grant, who won three championships in Chicago. His third ring is 14-karat yellow gold, with a triangular (symbolizing the threepeat) face and a sculptured platinum insert of a garnet Bull surrounded by 50 diamond chips.
"It's very valuable," he continued, not referring to the cost (maybe $10,000). "It says, I did my part."
Grant, a power forward seen as the perfect complement to All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal, could have remained in Chicago for as much as maybe $4-million a year or relocated to Detroit or the Los Angeles Clippers for about $5-million a year.
Instead, he signed a five-year, $17-million deal with the Magic that includes a starting salary of $2.1-million _ only a slight raise from last season _ and an option-out after the second year. That means he will be able to re-sign then for any amount the Magic deems fit. Teams can sign their own free agents unfettered by the salary cap.
"Today, there's a lot of ego and a lot of money going around to young kids who come in and think they're the team," Grant said. "Oscar Robertson. Julius Erving. Bob Lanier. The "old league.' Those guys played because they loved the game. Now, kids want $100-million and they've never stepped on the court (professionally). Money isn't a big thing to me and never will be.
"I have a taste of winning and I want to continue that here. I have three championship rings and a lot more fingers."
Manning, Tisdale and Shaw, however, have no championship rings among them and they admit that winning one would confirm their excellence in the sport far beyond their individual statistics and awards.
Tisdale, a power forward, has averaged 17 points and 6.9 rebounds during his nine seasons with Indiana and Sacramento. But he's played in just four playoff games and those were in 1987.
"He looked like a 20-year-old out there the other night," Grant said after a recent preseason game between the Suns and Magic.
Tisdale was spry and smiling as the Suns won.
Basketball was fun.
Certainly more so than it was in Sacramento.
Manning, a versatile forward, also craves that feeling. He has averaged 18.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3 assists and made two All-Star Game appearances in his six pro seasons. But in three playoff appearances, his team has never advanced beyond the conference semifinals.
"If I'm lucky enough to get one, I want two," said Manning, who does have an NCAA title. "If I get two, I want three. I want to win. And obviously, it's very important to me."
Manning rejected a reported seven-year, $35-million package from Atlanta to accept a one-year, $1-million offer from the Suns. That's about one-fifth of his market value and a huge cut from last season's take of $3.5-million.
Tisdale, who made $2.5-million last season, also signed a one-year deal; his is for $875,000. The Clippers reportedly offered him about $4-million a year.
"I think you have a couple players going to Phoenix who really want to be in a winning situation," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who guided the Rockets to a championship last season. "They made a sacrifice and I like that kind of heart and dedication to winning."
Seattle coach George Karl also praised what this small group of players has done.
"The game has been weakened by the greed of a lot of players," he said. "They (Manning and Tisdale, in particular) feel to be successful, they have to win a championship. As a traditionalist, I play the game to win championships."
While New York Knicks coach Pat Riley, who has five rings in hand (one as a player and four as a coach), said it's noble to put winning ahead of cashing in, he's sure none of the four has forgotten about the almighty buck.
"I do believe all these players do have some kind of understanding, telepathic or something, that they will be taken care of someday," he said.
Phoenix star Charles Barkley was a bit more blunt.
"Don't make it out like they're holier than thou," he snapped. "That's bull----. They're going to get their money."
Tisdale and Manning agreed, but added that even if they don't sign more lucrative long-term contracts next season for whatever reason, they've both prospered from previous deals.
"There's no security risk," Manning said. "If I never play basketball another day in my life, no one's going to hold any charity banquets for me so I can feed my family."
Still, even Barkley realizes the bottom line. He said the addition of Manning and Tisdale has made this the best club he's been on, including the one that faced Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals.
"We play for the world championship, that's the only goal we have," Barkley said. "Anything else is just not good enough."
Although Manning said he's unconcerned about how history will regard him as a player, he wasn't as emphatic when asked if he would feel incomplete without an NBA title on his resume.
"I just don't know," he said.
His peers don't need to be seers to answer that.
Tisdale said most folks don't often mention his former Sacramento teammate, Mitch Richmond, when discussing top players in the league even though Richmond has averaged 22.7 points in six seasons.
"There's a stigma when you play so long and don't win," Tisdale said. "You get tired of that. When you lose, I don't care if you're putting up the greatest numbers in the league, you're still losing."
Shaw agreed, saying that Dominique Wilkins probably won't be compared with a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Jordan. Wilkins, an eight-time All-Star, has averaged 26.5 points in 12 seasons.
"It's not a knock on Dominique," said Shaw, who has the rare ability to play both guard positions and was the unequivocal leader both on and off the floor last season in Miami. "If you look at his individual statistics, they'd rank up there with all those other guys. But there is that one thing eluding him. That ring.
"Greatness isn't something that's measured by individual success, but how successful you make the team. And when it's all said and done and you look back, you might say, "Well, this guy was good, but he can't be mentioned in the same breath as this guy or that guy because they were good players too and they have rings to show for it.' "