X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
NAME AND TITLE: Michael S. Goldberg, general counsel, Rocket Ball Ltd. d/b/a the Houston Rockets and the Houston Comets. AGE: 45 SHANGHAI’S ROCKET: Yao Ming is not the Michael Jordan of Chinese basketball, according to the Houston Rockets’ general counsel. “He’s Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth all rolled into one,” said Michael S. Goldberg, who signed the 7-foot-5-inch, 22-year-old for the Rockets, a National Basketball Association franchise, this season. As part of senior management, Goldberg had been aware of Yao since he was a 15-year-old in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA)’s junior league. By age 20, Yao was showing off his game at the 2000 Olympics and was becoming the franchise player of the CBA’s Shanghai Sharks. The Sharks barred their star from entering the NBA player draft in 2001, but relented this year after he delivered on his promise to win the CBA title. The Rockets got a shot at signing Yao by winning the first draft pick in a May 19 lottery. Within minutes, Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander called Goldberg to tell the lawyer to ensure Yao’s availability for the June 26 draft. This was a tall order, requiring three trips to China and three separate negotiations — with Yao, the Sharks and the CBA. The easiest was the four-year, $18 million deal with Yao’s atypical agents — Yao’s cousin, Erik Zhang, a University of Chicago business school student, and John Huizinga, the business school’s deputy dean. Goldberg then had to persuade the Sharks to release Yao from his contract, and convince the government-run CBA to let go of China’s most popular athlete. On June 9, Goldberg flew to Shanghai with Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich and general manager Carroll Dawson. The Sharks initially presented a wish list of demands, including financial assistance for a new arena and the rotation of Rockets coaches and players through Shanghai. Goldberg gently demurred, explaining that NBA rules prohibited giving foreign teams more than $350,000 in player deals. The Sharks ultimately agreed to accept this sum, and a general commitment from the Rockets to assist in commercial and sports-development matters. The CBA was a tougher sell, with negotiations foundering over the league’s insistence that Yao return on demand to play for the Chinese national team. “They started with the premise that they were lending Yao Ming, and whenever they needed him, he would come back,” said Goldberg. “I started with the premise that you’re either releasing him or you’re not, and that we have to have him for our season.” Goldberg assured the CBA that the Rockets wanted to become China’s favorite NBA team, and thus fervently hoped that Yao would be a star athlete for both China and Houston. “I told them that my fondest hope is to see Yao Ming lead the Chinese Olympic team in a gold medal game against the U.S.,” Goldberg said. “Then the smiles broke out on their side.” In mid-October, Goldberg finalized an agreement allowing Yao to play for China in the Asian Games, world championships and Olympics — all of which are in the NBA off-season. THE FRANCHISE: Rocket Ball Ltd. owns the Houston Rockets and its sister team, the Houston Comets of the Women’s National Basketball Association. The Rockets brought home Houston’s first professional sports championship by winning the NBA title in 1994, repeating that feat in 1995. The Comets won four straight WNBA championships in 1997 through 2000. LEGAL CENTER: The Rockets’ legal go-to man has an unusual dual role. Aside from being the GC for the Rockets and Comets, he is also a senior partner at 677-lawyer Baker Botts, where he works out of the firm’s 37th-floor offices at One Shell Plaza, a bounce pass away from Houston’s city hall and the federal courthouse. On the wall is a prized photo of Goldberg and his family waving from a fire truck — along with Rockets owner Alexander, coach Tomjanovich and retired center Hakeem Olajuwon — at the head of the downtown parade celebrating the Rockets’ 1994 NBA title. Goldberg’s more serious duties for the Rockets include litigation oversight, negotiations on all major contracts, including player contracts, trade deals and sponsorships. The franchise has one in-house lawyer, Stacy Humphries, for day-to-day legal business, such as liability claims and routine contracts. The Rockets’ legal roster is otherwise packed with Goldberg’s teammates at Baker Botts, who handle the franchise’s corporate, litigation, IP, employment, tax and real estate matters. Goldberg said that the firm bills the Rockets at the “usual hourly rate” for his general counsel activities and services rendered by other Baker Botts partners and associates. He declined to provide hourly rates or annual fees. ARENA DEAL: The Yao Ming negotiations received global press, but Goldberg said his most important deal for the Rockets involved their Houston home. In the mid-1990s, Goldberg started negotiating with Houston and Harris County officials for a new arena to replace the 28-year-old, 16,200-seat Compaq Center. Mindful that any taxpayer-supported arena deal would have to be approved in a countywide voter referendum, Goldberg never stated publicly that the team might have to leave Houston if it didn’t get a new arena. Such threats by the NFL’s Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) had derailed stadium talks. “The Oilers threatened to leave, and the city just said, ‘get out of here,’” he recalled. According to Goldberg, though, political tact did not change the team’s position that the Rockets could not remain in Houston without the revenue from more seats and luxury boxes. Thus, he pursued a “dual track” of continuing negotiations with local officials while holding confidential discussions with out-of-state politicians interested in luring the franchise to roomier quarters. Houston voters rejected an arena deal in November 1999. A year later, voters approved a slightly revised financing arrangement, without controversial ticket surcharges and parking fees. Under this plan, the city and county have agreed to contribute the land, build a new parking garage and build the $203 million arena. The Rockets signed a 30-year lease, with $8.5 million annual rent payments. Goldberg is now overseeing construction contracts, and expects to attend the Rockets’ 2003-04 season opener in the new 18,500-seat arena. DOUBLE TEAMING: In addition to his responsibilities for the Rockets, Goldberg runs an active litigation and international commercial practice at Baker Botts, serving as national trial counsel for Ford Motor Co., heading the firm’s international arbitration practice and leading the firm’s forays into China and Brazil. In April, Goldberg won a directed verdict in a private False Claims Act lawsuit against a Boeing Co. subsidiary working on the NASA space shuttle program, persuading a federal judge in Texas that the qui tam plaintiff had not proven that the Boeing subsidiary passed on inflated subcontractor charges. He is currently defending Dow Chemical Co. and Golden Corral Corp. in so-called “dead peasant” lawsuits, filed by the families of deceased former employees, seeking to recover the proceeds of corporate life insurance policies that the companies had taken out on their loved ones. FAST BREAK TO THE TOP: Goldberg graduated from Rice University in 1979 and received his J.D. in 1982 from the University of Texas School of Law in 1982. He went straight to Baker Botts, becoming partner in 1990 and senior partner in 1998. Goldberg has been the Rockets’ general counsel since 1993. HOME TEAM: Goldberg and wife Carol, a former Vinson & Elkins attorney, have three children: Melissa, 13, Matthew, 11, and Jonathan, 9. MOST RECENT BOOK READ: “The Politics of Diplomacy,” by James A. Baker III, former U.S. secretary of state and Goldberg’s law partner at Baker Botts.

Want to continue reading?
Become a Free ALM Digital Reader.

Benefits of a Digital Membership:

  • Free access to 1 article* every 30 days
  • Access to the entire ALM network of websites
  • Unlimited access to the ALM suite of newsletters
  • Build custom alerts on any search topic of your choosing
  • Search by a wide range of topics

*May exclude premium content
Already have an account?

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.