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Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Close Encounters of The Stern Kind: Danny Ainge Fined

The NBA has fined the Boston Celtics $30,000 for general manager Danny Ainge unintentionally sitting next to the mother, step-father, and grandmother of University of Texas freshman Kevin Durant, who will likely be the second player selected in the 2007 NBA Draft, during the Big 12 tournament a couple of weeks ago. They were all seated five rows behind the Texas bench. NBA rules prohibit team executives from contact with college players until they officially declare for the draft.

But 1) was that rule actually violated; and 2) even if Ainge violated the rule, does it make much sense?

Let's take the first question first. It should be noted that Ainge sat next to Durant's mom and not him. The rule expressly prohibits contact with the college players, although the NBA is interpreting it to also include family members and "advisers." Notwithstanding what I think about the rule, I believe the NBA is making the correct interpretation: it would seem to be in the spirit of the rule for it to extend to immediate family members of the player, otherwise there would be a rather jarring loophole.

It should also be noted that Ainge's contact with Durant's family was unintentional; their seats for the game happened to bring them to the same place, five rows behind the Texas bench. Having said that, the NBA's rule appears to be based on strict liability; intent, or even a lesser element like recklessness or negligence, does not seem to be required.

But the second question is perhaps more intriguing: Why does this rule even exist? After-all, it's not like Ainge, or any NBA executive, could actually recruit Durant by speaking with him or his mom. That's because the NBA, like other major sports leagues, employs an amateur draft, meaning college players are not free agents. Moreover, even if the Celtics tried to lose enough games to secure the second worst record, which they presently "enjoy", they may not wind up with second overall pick--and as all of us Celtics fans know, sometimes a weighted lottery doesn't work out the way it should (i.e., Tim Duncan should really be a Celtic, but isn't. I still haven't gotten over that). In fact, securing the second-worst record only provides the Celtics with a 38.9% chance of landing one of the top two picks.

Now, I suppose NBA Commissioner David Stern could say that by sitting next to Mrs. Durant, Ainge might somehow try to persuade her that if the Celtics don't land the second pick, then she should convince her son to holdout from whichever team drafts him and then demand a trade to the Celtics. Or maybe Durant's grandmother is really the influential one, and Ainge could try to employ the same plan with her. Or maybe its the step-dad. Or maybe these are far-fetched ideas that sound in paranoia, rather than reality.

Another possible and perhaps more legitimate NBA concern: Danny Ainge might encourage Mrs. Durant to convince her son to declare for the NBA draft, rather than to stay at Texas. This concern seems more plausible, especially since the NBA seems intent on protecting the NCAA and its member schools, which obviously make a ton of money off the free labor of these players. Henry Abbot over at his new home for (congrats Henry)--explains in his post "The Myth of Amateurism" why this rationale may not be the most meritorious, even if it is commonly mentioned.

One last contextual point: the fining of the Celtics for Danny Ainge's "inappropriate contact" is the latest in a string of recent NBA fines of NBA executives for comments or actions related to potential draft picks. Namely, the Charlotte Bobcats were fined $15,000 for comments made by co-owner/CEO Michael Jordan regarding Durant, and the Golden State Warriors were fined $15,000 for comments made by coach Don Nelson about Durant and presumptive number one overall pick, Greg Oden.


The Celtics???? I know the Celtics had two shots at getting Tim Duncan that year, but . . . Professor McCann, try being a Denver Nuggets fan in the '90's--twice the Nuggets had the worst record, twice the Nuggets didn't even get a top-three draft pick.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/19/2007 9:05 PM  

Maybe its time to go after the networks as well--how many TV commentators have implied both Kevin Durant and Ohio State's Greg Odin "would be coming out this year"? One has to wonder if those comments also are having an effect on both of them--more so than Danny Ainge talking to Durant's mom. (Heck, why shouldn't she take advantage of a rare opportunity? How often do we get a chance to talk to a former NBA player, almost one-on-one, about what's it like in the league now, and whether he should come out early or stay in school.)
I understand the league's position; staying or going could decide what team drafts him and what affect he has on the league, depending on where he goes.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/19/2007 9:12 PM  

Ayatollah Stern strikes again.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/20/2007 9:31 AM  

I guess I understand the strict liability standard, but I would think the rule is geared for the guys who won't be drafted.

With the NBA's short draft, a kid coming out as a free agent could be a big deal if a team thinks they can get a steal.

Blogger Mark F -- 3/20/2007 11:17 AM  

hi guys
Celtics is my best team in the nba i wish i could go to watch all their games i found a good web site where you can compare your Boston Celtics tickets an found cheap tickets
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go go Celtics

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/20/2007 12:05 PM  

Seems like the whole thing hinges on how unintentional it was that Ainge ended up sitting with the Durant family. I'm prepared to believe it's true, but how do we know it to be so?

Anonymous Henry Abbott -- 3/20/2007 5:24 PM  

Great post, Mike!

Blogger SmittyBanton -- 3/20/2007 8:34 PM  

Mike, I would also add that the NBA and Players Association probably believe they benefit financially from the rule. The longer Durant and others are ringers in the NBA, the more press and goodwill value they accumulate. So by the time the player gets to the league he is a better known, more marketable commodity. And since the pay scale is rigged, teams have every incentive to maximize the rents inuring to them from this closed market in every possible way including fining one of its members for contravening the stategy. I don't like it one bit, but it is rational and what makes David Stern the don he is.

Blogger SmittyBanton -- 3/20/2007 8:40 PM  

"NBA rules prohibit team executives from contact with college players until they officially declare for the draft."

Is this similar to NCAA rules about football recruiting (or any NCAA sport for that matter)? Despite what many people say about the enforcement, am I correct in thinking that those rules are more codified than the NBA recruitment rules? Like you point out, there's a reason the rules exist on the amateur level.

Also, where do they come up with $30,000? Can one assume that if it was Mark Cuban in the seat, the fine would have been ten times that?

Blogger Satchmo -- 3/21/2007 6:41 PM  

Thank you all for these excellent comments.

Anonymous 1,

I see your point that losing out on the #1 pick twice during the 90s was a disappointment to Nuggets fans, but I would argue that the impact of the Celtics losing out on Tim Duncan--possibly the best basketball player drafted since Michael Jordan in 1984 (with Shaq, Kobe, and Lebron also in the running for that distinction)--was a far greater harm to the Celtics than was the combined harm suffered by the Nuggets on losing out on Derrick Coleman in 1990 and Michael Olowokandi in 1998 (assuming the Nuggets would have drafted them, too).

Anonymous 2,

You raise some excellent points. Many in the media, including NCAA broadcasters, freely opine that both Oden and Durant will come out, and one has to wonder about the effect of their comments on those players--I suppose one might argue that they are helping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I also agree with you that we can't really fault Mrs. Durant for taking the chance to speak with a former NBA player on the very profession and organization that her son is about to enter. Whether we can fault Ainge for reciprocating in that conversation is a different matter.

Anonymous 3,

Your perspective on Commissioner Stern is one shared by many. But I think the owners will continue to support him as long as he continues to make money for them and helps them raise the value of their franchises; once those things stop, so too will their tolerance for his heavy-handed, perhaps even intrusive leadership style.

Mark F,

That's a really interesting point about the rule perhaps being designed to protect players who do not project to be drafted and who will thus become rookie free agents. I hadn't thought of that rationale, but it makes some sense. I guess the Devil's Advocate argument to that would be that if the player is really going to attract much competition for his services, then why wouldn't he be drafted? Still, I think you raise a good point.

Anonymous 4,

Glad to see there are other Celtics fans out there. Be sure to check out two excellent blogs on the Green, Celtics Blog and Celtics Stuff Live (both of which can be found on our Sports Blogs & Links section to the left).


You raise a good point. I do take Ainge at his word that he didn't intentionally sit next to Mrs. Durant, and we don't have any other evidence, at least none that I am aware of, that would corroborate Ainge's explanation. Still, I am inclined to believe him; I think it was just a strange coincidence in the game tickets of Ainge and Mrs. Durant (and Kevin Durant's step-dad and grandmother).

Andre (SmittyBanton),

Great to hear from you. I hope you are doing well and teaching sports law courses at FIU College of Law. As always, you raise some excellent points. There are some good business arguments in favor of these types of rules, even if we don’t consider them fair or otherwise sensible.

Will (Satchmo),

I like your question: if Mark Cuban had been in Danny Ainge's shoes, how much larger would the fine have been? We can only wonder, but I suspect, as you do, that the Mavericks would have been fined a lot more than the Celtics were fined.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 3/22/2007 4:47 PM  

I'd much rather have garnett than durant. Look at this love letter to Ainge!

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