When Brian Grant said ``no'' to a $93 million deal with Cleveland and ``maybe'' to a $2.25 million offer from Miami, he became the latest poster boy for fiscal sanity in sports.

The next place you expect his smiling face to turn up is inside the wallet of every NBA front-office type, behind pictures of the wife and kids.

Not so fast.

``If it comes to pass, great,'' Atlanta Hawks president Stan Kasten said Tuesday. ``And if it's about more than money, even better. But those will always be the exception. Always.

``People on both sides of every deal act out of self-interest. And that's not a criticism,'' he added. ``That's human nature.''

Kasten's team isn't involved in the negotiations for Grant, but right about now, he probably wishes it were.

The Portland Trail Blazers' power forward is the most talented member of this season's free-agent class still without a contract. And at $2.25 million a year versus $93 million for seven years, Grant would be the best bargain in America without a blue light whirling overhead.

Stranger still, he isn't the only one. In recent days, a handful of other high-priced ballplayers have signed deals at deep discount, or announced their intentions to do so.

Over the weekend, Kendall Gill said he turned down a one-year, $7 million deal from his current team, New Jersey, and hopes to sign with the NBA champion Lakers for the same $2.25 million salary-cap exception salary the Heat reportedly discussed with Grant.

Gill said he's already pictured himself wearing the ``purple and gold ... playing in the best system in the league ... for the best coach in the league.''

Then came Tuesday, one of those days that sends agents clambering out onto window ledges.

First, Orlando center John Amaechi turned down a six-year, $17 million offer from the Lakers to stay with the Magic. He got one year at $600,000. Then Chauncey Billups moved from Orlando to Minnesota for that same $2.25 million exception. Sitting alongside Billups at the news conference in Minneapolis was Joe Smith.

When Smith announced he would stay with the Timberwolves for $2.35 million, Billups was so moved, he said, ``There's a lot of teams out there that could really use him, and there's a lot of teams that could really pay him. There's a reason why he's staying loyal to these guys.''

And anybody who knows what that reason is should call their agents immediately. What started out as a free-agent feeding frenzy suddenly looks like a light afternoon brunch.

The league bars teams from sending private jets to court free agents, so the Magic bought the entire first-class section of a commercial airliner to fly Grant Hill down from Detroit and Tim Duncan over from San Antonio.

It worked for Hill; he wound up signing with the Magic for top dollar. Duncan, though, decided to stay with the Spurs. Maybe it was a loyalty thing. But with sidekick David Robinson still in the fold, Duncan won't have to defend Shaquille O'Neal for the next three years. And maybe it was just coincidence that the Spurs, as his current employer, could sign Duncan for three more years for more money than another club could have paid him.

Chicago had as much cap room and money to throw around, but couldn't get Hill or Duncan to stop by for a visit. Tracy McGrady and Eddie Jones did, but stayed only long enough to leverage better deals from Orlando and Miami, respectively. Perhaps to prove they were willing to overpay, too, the Bulls squandered $9 million per on Ron Mercer.

Still, the story with the most twists and turns has been Grant's.

Teammate Rasheed Wallace's emergence last season as a premier power forward cost Grant his starting spot and considerable playing time, but it barely dented his market value.

Once the season ended, Grant opted out of his contract, which called for $10 million a season for four seasons. Then he nixed a sign-and-trade deal with Cleveland that would have shipped Shawn Kemp to Portland and put $13 million a season for seven seasons in his own pocket. Then Portland made Grant another offer _ $70 million for six years.

But he told agent Mark Bartelstein to keep looking and it could still pay off.

Grant's name surfaced in a report Wednesday about a three-way trade that still might land him in Miami with full pay. The Oregonian newspaper said Portland, Miami and Cleveland are trying to finalize one of several scenarios that had the Cavaliers sending Kemp to the Trail Blazers, and the Heat sending a combination of players back to Cleveland.

If the deal does come to pass, Grant could reap close to $90 million over seven years.

That way, Grant would get the money, the playing time that wasn't available in Portland and the chance to win that Cleveland couldn't provide. Miami has a hole at power forward and a real shot at contending in the East.

``Ideally, you want the best of everything _ playing time, championships and money. The nice thing about Brian's situation,'' Bartelstein said, ``is he can afford to choose.''


Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org