As influential as Glenn Robinson was to the Milwaukee Bucks for his eight seasons with the team, his rookie contract negotiations, further complicated by a political re-election campaign, arguably left an even greater impact on the entire NBA.
The Milwaukee Bucks selected Glenn Robinson, an alpha scorer and they hoped a franchise savior, with the first pick in the 1994 NBA draft, creating a dynamic forward tandem with Vin Baker.
In his senior season at Purdue University, Robinson averaged 30.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. To further appreciate that scoring dominance, it’s worth noting the 30.3 points per game mark has yet to be eclipsed by any NCAA Division I single season scorer since.
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Twenty-four years ago, NBA rookies and their agents could freely negotiate their contracts with the drafting team. On the negotiating table lay a blank slate, with no guidelines for total number of years, salary amounts, options or guarantees. The drafted player had significant leverage, with the ability to hold out the entire year if no agreement was reached, and then be placed back into the next NBA draft to reset the process all over again likely with a different team.
The risk of losing an NBA draft pick to a year-long holdout was a road that no NBA franchise wanted to take. Especially the small-market Milwaukee Bucks, whom in 1994 had not been to the playoffs since the 1990-91 season where they were swept in the opening round by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Glenn Robinson understood the value he had coming in to the league being as close to a sure-thing as an NBA prospect can be. He wanted to be the top pick, and he wanted to be in Milwaukee. He also wanted a hefty contract. Rumors began to circulate that Robinson wished to become the first $100 million player, rookie or veteran, before ever stepping foot on an NBA court.
For reference purposes, in October of 1993, the Charlotte Hornets had given Larry Johnson, an already-proven NBA star, the richest contract in league history worth approximately $84 million over the course of 12 years. The Milwaukee Bucks’ highest paid player, Vin Baker, was in the midst of a 10 year, $16.2 million deal.
The $100 million was not only a number never seen before in professional sports, but the fact that a rookie was demanding this made the events all the more unusual and frankly fantastic. Veteran players, team executives, and the league office were all watching this play out with self-serving motives in mind. A nine-figure deal could set a precedent that could benefit one side greatly, while hurting another side just as much.
Adding fuel to the sports labor fire were the Major League Baseball players that walked off the field in August of 1994 to strike the rest of the season, which included the first cancelled World Series since 1904. The National Hockey League owners locked out the players in October of 1994 in a second North American professional sports work stoppage in three months. Strike and lockout were the buzz-words of 1994, and both the NBA players and owners were taking notice.
The summer of 1994 came and went and Robinson remained unsigned as NBA training camp and preseason began. Bucks management, led by majority owner and US Senator Herb Kohl, who was up for re-election in November, was not giving in to the contract demands.
With the NBA season set to start only days before the 1994 mid-term election, many believed the Robinson contract had become a legitimate campaign issue for Kohl. Wisconsin voters may have felt a mega-contract, never before seen in American professional sports, would be exorbitant for any professional athlete and be less inclined to support a political candidate that didn’t cater to the average Joe and Jane instead.
In a wildly strange move for an NBA franchise, a press conference was held by the Bucks on October 17, 1994 to publicly report that Robinson had declined an offer of $60 million and was instead looking for $100 million. Whether this was purely political strategy or just a terribly ill-advised public statement involving contract negotiations by Kohl and the Bucks, they had painted Robinson, their No. 1 overall draft pick and franchise chosen-one, to be the bad guy.
Despite reported frustrations with this press conference from Robinson’s representation, on the day before the NBA season began Robinson inked a fully-guaranteed 10 year – $68 million deal, the largest rookie contract in NBA history, still standing as such today.
Speaking to The New York Times a few days before he went on to win his re-election bid, Kohl reflected on the conclusion of the deal:
"“Both sides won. Glenn Robinson has now got a pro career under way in a city that he wanted to play in with a very nice 10-year contract fully guaranteed. And for the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s wonderful to sign the No. 1 pick.”"
Robinson suited up for the Bucks for the first time on November 5, 1994, scoring eight points in 13 minutes and the rest is history; except for the part that is not yet history, and still impacting the game today.
Within months of Robinson’s executed contract, David Stern and the NBA moved to implement a rookie wage scale starting with the 1995 season, likely in direct response to the $68 million guaranteed deal. The owners, heading towards a labor dispute that was already years in the making, moved to lock out players starting in the summer of 1995. Out of the eventual collective bargaining agreement a few months later came a number of changes, including what we know today as the rookie wage scale, severely limiting negotiation ranges for certain draft picks.
From 1995 on, teams have the comfort of knowing almost exactly where their slotted first round draft pick will fall in to their respective salary cap. The Bucks knew approximately how much a 17th overall pick’s contract would be worth, prior to choosing Donte DiVincenzo on draft night. Just as importantly, draft picks and their agents know this as well, so the early disputes with contract negotiations are few and far between and the relationship should usually start on the right foot unlike the Robinson fiasco. Gone are the days of impromptu press conferences revealing a draft pick is unwilling to accept a contract offered by a team.
Whether a rookie wage scale is seen as a positive from a player’s perspective is a different topic of conversation for another day. Top picks such as LeBron James or Anthony Davis almost certainly would have earned far more in a completely open negotiation system in their first few years in the league.
Glenn Robinson was the last high draft-pick to benefit financially from the more player-friendly system, was the primary catalyst for the more team-friendly rookie wage scale, and through it all, Senator Herb Kohl still retained his seat in the US Senate.
Whether or not Robinson eventually finds his number hanging from the Fiserv Forum rafters, he has arguably had just as great an impact on the entire NBA for over two decades.