Chris Childs v. the Nets

Most fans, me included, hate it when legal issues affect the game on the court.  Still, these lawsuits can create a nice little record of a place and time and remind us of what was (see our review of Donald Sterling’s legal travails).  Periodically, we find from some nice little time capsules that we have all forgotten.  By popping up some of these old bubbles, we sometimes can have a little fun and learn a bit players’ careers on the court too.

Such is the case with a forgotten lawsuit filed by former NBA point guard Chris Childs back in 1995.  You might recall Childs’ story.  He was an undrafted and undersized point guard out of Boise State in 1989, who struggled with a drinking problem.  Childs fought back to by toiling for five years before becoming the best player in the old Continental Basketball Association.

Childs didn’t get his first shot in the NBA until age-27 with the lottery bound 1994-95 Nets, backing up Kenny Anderson.  Childs played superficially okay for the Nets (5.8 ppg, 4.1 apg in 19.3 MPG, though his PER was only 11.2 and his BPM was a terrible -4.0).  At that point, it would seem that Childs career as an NBA player was tenuous at best.  He was a tepid backup on a bad team, though he had a fire that management apparently did like.

After the 1994-95 season, the NBA locked out the players as part of the renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”).  Childs was in a particularly tough spot.  He wasn’t assured of a new NBA contract and, given his age, he was the precise type of player that might jump on a nice overseas offer instead of waiting out the lockout and making no money.  A Greek team offered Childs a contract worth about $650,000 to $700,000 (Childs had made $150,000 for the Nets the previous season).  Childs’ agent, Steve Kauffman, called the Nets seeking guidance on his client’s future.  Ordinarily, Kauffman’s call would be perfectly fine but, with no CBA in place, he was technically barred from talking to the Nets.

Kauffman claimed that he spoke with Nets GM Willis Reed, who allegedly told Childs that they intended to re-sign Childs and that they could match the $700,000(ish) offer.  Based upon this assurance, Childs turned down the Greek offer.  The Nets did re-sign Childs but only offered him $350,000, because the salary cap had been altered by the new CBA to prevent the Nets from paying him more.  Childs took the offer, because there was no other interest for his services, but then sued the Nets for the difference between what was orally promised and what he got.

This created some really bad feelings between the Nets and Kauffman, who was already fighting with the team about his major client, Derrick Coleman.  Kauffman told the New York Times that Childs’ contract created a “very distasteful situation.  It’s difficult to get an offer for a restricted free agent, no matter who it is.”  Reed’s refusal to comment to the Times revealed that he wasn’t happy either: “Why don’t you talk to his agent, Kauffman?  The agents always like to talk?”

The Nets responded immediately moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing primarily that any player-team disputes must be resolved in arbitration (by an NBA-approved arbitrator).   Childs had creative attorneys, who argued that there was no CBA existing at the time of the alleged promise, so the arbitration clause was not binding.   Alas, Childs’ argument ignored the fact that his contract contained a standard clause allowing for arbitration.  Childs attempted to explain away this clause by arguing that the lawsuit related solely to Reed’s oral promise, which Childs believed was not covered by the later contract.

The court found this argument “completely unpersuasive,” noting that the promises related to the contract and could not be separated.  The lawsuit was dismissed and Childs was directed to proceed to arbitration on his claim.  We’ll never know what happened in arbitration, though it seems likely that an arbitrator would’ve found that an oral promise (if it was really given) in this context was not binding.

Things got even weirder after the lawsuit was filed.  In 1995-96, (while the lawsuit was pending) Childs had a career year and actually outplayed incumbent star Kenny Anderson.  Anderson was dealt to Charlotte early in the season and Childs continued to play really well: 12.8 ppg, 7.0 apg in 30.9 MPG, 16.4 PER, and 1.2 BPM (his next highest BPM was 0.1).  Childs hit free agency in 1996 and was swooped up by the rival Knicks for six years and $24 million range.  Childs would ultimately earn almost $27 million in his career.

One could certainly argue that Childs’ turning down the Greek offer was the best thing that ever happened to him and maybe, as a result, he should’ve given up on the litigation.  Not only did Childs not give up the lawsuit but it took until 1997 (well after he signed his big Knicks deal), for the case to be dismissed.  As a player for the Knicks, Childs lost his starting job to Charlie Ward but continued to be a decent reserve for a few years and had a few interesting moments (he hit some big shots to beat the Heat in the 1997-98 playoffs and we all remember the time he punched Kobe Bryant in the face).

In mid-2000-01, the Knicks dealt Childs to Toronto for Mark Jackson.  Childs continued to decline for two years on the Raptors. In the summer of 2002, at age-35, Childs was a free agent trying to keep his career going and he was signed by the Nets again to backup Jason Kidd (for two years and $3.6 million).  Between 1995 and 2002, Nets management had turned over several times and actually had a good team and Childs also had a new agent.  But the new good feelings between Childs and the Nets didn’t last long.

Childs injured his Achilles in the summer and came into camp way overweight (about 25-30 pounds above his 205-pound target).  Childs was suspended until he dropped some weight and the Nets sent him to crash diet ate Duke’s fabled fitness center.  Childs didn’t get into any actual games until January.  Childs played in 12 games in January and February 2003 and was really bad (1.3 ppg, .300 FG%, in 8.8 mpg, 6.2 PER, -4.2 BPM).  The Nets cut him in the end of February, ending his NBA career but it’s fair to say that Childs final terrible contract more than made up for the $300,000 he left on the table back in 1995.

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