Los Angeles — Years ago at a Boston Celtics press conference, I can remember a reporter asking Red Auerbach, who at that time was still the team's head coach, to give his definition of a superstar. Auerbach replied: ``He's someone who is untouchable, a player you would trade only under the most unusual circumstances.''
Well, this past weekend the Los Angeles Rams dealt 6-ft. 3-in.,220-lb. Eric Dickerson, the best running back in the National Football League, to the Indianapolis Colts. Yes, Dickerson is a superstar. Yes, there were unusual circumstances, for the Rams really had no other sensible choice.
Dickerson didn't seem able to accept the fact that somebody else in his business could get a higher salary.
With Eric, it's an old story. He was never satisfied with his first Rams contract, signed in 1983, and changed agents. Two years later he held out for 46 days over money, and the Rams had to start the season without him. Nevertheless, as a result of that little maneuver, he came out with a salary of $400,000 for 1986.
But wait, there's more. When the Rams granted Eric a three-year extension to his contract this season calling for an estimated $686,000, the team also agreed to a $500,000 signing bonus.
In the Rams' statement to the press, however, front office officials noted that Dickerson, because of ``personal needs,'' was actually allowed to collect that bonus in 1986, a year early.
As far back as the Rams' Aug. 9 exhibition game in London against the Denver Broncos, Dickerson began hinting to the press that he might not run as well this year if he were worried about money. He said he didn't think an unhappy player could be as productive as a happy one. His pay-me-what-I-want-or-trade-me approach came through loud and clear.
The worm of discontent got its final free lunch when Eric suggested that coach John Robinson run the Rams' 47-Gap play himself, the standby that has resulted in so many big gainers for Dickerson, who set the league's single-season record with 2,105 yards in 1984. ``Once he said that, I knew he was gone,'' explained teammate Dennis Harrah.
Robinson, in his press conference announcing Dickerson's departure, told reporters, ``The team as a whole is what is important, and not just one man. This is like a family member who no longer adheres to the way the family behaves. The family is more important than the individual.
``We understand that Dickerson has gained a lot of yards and is a great player. We're not naive about that. But you are not going to get very far as a football team if everybody goes off in a different direction.''
In return for Dickerson, the key figure in a multiple trade that also involved the Buffalo Bills, the Rams will receive:
Indianapolis's first- and second-round 1988 draft choices; a 1989 second-round choice; plus fullback Owen Gill.
Buffalo's 1988 first-round choice; its 1989 first- and second-round choices, plus running back Greg Bell.
While the number of high draft picks is impressive, how well the Rams evaluate the talent available is the key to this deal.
In his first game for the Colts Sunday, Dickerson carried the ball 10 times for 38 yards in Indianapolis's 19-14 victory over the New York Jets. He also caught a pass good for 28 yards.
With the Colts, Eric is playing under Ron Meyer, the same coach he had at Southern Methodist University. That reunion pleases both parties, and may prove to be a good long-term situation. On the other hand, Dickerson's chances for lasting satisfaction with his new contract (an estimated $5.6 million over four years) may be no greater than those for Gidget not changing boyfriends in any of her next 36 episodes.
What Dickerson's departure means to the slumping Rams in terms of their personal Super Bowl timetable cannot be easily calculated.
After coming off successive 10-6 and 11-5 seasons, they were optimistic. Young quarterback Jim Everett was showing steady improvement, the defense is capable of controlling opponents, and with a tuck here and an adjustment there, everything might have fallen right in place.
As it is, the Rams are practically out of contention, with a 1-6 record. The low point came Sunday during a 31-10 loss to San Francisco. The 49ers limited L.A. to just 62 yards rushing, including 52 by Charles White. Elsewhere in the NFL
Possible Super Bowl teams? The National Football League has four at the moment, all with won-lost records of 6-1. They are the San Francisco 49ers, the Washington Redskins, the Chicago Bears, and the San Diego Chargers. Also still very much in the picture are the Seattle Seahawks, who have won the last two post-strike games with an offense that never sleeps.
Former Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson of the Los Angeles Raiders, in his NFL debut against the New England Patriots, gained 37 yards in eight carries. He also caught one pass for six yards. Jackson looked best on his first run, when he went the first 10 yards himself and the last four with Patriots strong safety Roland James clinging to his back.
Explained Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, after he rushed for 42 yards and two touchdowns against the Detroit Lions: ``Running is a big part of my game because it puts extra pressure on the defense, which can't afford to set up too quickly against me. I'm glad I've got that ability, and I'm not afraid of getting hurt.''
When Elway ran 26 yards for the Broncos on a draw play in the third period, he became the 36th quarterback in NFL history to have gained more than 1,000 yards.
Merlin Olsen, a former defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, says that NFL club owners may have killed the players' union by undermining this year's strike. The owners are no longer deducting union dues from player salaries the way they used to. Now the union must collect its own fees, which once proved difficult.