Raptors must pay Huffman remainder of contract

Updated: February 10, 2004, 10:55 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The Toronto Raptors quietly suffered a significant loss Friday when an independent arbitrator ruled that the Raptors must pay Nate Huffman the remaining $2.56 million on his terminated contract.

Huffman signed a three-year, $5.2-million contract before last season, but the Raptors terminated the deal last January after six months. The team said that Huffman had not fully disclosed his medical history, namely a pattern of knee problems, before signing the contract.

Huffman's agent, Bill Duffy and the NBA Players Association filed the grievance on Huffman's behalf after Huffman was released. Roger P. Kaplan was jointly approved by the union and the league as the arbitrator in what became known in Toronto as "Nategate."

Because the outcome of arbitration cases is binding in the NBA, it's believed that the Raptors have no appeal route to pursue. One league source indicated that the Raptors could respond by suspending Huffman without pay, which would take the case back to Kaplan.

Toronto general manager Glen Grunwald declined comment early Monday, but said the team would release a statement later in the day.

After emerging as one of the finest centers in Europe with Israeli club power Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Huffman signed with Toronto in the summer of 2002. But the 7-1, 240-pounder underwent surgery on his right knee shortly before the start of the regular season and wound up playing only seven games with the Raptors, averaging 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 10.9 minutes.

The Raptors then took the rare step of terminating Huffman's contract, insisting that they would have never engaged in contract talks with Huffman if they'd known the condition of his knees. Had they won in arbitration, the Raptors could have established a new precedent for teams seeking to void guaranteed contracts based on pre-existing medical conditions.

Since his contract was terminated on Jan. 16, 2003, Huffman has not been paid. Rehabilitating in his native Michigan, according to Duffy, Huffman is scheduled to undergo another knee surgery this month and still holds out hope of making a comeback.

Huffman could not be reached for comment, but Duffy confirmed the arbitrator's ruling to ESPN.com, saying: "We were notified on Friday, and we're thrilled. It's obviously our job to protect Nate, and we feel he did nothing wrong. He was forthright with his condition [when he signed with Toronto], and the union stood up for him. This kid's career has been in limbo waiting for a resolution. He'd like to resume his career, so we plan to get him healthy and get him back playing basketball."

Under the terms of a standard NBA contract, a contract can only be terminated if the player is guilty of malfeasance or gross misconduct or deemed unfit to play.

Duffy said the 7-foot-1 center never saw a doctor about his knee before signing with Toronto.

"He only saw trainers, and that's not uncommon for professional athletes. All those guys live in the training room," Duffy said. "It was never to the point where he had to go to a doctor for his knee, so in his mind it was just a regular problem."

The most high-profile example in recent years occurred in 1997, when the Golden State Warriors terminated Latrell Sprewell's contract after a choking incident involving Sprewell and then-coach P.J. Carlesimo. Sprewell lost the bulk of his $6.4 million salary from the 1997-98 season but won back $17 million and a shortened suspension in arbitration.

The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, could decide to terminate Vin Baker's contract, which has two years and more than $30 million left on it, after the Celtics suspended the wayward forward indefinitely for failing to comply with the terms of his alcohol aftercare program.

Huffman averaged 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in seven games for Toronto before being sidelined indefinitely with a sore right knee. He had surgery in October 2002. He has not played since leaving the Raptors.

Huffman signed with Toronto in July 2002 after averaging 18.8 points and 7.5 rebounds for Israeli League champion Maccabi Elite Tel-Aviv.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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