LANDOVER -- It took more than four months of negotiations and exploratory trips to Italy and Greece, but forward Tom Gugliotta finally found his way to Washington yesterday, signing a franchise-record, seven-year, $17.5 million contract with the Bullets, including an option year that would net another $3 million.
"It's definitely the longest contract I've signed in my 27-year association with the Bullets," said owner Abe Pollin, who also called the lottery pick from N.C. State "the last piece of the puzzle."
Gugliotta, an all-purpose, 6-foot-10 forward who averaged 22.5 points and an Atlantic Coast Conference-leading 9.8 rebounds as a senior, is regarded by general manager John Nash as the principal new face in his rebuilding plans.
Said Nash: "When Wes [Unseld, coach] and I walked off the floor in St. Petersburg Saturday night after playing the champion Chicago Bulls, I think we shared the feeling that our young team is better than people realize. And signing Tom can only help make us better."
Since finishing 25-57 last season, Nash has rid the team of troublesome John Williams and Ledell Eackles, plus guards David Wingate and Andre Turner, while adding three rookie draft choices -- forwards Gugliotta and Don MacLean (via trade) and guard Brent Price. Small forward Buck Johnson was signed as a free agent.
"If you're not very good to start with, there is not a great danger in breaking up a team and emphasizing a youth movement," Nash said.
"I'd like to look at this group we have now growing into veterans together the way the Detroit Pistons did in the mid-'80s with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and John Salley. We'll try to keep our young players together as long as they show promise and are productive."
Two years ago, All-Star forward Bernard King was considered the Bullets' best player. But it was King whose contract was used to end the stalemate between Nash and Gugliotta's agent, Richard Howell of Atlanta.
When Nash last week applied for and received league approval for a medical exemption on King, unable to run since undergoing knee surgery in September 1990, it freed half of his guaranteed salary ($1.25 million) to use for Gugliotta's contract.
In July, Gugliotta had rejected a five-year deal worth $10.7 million, and talks then bogged down after the Bullets exceeded their $14 million salary cap by matching the New York Knicks' six-year, $17.1 million offer sheet to forward Harvey Grant.
For a long time, the Bullets could offer only Eackles' vacant $780,000 slot as a first-year proposal to Gugliotta, who then visited Italy and Greece to entertain bids to play in Europe.
Howell said he sought "fair-market value" for his client and gained a strong bargaining chip after the fifth pick in the draft, LaPhonso Ellis, signed a six-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks worth $16.775 million.
Gugliotta seemed happier than anyone to put the wrangling behind him. He will launch his pro career today by participating in his first Bullets practice at Bowie State.
"I believe I'm in pretty good shape," Gugliotta said. "I've heard a lot of stories about how physically tough Coach Unseld's camps can be. So I prepared myself by doing a lot of sprints, endurance running and strength work this summer.
"I've also played a lot of ball in Raleigh [N.C.] against college and pro guys and down in Orlando, where I played against Shaquille O'Neal and most of the Magic players. I don't think I embarrassed myself."
Although Gugliotta, blessed with three-point shooting range and passing skills, has been projected as a small forward, he said he is capable of playing all frontcourt positions.
"I'm a solid 240 now, and I've been working hard all summer on improving my post-up game and playing with my back to the basket," he said. "But right now I'll just try and concentrate on playing hard, fitting in and gaining the respect of the coaches and players."
With Gugliotta signed, the Bullets have 12 players with guaranteed contracts. But Nash has not ruled out another trade, while also hesitating to dismiss free agents Tom Garrick, Pete Myers and just-acquired Doug Overton, who could be added if Unseld decides to keep a fifth guard on his roster.