EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Despite chief executive officer Alan Aufzien's denials last night, the New Jersey Nets reportedly have reached an agreement in principle with former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano on a five-year deal that will make him Bill Fitch's successor as coach within a week.
According to reports in the Bergen Record and USA Today, Valvano was offered the job during a Monday afternoon meeting with Nets' part-owner Joe Taub. Indications are Valvano has requested and will get his release from his contractual commitment to ABC, which owns ESPN, for which he works as a college basketball analyst. That would enable the Queens native and ex-Rutgers guard to sign a fully guaranteed deal that reportedly will pay him between $500,000 and $600,000 per year.
Aufzien said last night that he wasn't sure whether Taub had made Valvano an offer, but he was sure the minority owner didn't have the authority to do so.
Insisting "I wouldn't know Valvano if I saw him," Aufzien went on to say: "A minority owner of this team spoke to some coach and it appeared in the papers. I don't know what was said. Joe doesn't make offers or hire or fire. He advises."
Fitch, whose $400,000-per-season contract runs through 1992-93, said yesterday morning it wouldn't be a surprise if Taub had convinced the more reluctant owners to pull the trigger. "No one has said anything to me, other than the three guys who've been telling me to hang in there. Evidently, they've met with the rope," he said.
"I stayed up until 4 watching films of Cleveland. I'm trying to get us going, get us a win somewhere along the line. They will do what they want to do. I only know one way to go about my business."
Nevertheless, it appears that ownership's approach to Valvano was made without the knowledge of the supposed resident basketball man in charge, vice president for basketball operations/general manager Willis Reed.
Yesterday morning, Reed insisted, "I know nothing about anything. I am hearing stuff on TV I know nothing about. As of right now, Bill is still our coach . . . How can you be offering someone a job when someone still has a job?"
Last night, Reed gave Fitch one of the most tentative votes of confidence ever heard. "As of now, there have not been any changes," Reed said.
"Are we happy with our record? No. But as of now Bill is the coach and we're not looking to make any changes." Later he acknowledged, "We are in a business that's very volatile."
Reed denied any direct knowledge of an offer by Taub to Valvano, saying, "Joe talks to everyone. That's his nature." Asked what Taub might have talked to Valvano about, Reed said, "Maybe they talked about horses or restaurants."
Taub did not return calls yesterday. Valvano, in town for a taping of "The Cosby Show," was unavailable for comment. However, his agent, Arthur Kaminsky, released a statement that said, "Jim has not signed with the Nets. He is in conversation with the Nets, ABC and ESPN to determine his future."
Through a spokesman, ESPN would acknowledge only that Valvano had met with his bosses there.
Taub's month-long search apparently turned toward Valvano after Reed had declined to reassume the coaching reins at least temporarily in November and ex-Knicks coach Rick Pitino indicated he wouldn't be ready to leave the Kentucky Wildcats for a couple of years.
Valvano, a colorful coach with New York roots, left North Carolina State after 1989-90 because of recruiting violations, but not before bringing the national championship to Raleigh in 1983. However, Valvano has never coached in the pros.
If he signs, the ex-Iona coach will become the Nets' seventh coach since joining the NBA in 1976-77 and fourth coach since Stan Albeck resigned after leading them to their most recent playoff berth in 1984-85.