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Last Dec. 2, Daryl Jones, like many other luckless Washington-area basketball fans, watched with envy as more than 20,000 Wizards ticket-holders poured into the MCI Center on its opening night. Jones stood outside the VIP entrance watching all the Beltway muckety-mucks, including Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton, breeze through building security.

Jones pleaded with MCI Center staff to let him through the pearly gates. The Northeast resident wasn’t simply a die-hard roundball fanatic or celebrity stalker, after all. He was a vendor contracted by Abe Pollin’s Washington Sports & Entertainment (WS&E), which operates and manages the arena, to sell trading cards and 8-by-10 NBA glossies at four locations inside the building. But despite his persistence and truckload of merchandise, Jones didn’t get beyond the turnstiles until the end of the first quarter.

“We were locked out,” recalls Jones. “I had 14 employees on the clock….By the time we got in, we only had time to set up one location. We missed out on a lot of business.” Gross revenue for the evening: $181.

When Washington Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics owner Pollin pitched his MCI Center location at Gallery Place to local leaders, he promised to hire home-grown talent. That’s part of the reason why Jones, owner of a small novelty shop called Clubhouse Collectibles in Hyattsville, chased after a contract with Pollin and WS&E. But instead of the economic slam-dunk he hoped for, Jones now plays defense against a corporate behemoth and a mounting debt.

The contract that Jones signed with WS&E on June 25, 1997, gave Clubhouse Collectibles Inc. the exclusive rights to sell trading cards at all basketball and professional wrestling events held at the MCI Center, excluding NCAA tournament play. Jones agreed to pay $180,000 over three years for the rights. And he was confident enough about the deal to borrow $40,000 from his mother to make the payments.

Clubhouse Collectibles had recorded steady sales when the Wizards opened their season at the US Airways Arena in Landover. But when the team moved to its snazzy downtown digs, Jones says, WS&E began a stealth campaign to box him out. For the first half-dozen Wizards games played at the MCI Center, Jones says he encountered delays at the entrance gate that prevented him from setting up his displays before fans entered the building. Jones adds that WS&E failed to notify him about all the sporting events at MCI Center to which he had vending privileges. And on Dec. 28, 1997, MCI Center officials denied him entry to a WCW wrestling match featuring Hulk Hogan, an event clearly defined as fair game in his contract.

Even after WS&E management apologized for the bumbling and agreed to partially compensate him for his losses, Jones stumbled upon a more vexing problem: Clubhouse Collectibles was not the sole source of trading cards in the MCI Center. EPM Marketing, which runs novelty stands in the arena, as well as the National Sports Gallery, MCI’s interactive sports museum, also sold competing merchandise. “It’s a clear violation of the contract,” says Robert Jenkins, Jones’ attorney.

WS&E disagrees. It claims that Jones had knowledge that other vendors would sell trading cards as well. “When I asked about EPM selling trading cards, they said, ‘Their contract supersedes yours,’” explains Jones. “I can’t compete with these other guys….I wouldn’t have paid this dollar amount if it didn’t have the exclusivity clause.”

WS&E insists that it was Jones, in fact, who failed to hold up his end of the bargain. “It is our contention that Clubhouse Collectibles Inc. is in serious breach of its contract with Washington Sports & Entertainment,” says Matt Williams, a spokesperson for WS&E. By Williams’ account, Jones went beyond contractual commitments by selling Beanie Babies and photos of Wizards players, categories of merchandise controlled by other MCI vendors. And WS&E denies Jones’ charges that it locked him out of the MCI Center’s inauguration. Jones and his employees arrived late at the check-in, says WS&E, and therefore had to wait for Secret Service clearance to enter the building, because of the president’s presence.

But WS&E officials don’t dispute that Clubhouse Collectibles is now permanently locked out of the arena until Jones pays up on his contract. Jones refuses to give Pollin & Co. a cent until WS&E amends his contract to reflect the competitive trading-card market. MCI Center officials say that Jones owes the arena $22,100 in back payments.

Jones’ lawyer says he will decide within 30 days whether to take WS&E to court for breach of contract. “They are daring him to do anything about it,” says Jenkins. CP