Lost star power

The Baltimore Sun

Now that Allen Iverson is a Denver Nugget, he joins Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain and Wayne Gretzky on the list of franchise-defining talents who were traded at or near their playing primes.

The formula is incredibly familiar. Team struggles through mediocre season despite having a superstar. Team looks at its options for restocking and sees that said superstar is its only desirable commodity. Player makes it known he'd like to be with a winner. Pressure builds. Team eventually gives in and makes a deal.

And the results?

A few teams have benefited enormously from trading or selling superstars. But in the vast majority of cases, the team getting the great player has fared better than the team giving him up.

Ruth is probably the example of examples. He had set a record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the World Series and then magically morphed into the greatest slugger baseball had ever seen. But Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee thought he was overpaid and a poor long-term risk, so he unloaded Ruth to the New York Yankees for a big payoff.

"Frazee's explanation was that he didn't want to deal with the 'eccentricities' of his star player anymore," wrote Leigh Montville in his Ruth biography The Big Bam. "He said that Ruth's salary demands were far out of line ... and that his behavior was detrimental to team morale. The club would be better off without him, a true team instead of ballplayers eclipsed by a petulant star."

Sounds like the talk around a certain diminutive shooting guard.

Four World Series titles and 659 home runs later, the Ruth deal looks pretty good for the Yankees.

On the flip side, the Dallas Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker in 1989 for five players and six draft picks (one of which became all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith). The deal didn't lead to instant success for the Cowboys, but it set them up for a run of three Super Bowl wins in four years.

Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said that's the ideal trade officials have in mind when they contemplate dealing a star.

"They filled five or six holes and turned the whole franchise around," he said of the Cowboys. "So I think you're just trying to get as much young talent as possible. You know you won't get the one piece to match the guy you're giving up, but you might get three that add up to a greater whole."

Duquette has weighed such scenarios over the last year as contending clubs have tried to acquire All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada. Talent isn't the only element in the calculation.

"Those kinds of players are so closely tied to the identity of the franchise," Duquette said. "And that's probably the hardest part of it, because you're not going to get a guy in return who has that same kind of impact in the minds of the fans. It can be a hard sell."

Reds' blunder

The Orioles benefited from one of the classic superstar dumps when they picked up Frank Robinson before the 1966 season for a solid starting pitcher in Milt Pappas and two other players. The Cincinnati Reds were tired of Robinson's cantankerous personality and thought he'd seen his best days as a player. Reds general manager Bill DeWitt famously said his best player was "not a young 30."

In one of baseball's great feats of extended vengeance, Robinson won the Triple Crown and led the Orioles to their first World Series title in his first season. He went on to be an offensive centerpiece for the 1969-1971 teams that averaged 106 wins a season. The Reds dropped from 89 to 76 wins, and Pappas had only two decent seasons left in his arm.

Wilt Chamberlain was the sort of outsized talent and personality who couldn't help but become the face of any franchise.

But because of his immense contract and ego, teams were forever trading him.

Philadelphia was the beneficiary the first time when the San Francisco Warriors traded Chamberlain in the middle of the 1964-65 season, even though he was averaging almost 40 points. He made the 76ers an instant contender while the Warriors fell from a division championship to a 17-63 record.

Two years later, Chamberlain led Philadelphia to a 68-13 record - the best in NBA history at the time -and a title. He was almost as good in 1967-68, leading the league in rebounds and assists. But the 76ers lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, and he was sent packing again.

"In fact, as had Franklin Mieuli when Chamberlain was with the Warriors in San Francisco [76ers owner Irving] Kosloff had come to the conclusion that regardless of the man's talent, he could not consistently produce championships, and what he brought in at the gate was not worth the aggravation and expense of keeping him on the roster," wrote John Taylor in The Rivalry, his book on Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

That might seem like a rash judgment coming off a 62-win season, but Chamberlain had that effect on his bosses.

The 76ers' win total promptly dropped from 62 to 55 to 40. The Lakers, meanwhile, went to the NBA Finals in Chamberlain's first season out West and broke Philadelphia's wins record in 1972.

All in all, getting Chamberlain was a lot better than giving him up.

Becoming mediocre

As if the lesson weren't clear, the Milwaukee Bucks traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the middle of his prime in 1975. Four years earlier, Abdul-Jabbar had led the franchise to its only title, and he was widely regarded as the dominant player in the NBA. But the Bucks struggled to a fourth-place finish with him in 1974-75 and figured they could rebuild if they traded him for four talented players.

The Bucks remained mired in mediocrity for the next four seasons. Abdul-Jabbar won three MVPs in the next five years, and the Lakers went on to win five championships with him in the middle and Magic Johnson tossing him the ball.

A country mourned in 1988 when the Edmonton Oilers traded Gretzky, in his prime at age 27, to the Los Angeles Kings for two players, three first-round picks and $15 million.

Gretzky actually wanted to go once he learned the Oilers had quietly shopped him.

But the deal hit Canada so hard that it prompted parliamentary reaction. "How can we allow the sale of our national symbols?" asked New Democratic Party House leader Nelson Riis. "The Edmonton Oilers without Wayne Gretzky is like ... Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White."

Fans burned owner Peter Pocklington in effigy outside Edmonton's arena.

Despite all the gnashing and wailing, this deal of deals proved to be a mixed bag. The Oilers had won the Stanley Cup in Gretzky's final season and lost in the divisional semifinal in their first season without him. But they won the Cup again in year two without Gretzky and went to the conference finals in the ensuing two seasons. The Kings won more games and sold more tickets than they had pre-Gretzky but never won a championship and in fact, remained a lesser team than Edmonton overall.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

THE TRADE

To the Nuggets

G Allen Iverson (above)

F Ivan McFarlin

To the 76ers

G Andre Miller

F Joe Smith

2 first-round draft picks

Article, PG 10E

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