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SB Nation NBA Theme Day: A Stern Farewell - The road not taken

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As SB Nation bids NBA Commissioner David Stern a fond farewell, HotHotHoops’ David Ramil looks at Stern’s impact on the biggest free agent acquisition that never happened in the summer of 1996

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The scenario sounds eerily familiar - the Miami Heat traded away players and draft picks, all in the hopes of clearing sufficient salary cap space to sign three of the NBA's best available free agents.

Except this happened in 1996, not 2010.

There was a precedent in Miami for the beginning of the "Big Three" era, one that went through more dramatic twists and turns than a daytime soap opera. But instead of one good twin battling his evil counterpart over a pretty girl, this drama pitted Heat President Pat Riley against the NBA and its commissioner, David Stern.

And they were fighting over Juwan Howard.

In the summer of 1996, Miami had cleared its cap to make a run at some hall-of-fame-level free agents that included Alonzo Mourning, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton, as well as Howard. At the time, the frontcourt player out of the University of Michigan was a potential superstar, coming off a 1995-1996 All-Star season where he put up over 22 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists per game.

With Jordan likely to re-sign with Chicago (which he did, for his last two seasons as a Bull), Miami looked to compete for the Eastern Conference crown in an era where big men (O'Neal, Mourning, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few) dominated the court. Mourning had already played for one season under Riley and, with a contract tentatively agreed upon, Miami went after Howard and forward P.J. Brown to build its frontcourt of the future.

The Heat offered Juwan, a restricted free agent with the Washington Bullets, a deal reported to be for seven years and $100.8 million, a staggering amount that was worth $16 million more than the Bullets' offer.

With Mourning and Howard locked up, Riley pursued Payton, the defensive stalwart known as "The Glove" who, in his prime, was capable of challenging Jordan on the floor. But Payton was only one season removed from a trip to the NBA Finals with the Seattle Supersonics. Expecting to continue that success with Seattle, he gladly re-signed.

As "Plan B", Riley reached an agreement with Tim Hardaway, the great point guard that had overcome knee injuries to play half a season with Miami. With Hardaway now in place, the Heat had, at least on paper, the making of a dynasty.

Just one thing, said the NBA and Stern; Miami didn't have the salary cap space to pull it off.

It seems that bonuses in Hardaway's and Brown's contracts cut deeper into the cap than expected.

Riley blasted Stern, accusing his old nemesis in the league's highest office of creating this accusation to ensure Howard would re-sign with the Bullets, which, in fact, he did.

Some theorize that Stern, a long-time Knicks fan that had saved up money to watch his favorite team while working at his father's deli in Manhattan, still resented Riley for the way he quit the Knickerbockers organization.

Just to remind you, Riley - who would later be known affectionately by the Madison Square Garden faithful as "Pat, the Rat" - had sent in his letter of resignation from Miami. By fax machine.

The Heat countered Stern's charges by saying:

''There was not one mistake made by us when it came to the salary cap. We did not forget how to add. We never broke the rules. We played within the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. The only people who broke the rules were the NBA, because they changed the rules as they went along. That's a fact."

Howard quickly moved on from the Heat and agreed to a contract with Washington in the amount of $105 million. Riley proceeded to file a temporary injunction to prevent Howard from signing with anyone else. When Stern countered with a threat to fine Miami a cool $5 million and suspend Riley for one year, the Heat backed down.

An angry Riley had this to say about Stern and the league's meddling:

"I spent the weekend at my proctologist's trying to remove the NBA's 17-foot pole out of my rear end."


In retrospect, Stern did Miami a huge favor. Howard stayed with Washington and suffered various injuries that limited his productivity, having a career that never lived up to the potential or the contract. He eventually suited up for nine other teams, fittingly ending his career with Miami, where he won two championships and, now retired, has joined the Heat's coaching staff.

Payton would eventually join Miami for one season. In 2006, his last year in the NBA, "The Glove" finally got his ring.

So did Mourning, also with Miami in 2006.

Riley went on to coach the great Heat teams of the late ‘90s, teams that always competed but were never good enough to win the title. He eventually did so in 2006, leading a team bolstered by O'Neal and a young shooting guard that might never have been drafted in 2003 if Stern had allowed Howard to sign with Miami.

That guard? Just a future Hall of Famer named Dwyane Wade.

Do you have a specific memory about NBA Commissioner David Stern? Post a comment and share it with us. And don't forget to visit HotHotHoops regularly for the latest updates about the NBA champions.