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Slow weekend for news. Seems like lots of columnists mailed it in this weekend (so heck I did too!). Good articles on small/mid market teams, Tony Massenburg, and great stuff out of Utah. Up, up and away...
Peter May: Wolves are at the door
On a recent team flight, Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett had food catered. He passed it around, making sure everyone had something before he did. And you wonder why he's such a valued teammate? "Everyone sees him on the court," says teammate Mark Madsen. "But he's every bit the class act off the court as well. He cares so much about all the guys, from one to 14. The sense I get is that all he wants to do is win. I don't think he cares about any individual accolades."
The Celtics will see Garnett tonight for the second and last time this season. Garnett is the runaway leader for Most Valuable Player, leading the Timberwolves to the top of the tough Midwest Division. As of last night, Garnett was leading the league in rebounding, and was among the top five scorers and the top 10 in blocks and minutes. You could almost make a case that he is having one of those Michael/Magic/Larry years.
"I think it's a lot more like Larry or Magic," said Garnett's boss, Kevin McHale. "Michael was more of a scorer. Kevin scores, but he's a much better basketball player than just a scorer. You look at this guy and he can dominate a game in more than one way. He can dominate at the defensive end. He can dominate on the glass. He can dominate at the offensive end."
Madsen recalled Garnett walking around the locker room after a close loss to the Spurs and talking to each player about what he needed to do to improve and what he did well that night.
"When I played against Kevin, I saw him as an unbelievable competitor," Madsen said. "And also someone with a huge heart, a lot of intensity, just fierce. We had some great battles. I'd read and heard how great of a guy he was and how everyone respected him and how he carried himself. And it's all true."
One scenario getting some legs around the league has Jim O'Brien surfacing in Portland when the Blazers allow Mo Cheeks to leave (although he just signed an extension last fall) for Philadelphia. O'Brien, a Philly guy, would be working for general manager John Nash, a Philly guy, and possibly with assistant Jim Lynam, also a Philly guy. The thinking behind this scenario is that Cheeks would rather be in Philadelphia (and that he gets along with Iverson) than stay in Portland. The other scenario involving O'Brien has him going to Orlando, where the GM is another Philly guy, John Gabriel. O'Brien and lieutenant Dick Harter would have their work cut out to turn that team into even a quasi-defensive unit. But having a free agent center such as Mark Blount might help things along, don't you think? Blount smiled when presented with that possibility.
Bulls operations chief John Paxson didn't reveal whom he will draft this summer, but he stopped just short of saying whom he won't pick.
Paxson all but stated Friday he won't draft someone directly out of high school, and three of the top four prospects are prep seniors. The Bulls (18-43) own the second-worst record in the league, so Paxson will have plenty of prep talent to consider. If Paxson lands the top pick, Connecticut's Emeka Okafor is a lock.
"There is talent and potential in all of those [prep] kids,'' Paxson said. "But for franchises trying to get better in a hurry, those are risky propositions.''
"It's scary,'' Paxson said. "The guys we're counting on are so young -- I can't say never -- but it would be tough to throw somebody [right of high school] in the mix.''
David Moore: Young refs may not call it as they see it
The referees are no longer the topic du jour. But the younger officials in this league now operate with the conviction that it's better to ignore a tough call at the end of a close game rather than make the call and be flogged in public.
This isn't a conspiracy. It's not retribution. What we're talking about is human nature and preservation.
"An official has it in his contract that he can be fired at any time for any reason," said Mike Mathis, a retired official who worked in the NBA for 26 years and served as the union's president. "Fired at any time for any reason. How do you think Michael Henderson goes about his job now with that in his contract?
"Do the players have it written in their contracts that they can be fired if they make a mistake? Does the guy living next door to you go to work knowing that with one mistake he can be out of a job?"
The league office walks a fine line between holding officials accountable and creating a climate that influences how the game is called.
If the wrong call is made at the end of a close game, the official has altered the outcome. They have become a target.
Not making a call, even if it should have been made, arguably leaves the outcome in the hands of the players. You can still blame the official. But the league office and public opinion can't pin the loss on him or her.
One of the league's All-Stars was having a conversation with a referee during a game last week. The official told him that the younger refs – Henderson is in his third season – were afraid to make calls at the end of a close game after what happened to Henderson. He told the player that many of them have expressed the belief that it's "better to swallow their whistles."
Bob Wojnowski: Pistons owner is patient and aggressive
Every now and then, Davidson reminds us why he succeeds. He doesn’t always make the right decisions, and he has been criticized for several.
But he makes tough decisions, chooses management people carefully and supports them. And in case you’re wondering, he has no regrets about the firing of Rick Carlisle, who led the Pistons to back-to-back 50-victory seasons.
Maybe Carlisle didn’t trust young players enough, although Brown seems to follow a similar pattern. Maybe Carlisle’s brusque manner disturbed some in the organization. Both sides have moved on, with Carlisle now leading Indiana, which has the best record in the NBA. But his firing was viewed as ruthless.
Davidson declined to waste much time discussing it.
Was it a tough decision to remove Carlisle?
“It wasn’t a tough decision at all,” he said.
So you’re pleased with Brown?
After a pause, he expanded on the topic.
“When you make a change, there has to be an adjustment period,” Davidson said. “We hope we have a shot (at the title) this year or next year. Don’t rule out this year. I’m not putting any pressure on Larry, but he does better in the playoffs than the regular season, traditionally.”
Davidson doesn’t look back often, or for very long. Always, the next game. When the organization’s relationship with Isiah Thomas deteriorated, they moved on. When Hill bolted in 2000, they moved on. When Jerry Stackhouse neared the end of his contract, they moved on, with Dumars smartly trading Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton.
Wilson has worked with Davidson for 26 years, and his influence — and occasional willingness to wield it — cannot be overlooked. Neither can Davidson’s.
“He gives people the ability to succeed, and also the ability to fail,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to have the confidence to let them fail, or they won’t take any chances. What keeps him juiced is, he loves to compete."
The long-standing feud between agent David Falk and Isiah Thomas has been restoked in New York.
The feud goes back to Thomas' playing days. Falk blamed Thomas for the famous All-Star Game freeze-out of Michael Jordan back in the mid-1980s. Thomas blames Falk for him being left off the original Dream Team in 1992.
Falk has reopened the wounds, criticizing Thomas twice in the New York media over the last two weeks, calling him vindictive and immature. Two weeks ago, he blasted Thomas for not keeping him informed about trading his client, Keith Van Horn. Falk, most recently, said Thomas had benched his client, Dikembe Mutombo, partly because of their strained relationship.
"For me to deal effectively with the Knicks, Isiah has to put his personal feelings aside and only worry about business," Falk told the New York Daily News. "Because all he's doing now is showing his immaturity as an executive."
Mutombo, since being placed on the injured list, was benched in favor of Nazr Mohammed. Falk said he thought Thomas was using Mutombo to get at him.
"I question that sometimes because Isiah can be a very vindictive person," he said. "And if that is the case, he's being dumb because he should not allow his dislike for him directly affect the team."
Thomas has refused to get into a verbal match with Falk, even though Falk has threatened to keep his free-agent clients from playing for the Knicks.
"It would have tremendous repercussions," Falk said. "Some people you give them enough rope and they hang themselves. I have a saying, 'The decision that you made set the price that must be paid.'"
Karl Malone wants nothing more than to return to the Lakers' lineup Monday night in Salt Lake City against his former team. He wants nothing more than to begin his playoff push and punish the impertinent Jazz employees who mocked him in January.
However, reality is dictating otherwise and Malone's anticipated return might take another week, or more.
"I'm becoming more realistic about when I can play again," Malone said Friday, a day after his doctor cleared him for unrestricted practice.
Ever since the Jazz staged a skit with a Malone impersonator during a Lakers-Jazz game in January, Malone has targeted the March 8 game to return from his knee injury. He hasn't been coy about his motives.
He now concedes it's unlikely.
"I don't know if the chance of me playing is really that big. I really don't," Malone said. "I think it's more important for me to get back on the court. To be honest with you, as a competitor, when they did what they did (in the skit), I wanted to be out there the next day and I kept that same thing in my gut up until right now.
"For a lot of different reasons, I don't even know if I'm interested in playing in that game," he said. "Not that I'm taking it lightly or nothing like that. I just think that there's more important things for me to do, and that's be 100 percent ready to come back and not 90 percent."
A relationship once akin to father-and-son has disintegrated into an epic family feud.
Karl Malone's reaction to a skit has upset Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.
Jazz owner Larry H. Miller is blasting ex-Jazz star Karl Malone, whose new team — the Los Angeles Lakers — visits his old one Monday night at the Delta Center.
His ire is so strong Miller does not know what will come of plans to raise a Malone statue outside the Salt Lake City arena — and he questions the status of their longstanding business alliance.
"I don't care," Miller said when asked if he wishes Malone, who now does not plan to play Monday because he's recovering from a torn knee ligament, will approach him to mend their fractures. "I don't need Karl in my life. I'm getting along just fine."
The owner's voice broke as he spoke, but Miller shed none of the tears that so frequently flow when he addresses an emotional issue.
Through his agent, Malone, who played his first 18 NBA seasons in Utah, declined comment Saturday.
But agent Dwight Manley did talk.
"Karl's on edge, rightly so, about where (the Jazz) are coming from," he said. "He (Malone) . . . was always very loyal. He never cried he was hurt and never didn't carry his load.
"So it's kind of sad," Manley added, "for somebody like Larry, who has so much, to cry like a child who has their toy taken away from them."
As for the statue, Miller intends to honor retired point guard John Stockton with one.
Malone, he's no longer so sure.
"I will tell you John will be going up in about a year," Miller said. "Karl hasn't bothered to show up to get measured. So if he doesn't care enough to get measured, I don't care enough to pay $250,000 to have a statue made."
With the completion of the draft lottery last May, it appeared fortune had touched more than the Cavaliers' roster.
Not only was LeBron James on the way, but General Manager Jim Paxson was awarded a contract extension seemingly for little more than having four Ping-Pong balls bounce his way.
Since taking over in 1999, Paxson had directed the Cavaliers to a 108-220 freefall. For that, he was promoted.
Now, eight months after being elevated to team president, the logic is coming into view, as is Paxson's worth.
While the Heat has played the same hand since training camp, Cleveland continues to make subtle off-court gains in the race for a final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Already having upgraded with Eric Williams and Jeff McInnis, the Cavaliers last week brought in forward Lee Nailon for an offensive boost.
Having identified a core of James, power forward Carlos Boozer and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Paxson has displayed a deft touch at one of the most difficult tasks in today's salary-cap climate -- building a supporting cast.
The Milwaukee Bucks signed veteran point guard Brevin Knight on Friday and released guard Anthony Goldwire.
The Washington Wizards released Knight, a seventh-year pro from Stanford, this week. He began the season with the Phoenix Suns and was traded to Washington on Nov. 5.
Goldwire signed a 10-day contract with the Bucks last Saturday, a few days after point guard T.J. Ford bruised his spinal cord in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Goldwire didn't play in a game with Milwaukee.
Knight will provide backcourt depth, along with veteran Erick Strickland, while Ford recuperates from his injury. The rookie from Texas is on the injured list and is expected to miss from two to three weeks.
The Washington Wizards claimed former Maryland center Lonny Baxter off waivers yesterday and had him in uniform for last night's game against Toronto at MCI Center.
Baxter, who grew up in Silver Spring and will be with Washington the rest of the season, was reunited with former Terrapins guards Juan Dixon and Steve Blake; the three formed the nucleus of Maryland's 2002 NCAA championship team.
"I'm just very glad that the Wizards picked me up," Baxter said. "It's definitely an honor playing in my home town. I feel very comfortable with two of my teammates from college on this team and I can't wait to get going."
The Raptors had placed him on waivers Sunday to clear a roster spot to sign free agent guard Dion Glover.
By claiming the 6-foot-8 Baxter, the Wizards are responsible for the prorated remainder of his $512,435 salary. Baxter, a forward as a pro, will become a free agent at the end of the season.
"Hey, who's the new kid?" Ridnour asked when Brent Barry stepped onto the practice floor.
It was a welcome sight, as Barry practiced for the first time since suffering a broken bone in his right hand on Jan. 27. Barry ran through basic offensive sets with Ridnour, Ansu Sesay, Richie Frahm and Ronald Murray without being defended.
Barry is hoping to play March 12, when the Sonics start a five-game road trip.
"I'll definitely need some time on the practice court to bang with some guys and get pushed around a bit before I'll be ready to step into a game," Barry said.
"I'm really just excited to get back and start playing again," Barry said. "I hope that it gives our team a boost, but I know for our team personally, just getting out and playing is a good thing."
There might be some friction building between Raptors General Manager Glen Grunwald and Coach Kevin O'Neill. O'Neill was clearly upset that Grunwald waived Lonny Baxter, who was in O'Neill's rotation. When asked why that happened, O'Neill said: "Those are reasonable questions. It became a numbers game and ... I don't (really) have an answer for it." O'Neill wanted someone other than Baxter released. O'Neill, for months, pushed Grunwald to trade for the Warriors' Cliff Robinson. Nothing happened there, either.
This one is for Chauncey Billups. Take solace Chauncey, you aren't the only point guard getting an overdose of a coach's tough love. Tony Parker is getting it twice as bad from Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. "When somebody is getting paid to do a job, they have to do the job more than once a week," Popovich said, complaining of Parker's inconsistency. "If you're a plumber or a doctor or a lawyer or a painter and you did a good job every third time out, your career in that business wouldn't last very long. The sooner Tony faces that, puts it on himself, accepts the responsibility and figures it out, then we will be a good basketball team capable of doing good things." After benching Parker last Monday, Popovich said: "Tony Parker has to participate in his own recovery. Sometimes people just have to figure some things out on their own. ... He has to figure out what he needs to do mental focus-wise to be a more consistent player. He owes that to this basketball team." Do I have to even tell you Popovich is a disciple of Larry Brown? That apple sure didn't fall far from this tree.
You figure if a guy as talented as Ron Mercer is continually traded or waived (as he was last week by San Antonio), something has to be wrong. He's not a bad character, per se, but apparently, he's not a source of joy, either. He simply made no effort to get close to his teammates. "Some people fit in and some people don't," Popovich said. The Pistons had showed slight interest in Mercer, but he apparently will sit out the rest of the season and apply for free agency in July.
Erick Dampier said earlier this week that he will delay his decision on hiring a new agent, possibly until after the season.
Dan Fegan, Lon Babby and the Poston brothers, Kevin and Carl, are among the agents the Warriors' starting center said he has interviewed. Dampier denied a published report that he has settled on Fegan, whose clients include third-year players Jason Richardson and Troy Murphy, both of whom are eligible to negotiate contract extensions with the Warriors during a three-month window beginning Aug. 1.
Asked why he wants to switch agents now, Dampier said: "I think where I'm at in my career, to take me to the next level, I think I'm going to need a different agent.''
The next level?
"Well, I mean, the agents I've talked to, they have a good reputation,'' he said. "They have relationships with general managers. Agents that can get the job done, that's what I'm looking for, someone who has that reputation.
"I'm not necessarily saying (Cook) didn't get the job done. It's nothing personal. It's only business. That's how I have to look at it. It's like anybody else in their business. When they need to make a change, they're going to make changes. I think this is what I have to do.''
It was a week of notable returns in the NBA, some happy and some definitely not. Before his comeback from the knee surgery that sidelined him for 10 months, Chris Webber took a beating out in Sacramento as fans demanded an apology for his eight-game suspension. Three were for lying to a federal grand jury investigating whether he took money from a booster at Michigan. Five were for violating the NBA drug policy.
"I pray I can be forgiven by people," Webber said after getting a standing ovation when he made his debut in a win over the Clippers. "I know God has forgiven me. I think everyone deserves a second chance. ... Sometimes, people have a right to be mad when people make mistakes or do stupid things. But have the facts straight. Don't guesstimate things that I've done."
Webber could have put a stop to all the guessing by specifying what he had done to violate the NBA's drug policy. But to no one's surprise, he elected not to. So his penalty could have been for anything from missing a test to failing one, or for something like missing a meeting.
"I apologize for the mistakes I've made, and I want to make sure the kids coming up watching me don't make the same mistakes," he said. "I know it's up to me to become a better person."
Making his first trip into Portland, another one of the old "Jail Blazers," Bonzi Wells, got booed every time he touched the ball and was the target of many derisive cheers.
"Dang," said Damon Stoudamire, "if I get traded, will it be that bad?"
For the most part, Wells shook off the hostility, scoring 28 in the Grizzlies' win.
"I did some stuff to make people boo," he admitted. "I'm not a saint, definitely. I may have deserved it. Maybe not."
We'll go with the former.
Recent flareup at Suns practice started when Stoudemire and rookie Maciej Lampe went face-to-face and ended with Stoudemire taking an open-handed swipe at Lampe and connecting to the ex-Knick's face. "Amare's crazy," noted one teammate. Lampe, meanwhile, scored points with teammates for not backing down.
barring a completely unexpected turnaround, the 76ers have a seat reserved in Secaucus, N.J., where the NBA draft lottery will be held in late May, for the first time since 1998.
That seems to be fine with some people. One school of thought is that, if the Sixers indeed are going to embark on a rebuilding program after this season, they would be better served going into the lottery.
It might be a plan. Through games of Thursday night, the Sixers stood sixth in the list of teams with the worst record in the NBA. That would give them 64 chances at getting one of the first three picks in the June draft, which computes to a 6.4 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick.
However, the 76ers insist they don't want to go there, not one bit. Team president and general manager Billy King and interim head coach Chris Ford are in lockstep about that, and stay focused on making the playoffs.
"I don't think you ever go into sports and say you want to lose basketball games," King said. "Why be in sports? Play the game to win. That's why you play sports. You don't play it to lose and tank it. Our fans pay too much money for that."
"I've never played that game," Ford said. "I've always played to win and get into the playoffs. As long as you mathematically have a chance, you have to fight for that. I think fans start to play that game and they think the luck of the lottery may help the fortunes of the team. But for the coaches and players, it's about winning and getting into that hunt and hopefully making the playoffs."
A dissenting opinion, sort of, comes from Danny Ainge, executive director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.
No, Ainge doesn't like losing, never did as a player, doesn't now as an executive. But he sees the point of being in the lottery.
"That's a tough question," he said. "I think the playoffs are great for the players, coaches and fans. But I'm not going to lie about it. For the long term, its obviously better for us to get a higher draft pick. That's just the truth.
"You have to understand how much I hate to lose. I'd never do anything that would purposely hurt us on the court. [But] we want to contend for a championship, not just be in the playoffs for a round or two.
"I understand that it's good for your players to get playoff experience. But I'd rather take a hit on that if it means getting us better players so we can get to the post-season and then make a serious run."
Billy King prefaced last night's five-minute pre-game chat by saying, "I don't know what you want to talk to me about. I'm not going to say anything."
And then he proved it.
Speaking to the media about Allen Iverson being fined for the second time by Sixers interim coach Chris Ford, King insisted his silence on the matter meant he fully supports Ford.
"The fact it was addressed and handled by Chris, you shouldn't need me," said King, the team president. "If I wasn't in support of Chris Ford, something would have been said."
Ford fined Iverson for violating team rules by failing to call him when Iverson missed Sunday's win over the Timberwolves and the walkthrough preceding it because of a stomach violation. Iverson wouldn't have played anyway due to a bruised right shoulder.
Ford also fined Iverson and benched him for the first eight minutes of the Feb. 17 game in Denver because Iverson didn't attend practice the day before, which followed the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
"With regards to Allen, it's been addressed," King said. "I'd rather not even go down that road anymore because it's been handled. As an organization, we try to put it behind us."
King said there have been times Iverson and his teammates have been fined, but it didn't become public knowledge.
"Hopefully, after this conversation, you guys won't ask about it anymore," King said. "If down the road Chris has to discipline any player, hopefully you'll go to him, let him say it and take the fact that I back him 100 percent."
The Jazz had collapsed in a run of late turnovers Friday night, so I knew it wasn't the best time to bring up the Coach of the Year award.
Still, I had to ask. I wanted to know if winning the award would mean anything to Jerry Sloan.
"I have no desire to ever be a part of it," he said.
OK. Just asking.
He continued, "I've always felt it's not important, or if so, it should include the whole staff. I don't know how one guy can take credit. The other coaches are as important as I am — more important."
So it's official: Sloan isn't impressed. Give it to Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte or any of the other Hollywood coaches, for all he cares. Sloan doesn't spend enough time thinking about awards to actually hate them. It's just that they're so irrelevant, especially on a night his team overcame a 15-point deficit, only to lose.
That being the case, I'll argue on his behalf. This year, above all others, Sloan should be voted NBA Coach of the Year. Whether he wants it or not. Note to the academy: Vote early, vote often. To say Sloan doesn't deserve to be the league's top coach is to say Paul Simon never deserved a Grammy. There's a lot of talent out there, but how do you not recognize a guy for pulling together this bunch of spare parts?
Are those fair descriptions of the Spurs' Bruce Bowen or the words of opponents frustrated by Bowen's in-your-face, physical defense?
Hard to say.
Bowen, an All-NBA defensive second-team selection for the past three seasons, and Finley exchanged elbows late in the third quarter of San Antonio's 113-100 win over Dallas Friday night. Finley responded moments later by giving Bowen a forearm in the shoulder, earning him a flagrant foul, ejection and possibly a suspension.
"A coward guy made a coward play," Finley said. "He gave me a cheap shot from behind and I retaliated. He can't disrespect my manhood ... I'm going to retaliate every time."
Bowen, who appeared in 42 games with the Sixers in 1999-2000, insisted Finley threw the first elbow. "He hit me," Bowen said. "I hit him back. That's the gist of it."
The Raptors' Vince Carter said he thought Bowen purposely tried to hurt him on Feb. 17. Bowen slid his right foot beneath Carter as Carter was releasing a 3-pointer, and Carter sprained his ankle by landing on the foot. He missed two weeks.
Funny how the careers of former Sixers Tim Thomas, Keith Van Horn, Dikembe Mutombo, Toni Kukoc and Nazr Mohammed keep overlapping.
Thomas and Van Horn have been traded for each other twice - on draft day 1997 and again three weeks ago.
The Sixers used the second pick on Van Horn and packaged him to the Nets for Thomas and others. The Knicks picked up Thomas and Nazr Mohammed for Van Horn on Feb. 15.
The Sixers re-acquired Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch for Mutombo two years ago, then sent Van Horn to the Knicks last summer in a three-team deal that brought Robinson and Marc Jackson.
The Sixers had picked up Mutombo from the Hawks for Kukoc, Mohammed and Theo Ratliff in February 2001. Kukoc went from the Hawks to the Bucks in 2002 for Glenn Robinson, who ended up in Philadelphia, three years after the Sixers swapped Thomas for the Bucks' Tyrone Hill.
Kukoc backed up Thomas for 11/2 years and now comes off the bench behind Van Horn in Milwaukee.
Mohammed's recent trade to New York means he joined Thomas and Mutombo, whom the Nets waived and Knicks then signed, in the Big Apple.
Buck Harvey: At the University of Bruce, school is in session
Classes aren't easy at this school, especially after Bruce Bowen added a pull-up jumper this season. He threw in an early one Saturday night in Phoenix.
But it's what he does on the other end. Bowen sets a defensive tone as a hands-on professor whose hands are on everything. Bowen will hold and elbow and harass, usually with Tim Duncan or Rasho Nesterovic behind him.
That's why many scorers around the league would just as soon drop the course. But they have no choice when Bowen trots out, hating those who wear different colored jerseys.
LeBron James, the youngest kid in school, took it as well as anyone. He scored 32 points to help beat the Spurs last month.
But others often get either angry or frustrated or both. Finley, during a mid-term on Friday, took it to another level.
"I'm a man before I'm a basketball player," Finley explained later. "He can't disrespect my manhood by giving me a cheap shot. I'm going to retaliate every time."
There's the problem. Finley chose pride over the game, preferring to get mad instead of even.
Afterward, Finley sounded as Ray Allen did before, as if talking about Bowen would change the results. Finley said "a coward guy made a coward play."
There are a lot of names for what Bowen did and has done, and Allen has his own. But if asked, someone such as Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman would likely use the term "smart."
Laimbeer and Rodman won championships baiting the same way, and Bowen comes with a similar strategy. Knowing him, he also filed away Finley's pledge to "retaliate every time." If these teams meet in the playoffs, why not take him up on that?
Howard might drive a 1984 Crown Victoria, rather than the Hummer LeBron James steered last year. He may not be on the Sports Illustrated cover this week, like Brooklyn prep point guard Sebastian Telfair. But it is becoming clear that Howard will become the third high school player taken No. 1 in the draft.
So is he more like James - or Kwame Brown?
The book on Howard is that he will not have the immediate impact, or Nike value, of James. His game is not as polished, and he does not carry the fiery competitiveness James holds. But he should be no Brown either, given the raves over his frame, instincts, court vision and high character.
At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, he draws a slew of predictable comparisons, including Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning and a young, healthy Danny Manning.
His character has been likened to David Robinson, another stretch for the Atlanta kid who could wind up with the home team, like James. But his reach is getting closer to the clouds, having grown from 6 feet 2 at the beginning of his freshman year to 6-11.
Basketball has not consumed his life. Raised by a state trooper father and physical education teacher mother, Howard is a B-plus student, takes advanced-placement English, reads to kindergartners, likes Finding Nemo, washes dishes and is "fasting" from rap music.
Even with a three-year, $10 million contract forthcoming, Howard has told reporters that he does not plan to buy anything extravagant for himself.
"I would stick with my old Crown Victoria and just get it cleaned up a bit," Howard told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I want to get my dad a truck because he has one, but it's real old. I wanted to get him something that he can keep. He got me my car."
They announced his name and he jogged to the free-throw line, a man reminded of his personal demons by a cascade of boos.
There were boos and jeers and catcalls, as the fans delivered their opinion of the wreckage Rasheed Wallace had left behind.
But in that seminal moment, in that instant when Wallace returned as a Detroit Piston to the site of so many triumphs and so many disappointments, a remarkable thing happened.
The erstwhile Blazer, the franchise's own personal Prince of Darkness, raised both hands above his head. He raised his arms and he waved his hands and he turned the boos to cheers. And you wondered how the world might have changed if he hadn't waited eight years to do so.
Because through 7 1/2 seasons as a Blazer, through skirmishes with teammates and arguments with referees and more anti-social behavior than can be found in a prison courtyard, Wallace had engendered a lifetime of ill will. He had become the symbol of a franchise out of touch with the populace, and he had become the lightning rod for criticism of the team.
And then he returned and he waved.
He displayed a humanity that had been so lacking during his time in Portland, a humanity that he previously had seemed so afraid to unveil.
And the fans responded.
Not everyone cheered, of course.
Not everyone could ignore the transgressions that had delivered black mark upon black mark on the franchise.
Seattle Times: Let's start with your thoughts. You're back in the game; are you happy?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I'm happy. I'm happy to get the opportunity. I think I can help them.
ST: Has this process taken longer than you would have liked?
ST: Why the long wait?
KAJ: I don't know.
ST: I read somewhere that your goal is to be a NBA head coach. Is that true?
KAJ: We'll see.
ST: How did the deal happen with the Knicks? Do you and Isiah share a close relationship?
KAJ: I started to know Isiah as a player, and we had a pretty good relationship. And I helped him when he was with the Pacers. He had me come in and work with his big men. He saw that I was wanting to get into coaching, and he gave me a shot at it.
ST: So there was no negotiations or anything like that?
KAJ: We just talked about it. It didn't take long. Not everybody is perfect for every team, but we were able to work something out.
ST: What's with Isiah and bringing back the native New Yorkers like yourself, Lenny Wilkens and Stephon Marbury?
KAJ: I think he wants to make it a family deal. Basketball in New York is very — you pass it from generation to generation.
ST: Have the current Knicks recaptured what the old Knicks had?
KAJ: I haven't seen them play enough to know that.
ST: What can you offer the young players today?
KAJ: Most of them don't really understand the dynamics of the big (man). Some of the things that happen in a game. They don't take advantage of certain situations. So this is learning from one generation to the other. Those are the things that need to be taught, and hopefully I'll get a chance to teach that.
ST: How are the players today different from when you played?
KAJ: I think that the game isn't being taught well at the lower levels. They haven't prepared them like they should. When I was in grade school, there were people that could teach the game. That's not the case today.
During games, sitting on the bench in street clothes, Jalen Rose makes a little motion with his hand that's supposed to represent two lips flapping. It's not a play call. It's a plea call.
Rose is pleading for an end to the silence. The hand signal is a visual reminder that Rose is asking — telling — his teammates to notify each other of what they're thinking as they run down the court to play defence.
And then Rose yells at them, and it's part encouragement, part instruction: "Talk," he shouts, his hand still fluttering. "Talk."
"I just think that's something we need. As a team, we've got a lot of quiet guys, personality-wise," Rose said yesterday.
He is clearly not one of them. "Communication is big, obviously, out there on the court.
"That's one thing we don't do very well, is communicate with one another, to watch for a screen, to understand which play has been called, just things of that nature. We have to do a better job of talking on defence and that's what that means."
So what would he like to hear his teammates say?
"Everything, literally. `Pick left. Pick right. Four-up is coming. Post up is coming. Screen and roll is coming. Rebound. Let's get a stop. Let's make a run.' Just talk about something," Rose said. "When you're talking, that means you're generating energy and emotion."
Raja Bell led the Jazz with 21 points and probably an equal number of bruises and floor burns, but the last time anyone saw him Saturday, he was angrily stalking to the team bus, with Greg Ostertag chasing him in stocking feet and full uniform, trying to calm his teammate down.
Bell was ejected for a flagrant foul on Shareef Abdur-Rahim with 4:57 left in the game and the Jazz trailing by 19, a foul that his coach made clear was exactly the same sort of play he would have made.
"That's what you've got to do in that situation . . . just to let him know you're not afraid of him," Jerry Sloan said of Bell's whack across Abdur-Rahim's arms, which set off a stampede of Blazers intent on retaliation. "What precipitated the hard foul, in my opinion, was what happened at the other end of the floor."
What happened there was contact between the two players that knocked Bell to the floor, with no whistle. Bell complained loudly about the play, and when he lost control of the ball to Abdur-Rahim moments later, the Jazz forward responded out of frustration.
His momentum after the foul carried him into a collision with Ruben Patterson, knocking Bell to the sideline, where he lay with arms up as the angry Blazers approached. Patterson ran to Bell's side and stood over him, when Zach Randolph rushed over and knocked Patterson into Bell. No punches were thrown, but Abdur-Rahim and Patterson were assessed technical fouls.
Bell, though, was ejected, and knocked over some metal velvet-rope stands as he left. "He has reason to be angry. . . . You're allowed to foul a guy once in a while," Sloan said.
"I would rather have that than a guy who's going to run and hide. We had some of that tonight."
Carroll has discovered that Ricky Davis responds best to specific defensive tasks. The players saw Friday night against Washington that Marcus Banks can handle the pressures of a tight game in the fourth quarter while manning the point guard position. The benefits of Chucky Atkins's veteran leadership have been apparent on and off the court. And a seven-game losing streak taught the Celtics that no stretch will be bad enough to knock them from playoff contention.
"We started to get all five guys on the same page in crucial moments of the game," said Pierce. "We're starting to step up our defense.
"But it's not only coming from me. It's coming from everybody. Everybody is showing their own form of leadership and taking it upon themselves to step up, knowing what's at stake.
"We've been through a tough stretch and we're still right there. So whenever we go through bad stretches, we know to just stay positive. Despite everything that's going to happen in these next couple weeks, we've just got to play every possession, every game with a sense of urgency. Every game is going to be a playoff-type game for us because that's what we're playing for."
Some teams can talk theoretically about a closing window of opportunity, but for the New Orleans Hornets, that talk is reality.
The Hornets, thought in some corners to be the most talented team in the Eastern Conference, will be going to the West next season as part of expansion that will return the NBA to Charlotte, where the franchise left before last season.
And while the Hornets' 33-29 record has them in the middle of the postseason pack in the East, New Orleans would be scrambling to make the playoffs in the West.
In other words, the time is now for the Hornets to make a championship move.
"That window is closing," said point guard Baron Davis. "Who knows how long we're going to be together, especially when we go to the West and see better ballclubs? We have a golden opportunity this year with the team we have. We've been together for a while and we have experience. Barring injury, we can make a great run in these playoffs and we're going to put ourselves in position throughout the regular season to do that."
Bob Sura got a black eye his first game with the Hawks, when Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis accidentally headbutted him fighting for a rebound. Since joining the team Feb. 19 in a three-trade with the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics, the 6-foot-4 guard also has sprained his right thumb, busted his lip (twice), dislocated his left ring finger, sprained his right ankle and had a short bout with the flu.
"As long as it's minor, I can get through it," Sura said, flashing his severely swollen finger. "With the exception of all of the injuries, I've had a lot of fun. I love to play. I love to go out and compete. I love to lay it on the line. The competition, that's what drives me."
Something has to drive him. Sura was dealt from an Eastern Conference contender to a contender for the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery, but he doesn't consider it a bad move. As a free-agent-to-be, playing time with the Hawks is more valuable than being a bench rider getting a cut of the playoff profits.
"It's been a lot better for me," said Sura, who is averaging 11.8 points, six rebounds and 4.3 assists in six games with the Hawks, who will play the Orlando Magic tonight at 7. "We understand we're going to lose some games, but if you go out there and lay it on the line, play the way you're supposed to, you'll see what happens."
Lacy J. Banks: '03-mendous: Rookies are a class act
While there's growing speculation that Eddy Curry or Tyson Chandler might be traded this summer because building around both of them has been fruitless, Cavaliers coach Paul Silas offered some advice.
"You can't give up on big men,'' Silas said. "Look at my guy [Zydrunas Ilgauskas]. At the beginning of the year, he didn't know our rotations. Now he's picked it up. It takes time. You have to have patience. You get rid of a guy too early, it will come back to haunt you. [Curry and Chandler] need seasoning. They need to learn how to play. It takes a while. You don't have time to teach them all the nuances of the game.''
Warriors guard Avery Johnson, 38, has changed his mind about retiring to go into coaching and plans to play again next season. He is averaging 3.5 points and 1.5 assists.
Guard Nick Van Exel, who plans to exercise an $11.8 million option to play for the Warriors next season, says he still wants to end his career playing for one of the three Texas teams, preferably the Mavericks.
Scouts are buzzing about 19-year-old Pavel Podkolzine, a 7-5, 305-pound Russian center who is playing for Metis Varese in Italy.
He's expected to enter the NBA draft this summer, and insiders say the Cavaliers would love to have him as a backup to Ilgauskas or a replacement if Ilgauskas leaves as a free agent when his contract expires next season. But to some skeptics, Podkolzine looks more like the second coming of Darko Milicic, who was taken by the Pistons with the second pick in the 2003 draft and has barely played for Detroit.
Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge still talk often. Two, three, maybe four times a week they will hook up on the phone. Former teammates on an NBA dynasty in Boston, current NBA general managers with teams, more and more, on different ends of the current NBA spectrum.
"I talk to him a lot," said McHale, the Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations and general manager. "We'll talk about players. He'll say, 'Do you like this guy?' We ask each other what we think."
One thing McHale has not asked his friend is this: What are you thinking?
Ainge took over as GM of the Celtics last May. Since then, he and McHale have been two of the busiest in the business at remaking rosters.
The Wolves? After seasons of relative inactivity, McHale rebuilt his team around star Kevin Garnett in an attempt to get his team past the ground floor of the playoffs. Ainge, meanwhile, has been slashing and burning his way through the Celtics roster for months, moves critics contend amounts to taking a playoff team and running it into the ground.
But wait, McHale says.
"Danny didn't like the team," McHale said this week. "Danny had a vision of what he wanted to do, how he wanted to play. And he just didn't think that was the type of team he wanted. He's gone out there and tried to shape his team a little differently."
Across the league, there tends to be a common reaction to Danny Ainge's grand vision. The standard response: ``What is he thinking?''
But at least one ally - indeed, someone who worked the other side of Ainge's first trade as the Celtics director of basketball operations, and was once an Ainge assistant in Phoenix - endorses the path.
Donnie Nelson, Dallas' director of player personnel and assistant coach under his father Don, recently noted that the Mavericks' road to superiority started with a similar idea. And that process was met with the same high level of cynicism when the father-and-son duo took charge of the franchise prior to the 1997-98 season.
``Patience is just something people don't want to hear,'' said Nelson. ``There's no forgiveness. We went through all of that our first year here.
``(Ainge) is going through exactly the same things that we went through here. We came into Dallas after an eight-year playoff drought and lost.
``But throughout that early process we were afraid to get that dreaded phone call once we went back to our rooms. We were lucky - flat out lucky - to come through of all of this.
``But this is when it comes down to being able to evaluate people. Good evaluation guys are like pieces of gold at a time like this. It's like art appraisal. Certain guys can look at a piece of art and just see that it's something special.''
With that in mind, Nelson recognizes the sense in Ainge's plan.
``I see the blueprint, and I agree with the blueprint,'' he said. ``But when it comes to evaluating players, nobody is batting 1.000.''
Dogged Brown barking
With his team perched for what many believe will be a ferocious postseason run, Larry Brown has used this opportunity to remind his Pistons that there is indeed still time for boot camp.
After trading shouts with the normally quiet Tayshaun Prince during a loss to Utah on Monday - the Detroit coach wants his talented shooter to stand up to the vets and demand the ball more - Brown decided to get back to basics.
``I am going to start treating Tayshaun like a young guy instead of him thinking he's a vet,'' Brown said Tuesday. ``He's going to start coming over on the first bus, and be treated like a rookie now.
``I am going to make it like I used to with all of my teams. The young kids come over and work hard, whether they are starting or not. I think we've taken for granted that he's played a lot, and we don't want to do that. We can't have him just being out there.''
"He told me, 'Coach, there's not a lot of things for me.' I said, 'Wait. There are things for you. You just have to demand the ball and tell me what you want to have us run.' We've got to have somebody give him the ball.
"When you're a perimeter player and we make teams shoot 40 percent, there are opportunities on the break for him. We have to recognize that. That's what I've been trying to tell guys.
"So many times we pass the ball after we don't have our own shot instead of passing the ball early and making somebody else have an opportunity. That impacts Tayshaun.
"We talked, and I got an idea of things he's comfortable doing, and we'll have to do it. I'll have to be the one that sits down and calls the plays, unfortunately, and force-feed it that way."
Brown said he doesn't want Prince just to be on the floor, but to aggressively make gestures for the ball on offense and play good defense. That left Prince scratching his head, because the bulk of the offense runs through guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, who have a shoot-first, pass-second mentality.
Often left alone on the wings, Prince doesn't take nearly enough shots for Brown's satisfaction.
"We had a conversation about how he wants me to be aggressive at the offensive end and use some of the stuff we've been using (in practice) to simulate in game situations," Prince said. "It's definitely easier said than done. . . . I'm in the starting lineup with guys who can put the ball in the basket probably much better than I can. It has been a tough situation for me."
Defensively, the Mavericks have been deplorable, particularly in the early going at San Antonio, when they tried to use a man-to-man defense but were picked apart by the Spurs, who scored 23 of their 38 baskets on layups or dunks.
The way they have played defense this season, it's fair to wonder if last season's respectable defense was an aberration and they have since returned to the norm.
"Our man-to-man defense has been so bad lately that we don't know where to go with it," coach Don Nelson said. "We start the game with the man-to-man, and we're so bad, we have to go to the zone. We have no choice."
That was part of the reason why Nelson suggested the team practice. Last season, he had three or four practices that he left in the hands of Avery Johnson. This year, Finley played the role of player-coach, and he acknowledged the defensive woes.
"It's been disappointing that we let people's offense flow smoothly," Finley said. "When you're playing defense like that, you put a lot of pressure on your offense. You have to pretty much make every shot. And we weren't making any shots, and we weren't stopping anybody. So we had two things going against us."
The Mavericks know their defense has been the reason they have as many losses (22) after 61 games this season as they had at the end of the 82-game regular season last year. They rank in the bottom three in the league in field-goal percentage defense. Giving up layups and dunks is a big reason why.
"It was an awful effort," Nash said of the San Antonio debacle. "We didn't come out with any pride. If we had come out with a sense of urgency, there's no reason why we shouldn't win that game."
Jon Barry was a popular player in Detroit. After consecutive 50-win seasons, he was pretty sure early last summer the Pistons were going to bring him back for a third season.
Let's say Barry got less sure as the summer wore on.
"The feeling was I was coming back. That's what I was told," said the veteran guard, recalling how matters stood when he became a free agent at the end of last season. "But I've been around long enough to know that until you sign on the dotted (line, nothing's official)."
Weeks went by and Barry heard little from Detroit. In early August, he got a one-year, $3 million offer from the Denver Nuggets. His agent, Arn Tellem, gave the Pistons a week to tender their offer, and they responded on the last day.
"(Detroit's president of basketball operations) Joe Dumars knew what we had on the table, and all he offered was a one-year minimum contract ($1.07 million)," Barry said. "I don't really consider that going after me, knowing what we had on the table."
Jonathan Feigen: Dick Vitale's legacy safe after my stand-in
The Rockets are going to have to move my seat at home games. Nobody should be subjected to sitting next to me.
Put a microphone on a guy for half a basketball game and he thinks he's an expert. He turns into the brother-in-law you can't stand to have in your living room when the game starts. He becomes infected with a case of Dickvitaleitis, a condition with apparently no known cure.
"Bad call. Good shot. Get the ball to Yao."
"You have to pass against a zone. What's he thinking? Get the ball to Yao."
This is the joy of Internet chat rooms, barbershops and back fences combined, a world of know-it-all majesty I never appreciated before. To think Jeff Van Gundy gave up a life doing this to coach the Rockets. No wonder he's so grumpy.
"Don't take that shot. Get a timeout. Get the ball to Yao."
Do people really get paid for this?
I didn't, for reasons that viewers know don't need explanation.
With Calvin Murphy delayed on his way to Minneapolis on Friday because of an emergency landing in Atlanta, the Rockets asked me to fill in for a half.
Garnett reaches out and touches raw nerve
The Timberwolves celebrated their thrashing of the Mavericks (who were without Steve Nash) as another sign that they are far more likely to contend for a championship than make a first-round playoff cameo.
The Wolves shot 65 percent from the field in the first half, then rolled to a 121-97 rout. Late in the fourth quarter, Kevin Garnett hopped on the scorers' table, grabbed the phone and pretended to be having a high-level conversation.
"(President) Bush called and said he's sending some reinforcements for Dallas, but I told him it's too late, it's over," Garnett joked.
"I think it's not a message to just Dallas, but whoever watched the game," he said. "We're a hungry team, we're a team that when we're on our p's and q's like we were tonight, you're in trouble."
The Mavericks were not amused by Garnett's stunt or Ervin Johnson's attempts at a rub-it-in 3 at the buzzer. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said the Mavs would "remember."
There's a chance McGrady will shut down season early
Everything seems to point to Orlando's Tracy McGrady becoming a free agent the first chance he gets, after next season.
He remains one of the league's most unstoppable scorers. But his continued back problems are beginning to call into question his future as a franchise player. It could also lead him to shut down this lost season early.
McGrady had 31 points Wednesday in a loss to Milwaukee. But he was in pain throughout the game, sat on the courtside table during timeouts with trainers holding hot packs to his back.
"I don't want to sit out but if it keeps up like this I might just have to shut it down for a while," McGrady, 24, said. "I'll see how it feels, and if this continues I might have to sit down."
The Kings have nine protectable players: Mike Bibby, Christie, Bobby Jackson, Brad Miller, Anthony Peeler, Darius Songaila, Peja Stojakovic, Wallace and Chris Webber. Vlade Divac, Tony Massenburg and Jabari Smith will be unrestricted free agents. Rodney Buford is on a 10-day contract.
Most are easy choices. Bibby, Jackson, Miller, Stojakovic and Webber will stay. Songaila will be a restricted free agent, but it's difficult to imagine the Kings divesting themselves after an encouraging 2003-04. Peeler has an option for next season and wants to stay.
And then there were two.
The Kings aren't looking to dump shooting guard Christie, but he's an intriguing strategic fit for the moment. He'll be 34 in June and have two seasons and $15.85 million remaining on his contract, a bad fit for the youth-minded Bobcats. They might take him to trade him, but Christie would also be a tough fit elsewhere - a defensive-minded player at a position where most teams want scoring and with enough money due that finding a trade partner with available space would be a challenge.
It would be a calculated gamble that Charlotte takes a pass. It could also come after the Kings tell Christie of their thinking, ensuring he wouldn't be offended at being left unprotected and conveying the message that they want him back.
Wallace being exposed is more likely. It's nearing the end of Year 3 in what management knew from the start would be an investment until his skill level came within sight of his athleticism. But Wallace still struggles woefully on defense, even continuing to be lost in scrimmages, as if he has never seen Stojakovic before. Wallace's shooting has improved in practice, but it doesn't translate to games. Unlike almost every other Kings wing, he can play only one position, small forward. Most frustrating to the Kings, while Wallace is a willing worker, he remains unfocused, having to still be told when to put in extra time to improve.
Nazr Mohammed wears No.13 to honor Wilt Chamberlain and, if you can believe it, Glenn Robinson.
"I loved him in college," Mohammed said of his one-time Hawks teammate. "I watched a lot of his games."
The Big Dipper and the Big Dog in the same sentence? That sounds just as foreign as calling Nazr Mohammed a dominating inside presence. But in an unpredictable season for the Knicks, just about anything is possible.
Mohammed couldn't even crack the starting lineup for woeful Atlanta, coming off the bench in 52 of 53 games this season. But since being acquired on Feb. 14, Mohammed already has replaced incumbent Dikembe Mutombo as the Knicks' starting center and he is starting to put up numbers to validate the switch.
In Friday's win against Toronto, Mohammed recorded season highs in points (20) and rebounds (18), including seven of the Knicks' 19 offensive boards. Two nights earlier, the 6-10 Mohammed had 12 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Philadelphia.
"It's not surprising to see him playing that way," Stephon Marbury said. "I don't think he can do 20 and 18 every night, we don't expect him to do that. I hope he could."
Lenny Wilkens finally has finally settled on a regular starting lineup: Marbury, Allan Houston, Tim Thomas, Kurt Thomas and Mohammed. After Don Chaney and then Wilkens experimented with 19 different starting lineups, the Knicks believe they have found the winning combination. Their 20th starting lineup is 2-0.
"It's great to know this is the starting five," Marbury said. "Coach was trying to figure out who was going to play. When Nazr first got here it was tough because we were throwing him into the starting lineup and he didn't know anything."
Before his father died, Nazr Mohammed would speak to him after every game, a phone call detailing the pertinent facts of the evening.
"My father after games used to ask me, `Did you win or lose?' " Mohammed said. "The next question was, `How many did you score?' "
Even a parent would realize that Mohammed's answers from his last two games with the Knicks are an unrealistic aberration. His father, an entrepreneur who emigrated from Ghana in the early 1970's and worked his way from driving a taxi to owning a fleet of taxis, would have known that beginnings must be more humble than this.
Since being installed as the Knicks' starting center for the rest of the season by Lenny Wilkens, the 26-year-old Mohammed has responded with a 12-point, 15-rebound performance against Philadelphia on Wednesday, then a 20-point, 18-rebound effort against Toronto on Friday night, both Knicks victories.
But the reality is that Mohammed's goals have little to do with scoring right now. His points have come from tireless energy on the offensive glass rather than the Knicks going to the playbook and calling his number. On a team that boasts scorers around the perimeter, the 6-foot-10 Mohammed says he is content to do the dirty work, enjoying the opportunity that he has waited for through six seasons and three teams.
"I feel like this is by far the best opportunity I've gotten since I got in the league," Mohammed said. "I got to Philadelphia, there wasn't much opportunity to play. When I got to Atlanta, Theo Ratliff was hurt, but I was always considered his backup. I actually got a chance to come here and be a starter and contribute.
"It's not about starting. It's a great feeling that the coaches have the confidence in me to play a lot. They have confidence that I'm going to do my job and go out there and play hard."
The ocean in which they are adrift grows ever larger, and the boat in which the 76ers paddle grows ever smaller.
Sports run in cycles, and these Sixers have the unmistakable look of a team that's heading for spin-dry.
They had a nice little run, five years in a row in the playoffs, punctuated by that giddy, gritty advance to the Finals against the Lakers. But, alas, it was all too short, and now dry rot has set in.
That ponk-ponk-ponk sound you hear is the irritating bounce of ping-pong balls tumbling about in the NBA draft lottery bin. It summons the Sixers to Secaucus, N.J.
There, in a refrigerated TV studio, at halftime of a playoff game, the Sixers will forlornly take their place alongside the other dozen have-nots and hope to get lucky in the sweepstakes to offer great wads of cash to the latest 15-year-old prodigy.
Those postseason festivities to which you had become accustomed, with all those hot May-day block parties outside the Wachovia Center? Not this year. It will be a silent spring for the Sixers, and presumably a tumultuous summer, capped by the jettisoning of Allen Iverson.
I am among the last to concede that this parting has become necessary. But it has.
He has not reformed and it is obvious he will not, or cannot, or both. Publicly, his teammates continue to present the good-soldier, stiff upper-lip insistence that they are unbothered by the blatant double standard, but privately, some have begun to vent their frustration.
Or, in the words of one insider last week: The poison has started to spread.
"Guys on the other team were asking me if I was all right," Iverson said. "I couldn't understand it."
Sorry, it's too easy for him not to understand. Since entering the league, Iverson has viewed himself as much as an entertainer as a competitor. In his mind, it was never a problem for him to miss practice so long as he gave everyone a show once the next game began. But strip him of his explosiveness, of his capacity to entertain, and the baggage he carries becomes impossible to live with.
As the punishment on his frail frame accumulates, the sort of game he had last night will become more common. His entertainment value will dwindle, and soon enough his singing voice will be gone for good. Soon enough, his disdain for conditioning, his refusal to do what was necessary to withstand the pounding he absorbs, will catch up to him.
His aging, of course, is only half of the trouble. The depth and breadth of Iverson's immaturity have never been more obvious than they have this season. At 28, he ought to have grown up by now, but he is just as willfully ignorant of what it takes to be a respected teammate and a true leader as he was his rookie year. The Sixers' winning seasons with him merely masked how hard he made everything for the franchise.
Already this season, he has publicly questioned his teammates' heart and claimed his greatest disappointment over Randy Ayers' firing was that no one consulted him first. In the last two weeks, he has been fined and benched for thumbing his nose at the interim head coach, and he has done nothing to discourage the belief that he missed the Sixers' previous four games not because he couldn't play, but because he just didn't want to.
Deep in the heart of Texas — They say football is king here, but I'm not buying it.
Bill Parcells may have restored the shine in the Cowboys' star, the colleges consistently produce Top 10 programs, and Friday nights — when the high-school kids take the field — are legendary down in these parts.
Still, the reigning sport of the moment in this land of tumbleweeds and 10-gallon hats is basketball.
And not the college variety, although much props to Bob Knight, who went to Lubbock and resurrected the Texas Tech program, and Rick Barnes, who did the same at Texas.
The state's three NBA teams, which include defending champion San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, are the class of the league. Together they form a venerable triangle which is more imposing than that mythical pyramid hanging over Bermuda.
"It got so bad for some teams, that I think, and now check this, but I think the league restricted Eastern Conference teams from playing all three Texas teams on a road trip," said P.J. Carlesimo, San Antonio assistant coach. "You just don't want to have to go to Houston, then Dallas and come here and finish with us."
Carlesimo is right.
No Eastern Conference squad has danced the Texas three-step, and only a handful of teams, including the Sonics, have twirled the Tex-Mex tango this season.
Matt Steinmetz: Look for Houston, Denver to reach playoffs
Despite great concern by Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik, their teams are on the way to the postseason. Houston and Denver hold down the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference -- and that's not likely to change no matter how dire the two coaches make things out to be.
Houston, in the seventh spot, was 41/2 games ahead of ninth-place Utah after Friday's games. Denver was two games up on the Jazz. Portland and Seattle are also in the mix. But Houston and Denver will likely hold on because none of the teams behind them have enough to make a sustained run.
Unless ... somehow, some way Jerry Sloan and the Jazz can find a way to continue their improbable season. Of the Jazz's 20 remaining games, 10 come against sub-.500 teams. Every other team in the Western Conference playoff picture -- Houston, Denver, Portland and Seattle -- has a tougher remaining schedule.
Of the Rockets' 21 remaining games, 13 come against teams above .500. No wonder coach Jeff Van Gundy said earlier this week "We have 23 left. We'll be an underdog in 17 to 18 of those games. We better play with a sense of urgency, the hunger and determination of an underdog."
The Nuggets, losers of six of seven before Saturday, finish up with 13 of 20 games against teams .500 or better. In their favor is that two of those games are against Utah, a genuine opportunity to put away the Jazz.
Denver seems to be in a free fall right now. The Nuggets lost at home this week to New Jersey, which was playing without Jason Kidd. No team has been more fortunate than the Nuggets in catching teams without their star players.
Denver has lost games this season to several teams playing without key guys: San Antonio (Tim Duncan), Seattle (Ray Allen), the Los Angeles Clippers (Elton Brand), Orlando (Tracy McGrady) and the Lakers (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone).
More troubling was Bzdelik's response when asked about this.
"Teams that play without their key players rise to the occasion," he told the Denver Post.
"We have to expect to win," he said. "We should believe wholeheartedly, we can win anywhere, any time."
That would go back to that team self-esteem thing. But for all their rim-hanging, magazine-cover style, the Rockets have yet to show they can be consistent enough to move into the upper echelon with the likes of the Lakers, Timberwolves and Mavericks.
To Van Gundy, that is among other things a matter of having the confidence in what they do and how they do it to play their way no matter what the other team is doing.
"I don't know," Van Gundy said. "The fourth quarter of the Laker game was tough to take because we played with absolutely no defensive discipline. They're a great team. Yet no team should score 34 points on us in a quarter, shoot 66 percent.
"That's `hang on' instead of expand your lead. Let's face it, everybody on the outside was, `You already beat the Lakers twice, they're coming in mad.' My idea was, `Who cares? just play the game. Don't try to get into the psychology of it. Just play as well as you can.'
"I don't try to get into mind-sets, but I know we didn't get after it as hard or with as much discipline as we need to to win. We're trying to make it (to the playoffs) so to me it's not exactly about who we're playing. We don't control that. But we can control how we play."
Ruben Boumtje Boumtje will likely remain on the injured list and not play a minute for the Cavaliers this season. But coach Paul Silas hasn't given up on the 25-year-old center.
"From day one, coach has worked with me on my shot," said Boumtje Boumtje [pronounced boom-shay boom-shay]. He's stuck with me, and my shot has improved. He shows that he cares about every single person on this team."
That care has meant hundreds of shots after practice for Boumtje Boumtje, who was acquired from Portland along with Jeff McInnis in a trade for Darius Miles. Silas said Boumtje Boumtje, a 7-footer, is a raw talent whose skills have to be refined. That will include plenty of work over the summer, but for now, Silas wants to improve Boumtje Boumtje's shot.
"I figured if I could change Carlos Boozer's shot, I could change his," Silas said. "His shot was horrible. Once a guy changes his shot and becomes competent, he becomes more confident. This guy works and he shoots every day. It's hard to bring him off the court. . . . This kid always works."
Detroit Pistons and former University of Colorado guard Chauncey Billups' best advice to Colorado center David Harrison: Make sure you are mentally ready if you decide to leave school early for the NBA.
After two seasons at Colorado, Billups was the third pick overall in the 1997 draft. Harrison has been projected as anywhere from a late-lottery to late-first round pick if he forgoes his senior season to enter the draft. The 7-foot, 270-pound Harrison said Saturday that he's "not thinking about next year."
"If I can tell him anything, it's different," said Billups, who had 13 assists and two points Saturday night against the Nuggets. "You're leaving college where you worry about basketball and school only. No responsibilities, really. You come to the NBA where you have to be a grown man every night. You have so many responsibilities. You have so many pressures you have to deal with, and you have to be a man. This is just off-the-court stuff, it has nothing to do with on the court, which is another adjustment."
"He's very, very raw," Billups said. "He's athletic, strong and he can dunk. But I don't think he really knows how to totally play yet. But, you can say that for a lot of guys. When I came out of school, I had all the skills, but I didn't understand the NBA game."
"If he's going to be a good player in this league, he's going to have to take that step," Hill said. "We've played 62 games. He has to figure that out by now. If anything is going to hold him back . . ."
Hill has worked closely with Diaw, spending time with him after practice and before games, teaching him where to take spot-up jumpers and how to score in the post.
But most nights, Hill usually watches his work go for naught, as Diaw looks to do everything but score.
"He needs to be more aggressive, but that's been a common theme," Hawks coach Terry Stotts said. "He's got to figure out how to do it consistently."
And Diaw's nonchalant approach to offense has proved to be costly in recent weeks. Since Bob Sura arrived, Diaw remains the starting shooting guard but has watched his minutes reduced as Stotts has relied more on Sura to make decisions on the court.
"I'm not that happy with myself," said Diaw, who is averaging 4.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists this season.
"I know my career could have been different and I could have played overseas. I would have liked somebody to at least respect me enough to try to show me the way," Billups said. "And this guy is coming in here with a lot of pressure.
"He's the No. 2 pick in the draft. You got LeBron and Melo and a lot of expectations. I just wanted to be that guy who took him under my wing, make sure he was at practice early, make sure he stays later and make sure he gets to practice on time. Just everything."
Billups said any criticism of Milicic is unfair. He points out that Anthony, James, Bosh and Wade were drafted by rebuilding teams in desperate need of immediate help while Milicic is playing for a back-to-back Central Division champion team with several talented inside players, including all-star Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Mehmet Okur and Elden Campbell.
"I feel sorry for him because these other guys that got drafted high get an opportunity to play 30 to 35 minutes per game and are playing very well," Billups said. "All are the top one or two players on their team. For (Milicic) to sit and watch that every time, night in and night out, and sit on the bench the whole game, I feel sorry for him.
"I feel like if he's on one of those teams that didn't win games last year he'd go in and start, play 35 minutes and have a good year, too."
Milicic said he has no regrets about being chosen by Detroit. All he hopes for is a chance to play.
To aid his development, he arrives early to practice and stays late. He has been spending a lot of time trying to learn from all-star center Ben Wallace.
"It's really hard for me," said Milicic, who averaged 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds last season for KK Hemofarm in Serbia & Montenegro. "I'm used to playing in Yugoslavia about 30 minutes per game."
"I'm just looking for scrappy," McMillan said. "I want to make sure that when we take the floor that energy is in the game. He can set the tone for me early, and hopefully we can ride that throughout the game. I think we need to have that. We can't wait for that aggressive play, that hustle. Reggie provides that."
Scrappy is the word for a banger who isn't especially big by NBA standards: 6-foot-8, 245 pounds.
Scrappy also is something that doesn't shows up in statistics, which in Evans' case are 2.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game, less than an assist and a block per game.
But the second-year forward from Iowa does dirty work, hustles and sets screens, including one Friday night that buckled Kobe Bryant, sending him to the hospital for an MRI exam.
Evans has averaged a little under 16 minutes per game, and his playing time hasn't jumped considerably as a starter: He has played between 13 and 21 minutes with a high of six points at Dallas and a high of six rebounds at San Antonio.
He remains a role player - although for now, that role begins with the opening tip.
Whether that continues is something Evans says don't matter to him.
"I'm not really worried about opportunities, I just want to win," he said. "That's my main focus: Do whatever it takes to win. It doesn't matter if I'm playing. It doesn't matter if I'm on the bench. I've got one goal in mind: Win are many games as we can before the season is over with."
Carmelo Anthony is not the only reason for the drastic change in Denver. Point guard Andre Miller, acquired in free agency last summer, has also been a key factor in Denver's surge from 17 victories to playoff contention.
Two years ago while averaging nearly 17 points and 11 assists in Cleveland, Miller was regarded as one of the league's top point guards. But he lost that standing after a disappointing season with the Clippers.
He joined Denver with designs of re-establishing himself. Now, he is averaging 15.4 points and team highs of 6.2 assists and 1.7 steals. When nearly half the league's point guards shoot less than 40 percent, Miller is at 46.8 percent, third best at his position.
"It's tough to recover from a year being in L.A. with the Clippers," Miller said. "Individually, I would like to get back to that level, but right now I'm just worried about the team improving and getting into the playoffs."
Miller, who shot an uncharacteristically low 40.6 percent last season, attributed that to the pervasive selfishness on the Clippers.
"I've played better this year just because I'm on an unselfish team," he said. "I can be aggressive, and at the same time we share the ball and play off of each other."
Miller, a native of Los Angeles, said his decline had nothing to do with playing at home. "That wasn't tough," he said. "It's fun being able to play in your hometown. But it's not fun to lose."
The big question for Fat Lever is, how in the world did he get all of those rebounds? Lever, at 6 feet 3 inches and 180 pounds, was a rebounding fiend for four seasons with the Denver Nuggets, averaging nine a game from 1986 to 1990.
"I think it goes back to my upbringing," Lever, who grew up in Arizona, said in a telephone conversation last week. "When I played in high school, we won back-to-back state championships and nobody on our team was taller than 6-4. So every person on the team played every position, from guard to forward to center."
Lever's rebounding ability made him the third-greatest triple-double threat in the N.B.A. behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. During his six seasons with the Denver Nuggets, Lever registered 43 triple-doubles during the regular season and 3 more in the playoffs. All the other players in Nuggets history have combined for only 23 triple-doubles.
Not surprisingly, Lever's favorite contemporary player is Jason Kidd.
"The way he plays reminds me of myself," Lever said. "But he has better size and more quickness."
Lever, 43, is humble that way, and he admits to being surprised by the success he had in the N.B.A. A two-time All-Star, he averaged 19 points and more than 7 assists during his terrific run in Denver.
While fans were enjoying Lever's show, he was fretting about his performance.
"Everyone talks about the glamorous life of a pro athlete, but they fail to realize that it's your job and you really don't enjoy it," said Lever, who retired in 1994 after three subpar seasons in Dallas. "You enjoy the games but not all that comes with it because there's so much pressure on you. You just spend so much time worrying about your performance. If I could do it all over again, I would try to enjoy it more."
Bill Russell wasn't the only former Boston Celtics great who couldn't work any of his coaching magic with the Kings - or in Cousy's case - the Royals before they became the Kings. Cousy, a Hall of Fame guard, joined the 1969-70 Cincinnati Royals as a player for the season's first seven games in an effort to boost the club and intrigue fans. Ticket sales soared 77 percent, but at 41, Cousy was a shell of his former self, and he stepped aside to coach only.
He endured five trying seasons, going 141-209 before resigning in 1973 after a 6-16 start. Still, Cousy was the person who urged the franchise to draft Nate "Tiny" Archibald, and Archibald remains the only player in NBA history to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season, at 34.0 and 11.4, respectively, in 1972-73. "Cousy believed in me when so many doubted if I could play in this league," Archibald said recently before his jersey was retired in the Arco Arena rafters. "I owe Cousy a lot." Cousy went on to broadcast games in Boston, including in 1981, when Archibald won an NBA title with the Celtics. Cousy, 75, is now a consultant with Boston.
Nothing has changed about Mikki Moore's game, he said -- but things will be a lot different anyway.
Moore returned to the Jazz on Friday, one day after signing a contract for the rest of the season. That contract changes his approach to the game, Moore said, and should change the results.
"I'll be more relaxed, more able to focus, because I'm not playing for a job anymore," said the 7-foot forward, who was released by the Jazz three weeks ago when the second of his 10-day contracts expired. "Now I'm playing to get this team to the playoffs, not keep my job."
He will have the job for the final 21 games of the season, which, as a six-year veteran, will pay him more than $200,000 for six weeks of work. While not staring at a 10-day expiration anymore, Moore is still motivated by earning another contract. "My goal is to make the playoffs, get past the first round, and convince [the Jazz] to sign me for next season," he said. "I'd like to get a place here, stay here all summer and get ready to help this team next season, too."
Keith Van Horn denies the reports in some East Coast newspapers that he briefly considered retiring after learning he had been traded to the Milwaukee Bucks last month.
"Yeah, I read that myself," Van Horn said. "That was probably more shocking than the trade."
After the initial shock wore off, however, Van Horn considered the positives.
He liked the way the Bucks played, sharing the basketball and working hard on both ends of the court under first-year coach Terry Porter. He hadn't been a fan favorite in New York and maybe things would be different in a city where people appreciated his blue-collar approach to the game.
"I looked at the Bucks and I knew I was going to a good team and a team I could help win," Van Horn said. "I'm going to a good organization, a good place to live. I think once you get over the initial shock and look at all the positives, you say, 'This is a good move for me.' "
The Bradley Center already has warmed to Van Horn. At a recent game, four young men sitting in the third row stripped off their shirts to reveal the letters H-O-R-N painted on their chests.
"That was hilarious," said Van Horn, who wasn't exactly a fan favorite in New York. "I just laughed. They must have been Packer fans because you see that at Packer games sometimes. I really feel that the people here appreciate me and they're excited to have me."
After the trade, Van Horn called his former coach and mentor, Rick Majerus, who flew to Milwaukee and spent several days helping his one-time star at Utah adjust.
"If anybody knows anything about Milwaukee, it's coach Majerus," Van Horn said. "He was a great resource. He gave me a lot of good ideas, told me about some areas to live and some restaurants to check out. We've had a great relationship and it was nice of him to help me out."
Van Horn hasn't had time to go house-hunting yet. On weekends, when the Bucks are at home, his wife, Amy, and their four children fly in and spend time with him. He has two years left on his contract after this season and is looking forward to putting down some roots.
"Obviously, if things keep going the way they have been, I'd like to stay," he said. "It's been great for me so far."
David Stern's pet slogan - "I love this game" - seems almost laughable now.
Does anyone even like the NBA anymore?
Maybe if you're a stone cold playa with 50 Cent in the headphones and street cred in the back pocket, you're still feeling it, dawg. But purists don't recognize the league. The rest of the country is off watching race cars. For all the cheerful forecasts, the league is starting to feel very much like the NHL.
That is, a niche sport.
"The NFL has always branded the league on its shield. Major League Baseball has always wrapped itself around its franchises," said David Carter, founder of the Sports Business Group. "But in the NBA, the players have always been the face of the game."
Which is a problem, because nobody likes the players these days. They are overpaid, underachieving, self-serving, untutored, uncaring and can't shoot straight unless aiming knives at the coach's back. At least that's the prevailing perception, even though there are plenty of exceptions like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and, um, uh, never mind.
Since last season ended, more than two-thirds of the league's coaches have been fired. It illustrates the power wielded by players with guaranteed contracts, and how easy it is to throw a coach overboard. This phenomenon has torn at all sense of structure, respect and discipline.
This shifting of the NBA has narrowed the audience. It has changed its marketability. It has helped lessen the value of the television contracts.
He's no Dr. Phil or Tony Robbins, but Trail Blazers assistant coach Dan Panaggio provided an essential motivational tool Saturday night to spark the Blazers out of their four-game losing streak.
Panaggio on Saturday teamed with Blazers video coordinator Raman Sposato to splice and merge a videotape of offensive highlights from the Blazers' Feb. 23 win at Miami, which featured a Blazers offense that had crisp passes and fluid movement without the ball.
Then, shortly before the Blazers took the court Saturday, coach Maurice Cheeks showed the videotape in the locker room.
The results were emphatic, as the Blazers' offense -- held to a season-low 68 points Thursday against Detroit -- was revived during a solid 91-70 win over the Utah Jazz in front of 16,216 at the Rose Garden.
Derek Anderson, who had seven assists, said he would give the game ball to the coaching staff.
"They showed us that film, and it worked," Anderson said. "Instead of coming at us with negative stuff, they gave us some positive reinforcement. After the last two games, we knew we stunk, there was no need to beat a dead horse."
Cheeks, who before the game talked about how Panaggio's specialty is getting the team prepared, said Panaggio approached him Saturday morning with the idea.
"Dan talked about how we hadn't passed the ball lately, and that he had the tape of Miami, where we did a lot of draw (the defense in with drives) and kicks (the ball out to a shooter). He wanted to show the tape this morning, but I wanted to wait until right before the game."
"The difference in our offense tonight was like night and day," Cheeks said. "But you think back to how long that Miami game was (six games ago), and we hadn't played like that since then. I was telling Dan that he should have come to me sooner with that idea."
As it hugs the Mississippi River, this mid-South enclave of 1.1 million people envelopes visitors with a calm, yet dynamic blend of old and new.
The familiar scent of barbecue chokes the downtown air, overpowering the slightest hint of smog. Historical icons are as abundant as cracks in the pavement, with colorful, state-of-the-art retail shops sprouting up and altering the backdrop.
The trolley rumbles along creaking, crumbling tracks, preparing to shift onto gleaming new railways.
This is a compact little neighborhood of contrasts, a downtown of grit and glitz and rare treasures.
"The city is changing," said the legendary Jerry West, the Memphis Grizzlies' president who was lured from Los Angeles almost two years ago.
"It still doesn't have enough downtown amenities. We need a first-class hotel. We could use some first-class restaurants. But the new arena is spurring a lot of development, with old buildings turned into condos, things of that nature. People here are pretty enterprising. And all you need are people willing to get together and build something special."
Still. The NBA in Memphis?
Before laughing at the utter absurdity of it all, keep in mind that Sacramento was greeted with similar skepticism two decades ago when Kansas City's NBA franchise relocated to Northern California, and the Kings have been legitimate contenders for three consecutive seasons.
In fact, as one of the league's small-market franchises striving to remain competitive against teams in major cities, the Grizzlies, who relocated three years ago from Vancouver, British Columbia, confront a series of issues common to Sacramento, Charlotte, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Portland and San Antonio - almost all invariably pertaining to revenue streams from television deals and arena sources.
Is sufficient funding derived from the local/regional television package? How lucrative is the arena deal in producing revenue from suites, club seats, concessions, parking and sponsorships? How extensive is the region's corporate base? Is the facility adequate to accommodate the necessary numbers of suites while providing fans with the trendy amenities found in the newer buildings? And if not, is the community willing to contribute public funds toward construction of a new facility either to acquire a team or to secure the presence of an already existing franchise?
Even in San Antonio, where the defending champion Spurs are enjoying sellout crowds in their second season at the SBC Center - and recently were voted the No. 1 professional sports franchise in ESPN the Magazine's annual fan satisfaction poll - survival remains a constant struggle.
"It's always going to be a stretch for the NBA team to be financially successful here, as it is in most small markets," cautioned Spurs vice president Russ Bookbinder. "It's not a slam dunk. You have to penetrate deeper. You've got to scale your buildings to fit your marketplace. You've got to be more responsive to your community. But ultimately it comes down to your ability to connect with the fans and the community leaders."
They booed Lenny Wilkens at the Air Canada Centre last night, the local fans' only payback for the malaise of underachievement that pervaded Raptorland during the hall of fame coach's three-season reign. And Wilkens' only reaction to the collective disdain was a smile, the condescending kind that said: "These hockey-drooling freaks just don't understand my genius."
Ever since he was fired by the Raptors, only to be hired by Isiah Thomas' Knicks back in January, the 66-year-old coach has been explaining away his Hogtown ouster by citing the injury bug and by saying that certain players quit on him during last season's 58-loss debacle. He has publicly criticized Toronto all-star Vince Carter and suggested that even the greatest of coaches would have been powerless to turn around a Raptors squad whose skeleton crew had abandoned ship.
It's hard not to grant that argument some credence, seeing as how the Raptors — losers yet again last night, 109-103 to Wilkens' new squad — continue to display a collective weakness of will. But it's a slippery slope for a coach to tread. If every team lives and dies at the whim of a few players — if the coach is merely a helpless observer as they throw in the towel — why then, exactly, are NBA franchises paying big dollars to these powerless patsies who stride the sidelines?
"This is a players' league right up until they decide to make a coaching change," said O'Neill. "That's how it always goes."
O'Neill said every team in the NBA has a "talent cap" that pretty much determines its ceiling for plausible success. At season's outset O'Neill said he figured the Raptors' cap was "between 38 and 44" wins. He continued: "If you'd asked me when we were 25-25, I'd have thought we could have won 40 or 42 if we'd have stayed healthy."
Now they're oh-so unhealthy and 40 or 42 is all but out of reach. So even though the Knicks trotted out their version of the Lenny Wilkens Brand No-Effort Defence last night, the too-small Raptors lost the game by giving up 19 offensive rebounds for 21 second-chance points.
You can't coach that kind of indifference. And by the second half, O'Neill could be heard courtside muttering, "I'm (freakin') quitting ..."
But with his salary, don't expect a resignation this afternoon. The truth is it doesn't matter what O'Neill does this season, unless his doing cajoles Vince Carter into playing a complete game, which is unlikely.
Carter's apologists chime in about now and say, "How can you diss a guy who had 32 points and nine assists?" You can diss him because, after putting up 16 of those points in the first quarter, he took dumb shots for a 5-for-16 field-goal rate the rest of the way. You can diss him because on a night when the coach was begging anybody and everybody to help out on the boards, Carter had two rebounds. You can diss him because, in an inexplicable moment of third-quarter slackness, Carter unforgivably shied away from a breakaway dunk after he was fouled, the kind of chute-pulling exercise you usually only see in an all-star game.
You can diss him because his man was often the open one knocking down those unhindered jump shots in the game's key moments.
Oh, you can diss him. You just can't coach him or win without him.
Hundreds of teammates and opponents have come and gone, many of them drafted higher and paid significantly more than Tony Massenburg. Several of Massenburg's coaches have left the NBA, too.
Even one of his former teams, the Vancouver Grizzlies, changed towns, only to invite Massenburg back to add to his list of employers after the franchise moved to Memphis.
Ask Massenburg, now 36 and a member of the Sacramento Kings, to talk about his 12-year, 12-team NBA career, and he'll ask you how much time you have to spend dissecting this odyssey.
"It's a long story," he said. "It's a very long story."
Sitting in the lobby of a hotel here one afternoon last month, Massenburg is careful not to sound bitter or to overstate his abilities. But he believes his career might have turned out differently had he not spent those five tumultuous years at the University of Maryland.
In the fall of 1985, Massenburg saw his freshman year end with the death of All-American Len Bias from a cocaine overdose in June 1986. By the time Massenburg's college eligibility was completed, he was the only player to have been coached by Lefty Driesell, Bob Wade and Gary Williams.
"The stigma that was attached to everybody that played with Lenny is something that followed every guy, including myself," Massenburg said. "I'm just the last man standing."
But that extra year at Maryland, the result of Massenburg being declared academically ineligible in the scandal that followed Bias' death, proved beneficial. It helped Massenburg mature, get physically stronger and work on his offensive game.
In a strange way, it also prepared him for his nomadic life in the NBA.