NBA Free Agency is a crap shoot, an endless sunbaked highway littered with the tattered pinstriped suits of General Managers who would’ve sworn they were just one player away from contention. Timo Mozgov for 4 years/$64 Million? “Sure, why not?” says now-deposed LA Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. For those unfamiliar with Mozzy’s work, please see below.
But our story takes place much earlier. The year is 1997 and the NBA’s most storied franchise has just handed total control of its basketball operations over to future Young Colonial Sanders Impersonator-turned pimp Rick Pitino.
Pitino’s tenure would prove catastrophic, marred by on and off-court incompetence. Pitino rode into Boston on a wave of collegiate success at Kentucky, frenzying the Cs into a state of temporary insanity, which culminated in a 10-year, $49 Million contract to serve as both coach and Team President.
One of Pitino’s first and most, shall we say, curious decisions as GM was when he, 20 years ago this week, offered a lucrative free agent contract to this man:
For those struggling to process the slammin’ 90s font depicted in the vintage Fleer above, allow me to translate: his name is Travis Knight. It is entirely possible that you have completely forgotten about or never even heard of Travis Knight, so here’s a quick refresher.
In 1996, Knight was drafted in the 1st round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, after a four-year run at UCONN in which he averaged 6.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, leading the Huskies to a Big East Championship his senior season. Well…”leading” is a strong word. But he was definitely there.
The Bulls had hoped to stash Knight in Europe for a year or so, but The Big Husky (his official nickname forevermore, please) would have none of that. Knight was granted a release from the Bulls, allowing him to sign a one-year, league-minimum contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
During his rookie year in LA, Knight performed…respectably for a league-minimum player. All told, Knight appeared in 71 games, starting 14. He averaged 4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16 minutes-per-game. Somehow, this was enough to earn him 2nd team All Rookie honors.
More importantly, however, Knight’s rookie showing put a big old glaring twinkle in Papa Pitino’s eye. So much so that it prompted Ricky P to make The Big Husky an offer he couldn’t refuse, despite Knight’s efforts to do just that (more on that later).
In one of his first and most prominent acts the Celtics’ lead honcho, Pitino offered Knight a 7-year/$22 Million contract–or $π Million average per season–to ship his big ass back east and suit up for the Celtics. Now, I know that might not seem like a lot by today’s Free Agency boom-time standards; but it represented significant 1997 NBA dollars. Especially when you consider Knight’s previous status as a league-minimum player making just $220,000 in his rookie season.
Remarkably, despite this substantial pay raise and the fact that the Lakers were facing cap issues and could only offer him a one-year deal at a significantly lower salary, Knight agonized quite publicly over the decision. Ultimately, Knight agreed to Pitino’s offer. The juiciest quotes arrive courtesy of the LA Times:
“I really have mixed emotions,” he said. “I should be elated right now, but I’m not. I feel so much loyalty [to the Lakers]. I respect Jerry and Mitch so much and I understand what they say and I believe what they say.
“But you work at something as hard as you can, and then it’s there. The security. That’s the rest of my life, right there.
“I think, without a question, this has been the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. It was much harder than choosing a college. . . . The most difficult thing for me is that my heart and mind were in two different places. It’s just, I don’t know. It’s been tough.”
Shockingly, Knight’s play during his first season in Boston did not reflect that of a $π Million per year man. Knight struggled to acclimate himself, posting just 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 20.3 minutes-per-game. He shot a mere 44.1% from the floor, despite being a 7-footer in an era wherein the bulk of his shots would have come at or very near the rim. Knight appeared in 74 games for the Celtics during his first (and only) season with the team, starting just 21.
While many of his raw counting numbers improved incrementally over his rookie season, they hardly justified the large investment doled out by Pitino. How does Knight’s contract and production compare to that of his fellow 1997 free agents, you ask? Good question. Let’s run the numbers, maybe it isn’t so bad.
For comparison purposes, a mere days before Knight agreed to his contract, the Charlotte Hornets inked SG David Wesley to an agreement that would pay him $1.8 Million in the coming season. A season in which Wesley would post 13.0 points and 6.5 assists per game. Despite being a SG, Wesley’s 44.3 FG% was actually superior to Knight’s on double the attempts.
“But D Wez” (as he was known during his playing days. Just trust me. You definitely do not need to perform a cursory internet search to corroborate or refute this factoid) “was a SG and Knight was a big man. Not apples to apples”, you might say. Fine.
Since you asked, one of 97’s prized free agent acquisitions was a strapping PF/C by the name of Bison Dele (born Brian Carson Williams. No idea how he arrived at “Bison”. Sounds like there’s a fun story there). That same summer, Dele inked a deal with the Detroit Pistons that would pay him $4.05 Million for the upcoming season. Obviously, this is more (YOU DO THE MATH) than Knight’s contract. But, nonetheless, Dele’s production would far outstrip that of Knight’s, to the tune of 16.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 51% FG on 13.3 shots per game.
Conclusion: Even if you subscribe to the multiverse theory, it’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which Travis Knight lives up to his contract OR Rick Pitino becomes a competent NBA GM.
In the end, it’s the years/dollar combination that makes this signing so baffling. What on earth led Pitino to 7 years and $22 Million for a league-minimum Center? NBA Live 97 didn’t have Franchise Mode. But if it did, there’s no way your little 32-bit GM would have survived this signing. Your 32-bit owner would have axed you on the spot. Either that or your Sega Saturn would simply have melted into the carpet in its state of frenzied befuddlement.
The only saving grace of this disastrous signing is that Pitino was able to flip Knight and his remaining SIX YEAR CONTRACT back to the Lakers the following season for Tony Battie, who would spend several seasons chasing 30-foot bricks hurled by Antoine Walker (those closest to me know how agonizing it was for me to type this).
While the Knight signing did no permanent damage to the Celtics franchise, it will be forever representative of the short-lived but laughable Rick Pitino era. A bad penny of an NBA footnote, doomed to appear in “Worst Ever” free agent/GM pieces across the internet always and forever.
As for Knight, he apparently owns and operates a charter fishing business in Nicaragua, as per the World Wide Web. Perhaps there’s a “where are they now?” part two here, where, I head down to Nicaragua on an all-expenses-paid trip to do some hard-hitting investigative journalizm at Knight’s fishing resort? Maybe a reader-generated Kickstarter? Just an idea.
If Rick Pitino can become GM of an NBA franchise, maybe I can score a free fishing trip.
NCAA stats per Sports-Reference
NBA stats per Basketball-Reference