The New York Knicks were cleared yesterday of all tampering charges brought by the Washington Bullets in the signing of veteran forward Harvey Grant to a six-year offer sheet reportedly worth more than $17 million.
After hearing 11 hours of testimony over two days, Special Master Merrell E. Clark, Jr. ruled that there was no evidence the Knicks had contacted Grant and his agent, Jim Sexton, of Memphis, Tenn., before July 1, the first day under the NBA collective bargaining agreement that free agents may be approached by another team.
The Bullets have until 6 p.m. tomorrow to match the Knicks' offer to keep Grant. Bullets owner Abe Pollin said yesterday that Washington will match the Knicks' offer for the forward, who earned $474,000 last season while averaging 18.0 points and 6.8 rebounds.
The developments could have a major impact on the Bullets' negotiations with their first-round draft choice Tom Gugliotta, a 6-foot-10 forward from North Carolina State. If the Bullets match the offer to Grant by tomorrow's deadline, they would greatly exceed the league-imposed $14 million salary cap for players. Grant would earn $1.635 million next season. That would leave only a $500,000 salary cap exemption to sign Gugliotta, who has turned down the Bullets' offer of $10.725 million over five years.
Regarding yesterday's ruling, Clark said he concluded that there was no communication by the Knicks to Grant before July 1.
"The evidence of the Knicks' preparation, strategy and desire for a speedy conclusion of the negotiations is very strong and supports the findings that they could have started the negotiations on the morning of July 1," Clark said.
"We believe we had a fair hearing and will respect the decision," Pollin said. "Now we'll move forward and prepare to match the offer."
A Bullets source said yesterday that Pollin may become involved in negotiations with Gugliotta's agent, Richard Howell.
Howell may have believed the Bullets would not match the Knicks offer to Grant or had hoped that one of the four lottery picks selected before Gugliotta -- Alonzo Mourning (Charlotte Hornets), Christian Laettner (Minnesota Timberwolves), Jim Jackson (Dallas Mavericks), and LaPhonso Ellis (Denver Nuggets) -- would have signed, establishing Gugliotta's market value.
Now faced with a probable two-day bargaining deadline, Howell's options have been curtailed. He has hinted strongly that Gugliotta could play this season in Italy, but no specific offer has been reported that would top the $1.345 million he would receive as a Bullets rookie.
"We've left a window of opportunity open for Gugliotta, but that window is closing a little every day," said Bullets general manager John Nash.
"We'd love to sign Gugliotta, but I can't create additional room without devastating our team."
Nash also said he is opposed to the idea of signing draft picks who have missed training camp.
"We won't allow that to happen," he said. "Rookies who sign late are usually at a tremendous disadvantage. We saw what happened in the situation with [former Georgia Tech guard] Kenny Anderson and the New Jersey Nets last year."
Anderson, the second player chosen in the 1991 draft, signed just before the season and spent most of the year as the fourth guard.
Even if Gugliotta plays in Italy, he would remain Bullets property until he agrees to their terms or decides to sit out an entire year without playing anywhere. If he sits out, he would be eligible for the NBA draft the next year.
In visiting with the local media last month, Gugliotta, whose father died during his freshman year at N.C. State, expressed a desire to play close to his family home in Huntington Station, N.Y.
But the All-Atlantic Coast Conference forward has left negotiations in the hands of Howell, a tough negotiator who also advised the Bullets' second-round pick, Brent Price, against attending the team's mini-camp without a guaranteed contract.
In 1989, Howell represented first-round draft choice Tom Hammonds of Georgia Tech. He was negotiating with a professional team in Greece for Hammonds before agreeing to a three-year contract with Washington worth an estimated $2.4 million.