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After returning home for the Christmas holidays in 1995, Houston native Chris Burkhalter decided it was time to plan a move back to his hometown. Burkhalter had a good job as the sports information director at Northern Arizona University, but he'd been away from Houston for a number of years and missed his family. So when Houston Rockets vice president John Thomas offered him a job several weeks later as public relations director of Les Alexander's fledgling Texas Terror arena football team, Burkhalter jumped at the chance. He'd be making only $22,000, a $10,000 cut in pay, but the opportunity to reunite with his parents and brother cinched the deal -- that and the chance to work for Alexander and his two-time world champion Houston Rockets organization. "I was completely starry-eyed at the opportunity," Burkhalter recalls.
Burkhalter started work that February, spending the first few weeks in the Rockets' media services office under director Tim Frank until the Terror season got under way. From March through July, he juggled several responsibilities in addition to his media chores. Burkhalter says he "was basically doing two or three people's jobs." What little feedback he got from his immediate supervisor was positive.
The Terror had a lousy season, losing all but one of its games, but even a miserable showing on the field did not prepare Burkhalter for what came afterward. On August 6, four days after the final game, he was called into his supervisor's office. After some small talk, she told him that his services with the Terror were no longer required. "All of a sudden it hit me," he says. "Wow, I'm being fired."
Burkhalter had been given no indication that he'd be canned; in fact, he had every reason to believe his job would continue into 1997. When he took the position, he says, John Thomas promised him a full year of employment. Disturbed at this breach of trust, he outlined his story in a letter he mailed to Alexander at his home in Boca Raton, Florida. "I never heard back from him," Burkhalter laments.
Burkhalter wasn't the only casualty that day: All but one of the Terror employees were sent packing. Like Burkhalter, all had been told they had yearlong jobs. Only head coach John Paul Young had a contract.
Multimillion-dollar enterprises such as the Rockets will always have their fair share of disputes and misunderstandings. But since Les Alexander bought the NBA franchise in August 1993, his organization has left behind a lengthy trail of fired employees, stiffed vendors and angry sponsors. And their stories are remarkably consistent -- a litany of broken agreements, unpaid bills and a mean-spirited cheapness that borders on pure greed. Behind the glossy veneer of two NBA championships, there's big trouble in Clutch City.
Most of the stories have yet to be told, in part because the local media has been as enchanted by the Rockets' winning ways as the fans. The majority of those employees, vendors and sponsors have collected their due, but only after either threatening or taking legal action. And in exchange for their money, the Rockets insisted they sign gag agreements not to discuss their cases.
Despite repeated requests, neither Alexander nor John Thomas would speak to the Press for this story or respond to a long list of questions faxed to the Rockets' public relations office.
"He just doesn't want to be available for the time being," says media services director Tim Frank of Alexander. "Later on, there may be a time when we'll sit down with you and talk about these issues, but right now the issues are rather sensitive. He's trying to stay out of the spotlight."
That spotlight has been especially bright of late. Alexander is embroiled in a battle with Houston Aeros owner and Summit leaseholder Chuck Watson for control of a proposed new downtown arena that will eventually replace the Summit. Millions of dollars are at stake. Since cutting off negotiations with Watson last July, Alexander has filed suit to weasel out of his Summit lease and, having already expanded his sports empire into arena football and women's professional basketball, has applied for a Houston franchise in the National Hockey League.
Alexander's position on both the Summit lease and the NHL team appears to be shaky. If the lease proves airtight and Alexander is denied the hockey franchise, he will have two choices: He can either compromise with Watson and accept a split of the new arena, or he can pursue his goal of total control of the building and all the revenues that flow into it. If he chooses the latter avenue, he'll have only one play left, the blackmail card -- either he gets what he wants, or he'll have to move the Rockets out of town.
If anyone doubts that Alexander would send the beloved Rockets to New Orleans, Nashville, San Jose or some other town willing to mortgage itself and enrich him, the history of the team's business dealings since he took over says otherwise. In that context, the stories of Chris Burkhalter and dozens of others should sound a clear warning both to fans and to Houston's elected officials.