Commentary

Antoine Walker wants your 'writ of pity'

Ex-Celtic hits rock bottom in Vegas; O.J. McDuffie makes a Dolphins doctor toe the line

Originally Published: June 3, 2010
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Foreclosure. Bankruptcy. Malpractice. Defamation. Oh, and politics. Strange bedfellows, indeed, especially when they wind up in a sports story. By the end of this one, you very well may be crying out for your own "writ of pity." For Courtside Seat, though, it's all in a day's work. Today, we start with a …

Room at the bottom

The house he purchased for his mother is in foreclosure. He cannot make the payments on his only car. He faces child-support claims from at least two women. He owes his former agent nearly $500,000. His other debts are nearly $12 million. He's unemployed. And he's in bankruptcy.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Walker
AP Photo/Brad HornAt least until his gambling debts caught up with him, Antoine Walker was welcome on Las Vegas golf courses.

And that's the good news for Antoine Walker, who earned $110 million in 12 years in the NBA.

On June 14 -- a day after one of his former teams, the Celtics (who drafted him out of the University of Kentucky in the first round in 1996), are to play Game 5 of the 2010 NBA Finals -- Walker is supposed to appear before a judge in Las Vegas. In his situation, one to four years in a Nevada state penitentiary is all but inevitable.

Between July 2008 and January 2009, Walker wrote 10 checks for $100,000 each to three Las Vegas casinos. All 10 checks bounced.

There are things you may be able to get away with in Las Vegas, but writing bad checks to casinos is not one of them.

The prosecutors in Clark County, Nevada, quickly gathered the checks from Walker's banks and charged him with defrauding the casinos. Recognizing how serious the charges were, Walker and his Las Vegas attorney, Jonathan Powell, quickly admitted everything and begged for a no-jail deal.

In the face of demands for total restitution from the authorities and the casinos, Walker agreed to make installment payments. He paid $135,000 in December and was supposed to pay $12,800 each month thereafter. He has not made another payment and has fallen $76,800 behind.

What can Walker say to the judge? What can he offer at this point? Nothing. Not a nickel.

He told the judge and the prosecutors that he would pay; he didn't pay. And now, under the laws that govern his bankruptcy, he cannot pay. If Walker somehow were able to gather, say, $1 million to pay off the Las Vegas losses, he could not do it. Any income he receives must be split among everyone else to whom he owes money. That would apply to any money he might make from, say, a desperate, far-fetched plan to return to basketball that, according to this Louisville Courier-Journal item, he's apparently cooking up with the help of his old coach at Kentucky (and with the Celtics), Rick Pitino.

"If he paid something to us, we would turn it over to the casinos, and they would be obligated to send it to the bankruptcy court to be shared with the other creditors," says Clark County Assistant District Attorney Bernie Zadrowski, who is leading the Walker prosecution.

It's a bad thing to bounce a check in a Vegas casino. It's worse to agree to pay the money back and then fail to do it.

The only legal maneuver open to Walker at this point is a procedure known as a "writ of pity." It's a combination of begging, pleading and groveling that isn't taught in law school and doesn't appear in law books. It can work but is not likely to work for Walker.

No one wants to spend time in a penitentiary, but if his timing is right, Walker might at least be able to use the state pen as an excuse to avoid the obligation of helping his mother move out of the $2.3 million mansion (10 bathrooms!) that is now in foreclosure.

Sticking a turf toe into the legal waters

The first time former wide receiver O.J. McDuffie felt a nasty pop in his toe, the Miami Dolphins' team physician examined him on the sideline, taped it up and sent him back into the game.

[+] EnlargeOJ McDuffie
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezO.J. McDuffie was only six years into a promising pro football career when his toe got turfed.

On the first play after he returned to the field, he felt another pop in the toe. The team doctor looked at it again, this time in the locker room, injected it with something to control the pain, retaped it and sent McDuffie back onto the field again.

McDuffie was the Dolphins' best wideout. It was an important game against the Patriots with playoff implications. The doctor was doing what he could for the team.

The injury, known as turf toe, came on Nov. 21, 1999, during McDuffie's sixth season in the NFL. He was in the first year of a five-year contract signed the previous July. Although many NFL players suffer turf toe and recover, the injury to McDuffie's left big toe -- and the treatment by Dr. John Uribe -- marked the end of his career.

In the days after the injury, Uribe sent McDuffie for an MRI examination of the toe. According to McDuffie's attorneys, Stuart Ratzan and Herman Russomanno, Uribe told McDuffie that he would be fine and should continue to play even though he saw a torn ligament in the MRI.

McDuffie did what Uribe told him to do until the Dolphins, for unrelated reasons, hired a new team physician. The new doctor looked at the toe and the MRI and immediately sent McDuffie to a specialist, who recommended surgery to repair the ruptured ligament. Even after two surgeries, McDuffie's toe prevented him from playing and ended his career.

The MRI and Uribe's interpretation of it became a central issue in McDuffie's malpractice lawsuit against Uribe. Did Uribe ignore a serious injury and push McDuffie back onto the field for the benefit of the team? Did his treatment of the player and the injury conform to the standard of care required of orthopedic surgeons faced with a torn-ligament turf toe? Did Uribe, the doctor, ignore his duty of reasonable care to the patient, McDuffie, and instead do what was good for Uribe's employer, the Dolphins?

After nearly three weeks of trial and only three hours of deliberation, a jury in Miami concluded in early May that Uribe had failed to meet the medical standards for treatment of turf toe and awarded McDuffie $11.5 million in damages.

[+] EnlargeDan Marino and O.J. McDuffie
RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty ImagesDan Marino and McDuffie clicked on the field. Marino didn't forget that in court.

McDuffie and his attorneys are delighted with the jury's verdict. Uribe has called it a "travesty," and one of his attorneys told ESPN.com that Uribe was "suicidal" after he learned of the jury's verdict.

Any malpractice claim against any physician is difficult for the patient and the patient's attorneys to prove. The patient must produce another physician willing to criticize the care provided by the target physician, a difficult and often impossible task.

How did McDuffie and his attorneys succeed in his suit against Uribe? Their principal expert witness was Dr. Lewis Schon, a foot specialist from Johns Hopkins, a world-class institution. They also used a medical textbook to establish that Uribe should have kept McDuffie off the field and immediately sent him to a surgeon. And they established his value as a star wide receiver with testimony from Ralph Cindrich, a highly respected veteran agent for NFL players.

But the clincher may have been the contribution of Dolphins great Dan Marino. In 35 minutes of riveting testimony, Marino told six jurors from Miami that McDuffie was a team leader on and off the field, one of the premier receivers in the league and in the prime of his career when Uribe sent him back onto the field with a torn ligament.

Dan Marino in front of a jury in Miami … how do you beat that? Maybe Michael Jordan in front of a jury in Chicago? Or Tom Brady in front of a jury in Boston?

Uribe and his lawyers are demanding a new trial. A judge will decide the issue in a few months. But they may want to reconsider. Another jury could take another look at what Uribe did with McDuffie, listen to Marino describe his value to the Dolphins and award more than $11.5 million.

Running, gunning for Senate

For nearly two decades, former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian was the people's choice in Nevada. He led the Runnin' Rebels to four Final Fours, defeated Duke by 30 points for a national championship in 1990 and made his team the hottest ticket in the entertainment capital of the world.

Now his son Danny, a star point guard and academic All-American on three of his father's teams, is asking Nevada Republicans to make him their choice to run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall.

[+] EnlargeDanny Tarkanian
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenDanny Tarkanian has deep political ambition as well as deep basketball roots.

In a primary election on Tuesday that is too close to call, the younger Tarkanian faces two formidable challengers, casino executive Sue Lowden, the early favorite whose campaign has floundered in a series of unforced errors, and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, who has recently surged into contention.

Experts agree that the Republican winner could upset Reid, who has become remarkably unpopular in Nevada, in November.

If Tarkanian, 48, can win the Republican nomination and defeat Reid, he would be the finest basketball player in the U.S. Senate since Bill Bradley and would join Scott Brown, R-Mass., in a Senate backcourt that would provide a formidable challenge to President Barack Obama and his White House basketball buddies.

It's Tarkanian's third try for elective office, and his decision to take a shot at Reid might have been a bit of surprise to the Reid family.

In Tarkanian's first try for political office, his opponent in a race for the Nevada state senate charged that Tarkanian had victimized senior citizens in a fraudulent telemarketing scheme. Shortly after the election, Tarkanian sued the winner, Michael Schneider, for defamation.

It is the kind of political lawsuit that usually evaporates after a few months.

But Tarkanian -- a lawyer who finished third in his class at the University of San Diego Law School, was an editor of the Law Review as a student and helped his father win a $2.5 million settlement against the NCAA -- refused to let the case wither away. In a trial this past July, the jury ruled in favor of Tarkanian, and Schneider quickly paid $150,000 in settlement.

How did Tarkanian manage to win a jury verdict for campaign statements that appeared to be nothing more than the usual political mudslinging?

The key witness for Tarkanian was a guy named Reid -- Leif Reid, the son of Harry Reid. Leif Reid, the federal prosecutor who investigated the telemarketing scam, told the jury that Tarkanian was innocent of wrongdoing.

A couple of months after Reid helped Tarkanian win that political lawsuit, Tarkanian announced that he wanted to end Harry Reid's political career.

Will the Republican voters of Nevada decide that he is their best hope of defeating Reid and make the younger Tarkanian their choice? They'll vote Tuesday.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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