Saturday, April 13, 2013

the last book I ever read (David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, excerpt sixteen)

from The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam:

In Philadelphia Tom Owens had received a call right before the game telling him that his father had died of a heart attack. He left the team immediately and went back to Bronxville to make arrangements. It was a melancholy trip for him. His father had been seventy-four and the two of them had planned a long-delayed trip to Ireland that summer. Bill Owens had been a maintenance man at the Lotos Club, a fancy Manhattan private club. The family had always been very poor, white but poor, Tom Owens was acutely aware of that as a boy sharing a bed with his brothers as they grew up; but now, when he went home for the first time, sitting in his father’s apartment, going through his personal effects, including his old tax returns, he realized just how poor they had been, and what an immense effort it had been for his parents to raise three sons. The largest amount of money his father had ever made, he learned to his shock, was $8,200 a year. He had no idea it was that little. It was like discovering, upon your father’s death, a kind of secret poverty. Looking at the receipts, all he could think of was how much courage his parents had had. As a professional basketball player he made more than $8,200 just for a sneaker endorsement; some of his teammates who had the plusher sneaker contracts made four times as much for endorsing sneakers they did not necessarily choose to wear. He looked at these tiny pieces of paper which represented part of his father’s story, and he tried not to feel bitterness towards the bleakness and powerlessness of his father’s position in life. Even at that moment his lawyer was enmeshed in endless seemingly fruitless negotiations with Portland over his next contract, a contract, since he was already thirty years old, likely to be his last. One of the questions was whether the contract would start at about $250,000 a year as Portland wished, or $325,000 as Owens and his lawyer, John Lizzo, were demanding. One year, he thought, was the equal of what his father made in an entire lifetime.

When he went back to his father’s house for the funeral it had made him still more determined to sign a proper contract with Portland or go free agent. The negotiations had been dragging on for almost a year. It was his last shot at big, at least by his terms, money. But Portland to him always seemed to be offering too little too late. Before the season had started he had wanted three years starting at $250,000 a year and going up very slightly. That was by NBA standards relatively modest for a starting center. Portland had instead offered him $175,000, which was what he was already making, though Houston was still paying part of that salary. Now Portland was steadily coming up in the offer, but he would soon become a free agent and now he figured he might as well sample the free-agent waters. There was little incentive for him to sign now. Also he felt a certain anger over the way Portland had acted. At one point, when his agent, John Lizzo, had asked for $250,000 a year, Weinberg had responded, “Are you really serious?” Lizzo had answered, “Who’s got the problem of being serious? You’re the people who offered $800,000 a year to a man who can barely walk.” Now, with Portland willing to pay what Owens had originally wanted, but with free agency just around the corner, Owens and his agent were asking $325,000 a year. Owens, looking at his father’s income tax returns, so tiny, so private, thought it all odd; he was not at all sure he was worth that much money, but if Marvin Webster, barely playing for New York, was worth $600,000 or so, then he was worth $325,000. It was all relative, he decided.

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