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Playing the comedy circuit

Minsky would have loved the NBA Central, that traveling road show starring four fanciful teams and the last of the laughing coaches

Late in the opening period of their game last week at Cleveland, the Atlanta Hawks ran the trusty old Laurel and Hardy play to perfection. At midcourt, playing Stan (seen for the first time anywhere without his hat), was devil-may-care Don May. Looming nearby was large, lovable Ollie—in the guise of large, lovable Walt Bellamy. Suddenly, little Cavalier Guard Bobby Washington bolted between them in reckless pursuit of a pass. As the ball fell, Washington snatched it and continued unmolested downcourt. In the finest tradition of the old screen, Stan and Ollie boldly lurched into the space left by Washington's hasty departure—and crashed head on. As Ollie reeled one way, Stan flew off in the other, landing in a supine position, from which he had a fine view of Washington scoring an easy layup.

Pure slapstick, indeed, but merely routine since the season began on that great vaudeville circuit called the NBA Central Division. Like the reclining Don May, the Central teams have all flopped on their backsides and left the rest of the league laughing.

The biggest yuk came two weeks into the schedule when the Cavaliers, previously celebrated as the Five Stooges, actually occupied first place for three heady days. The Cavs staggered all the way to the top on the basis of their inept playing during a 111-93 loss to Philadelphia. The defeat gave them a 2-5 record and a .286 percentage—.036 points above then second-place Cincinnati. And it proved that in the Central Division it barely makes a difference if a team loses. After all, the other clubs have shown they can find ways to play worse and lose more.

One of the division's general managers has even described the race as a Polish beauty contest, a bad rap which is apt to evoke righteous protests from those Baltic blondes. One might even turn some of that worn ethnic humor into Central Division jokes. Question: Tell me, why can't a Cincinnati Royal commit suicide? Answer: Because you can't kill yourself jumping out a basement window.

All four of the division's coaches are about ready to jump, but from a higher station. Each has a star player—or players—out of action. Cincy's talented rookie forward, Ken Durrett, went through knee surgery two weeks ago, and Atlanta's Pete Maravich has been sidelined with mononucleosis since the season opened. Pistol Pete's weight fell from 205 to 179 pounds during his illness, and he has been slow to regain it. After reaching 189 last week he was allowed to resume half-court workouts, but is not scheduled to appear in a game before Nov. 17.

The Hawks, preseason favorites in the division, lost their first four games before finally showing signs of adjusting to Maravich's absence. They won three of their five most recent games and tied with Baltimore for first place with an astronomical .333 percentage.

Austin Carr was supposed to be the hottest thing to hit Cleveland since the oily Cuyahoga River—believed to be the only body of U.S. water listed as a fire hazard. Instead, the rookie guard has been busy breaking metatarsal bones; he broke the one in his left foot twice as a Notre Dame sophomore and has fractured the right metatarsal twice since signing with the Cavaliers last spring. He too worked out last week, but is not likely to make his pro debut until late this month.

Carr's fractures were merely two more unfortunate breaks for the Cleveland franchise, which has been on a bad trip ever since joining the NBA a year ago. Last season was a voyage to oblivion; the team lost its first 15 games and finished with a 15-67 record. Its only award went to Coach Bill Fitch, the NBA's most valuable stand-up comic. Fitch has tried to subdue his wit this year, but now that everybody seems to be after the Cavs—including the transportation industry—he finds it hard to keep a straight face.

"We've even had engines conk out on planes," Fitch says. "We were flying in a two-engine job a week or so ago and my assistant tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'I hate to say this, but the one on my side's not working.' They got out the fire trucks and everything at the airport, but we made it in. It gives you a great feeling when the guy driving the ambulance snaps his fingers and complains, 'Darn, we missed another one.' "

A few days later, after another loss to the 76ers ended Cleveland's brief stay in first place, word filtered back to the dressing room at Philadelphia's Spectrum that the Cavalier bus would not start. Fitch went out to take a look and found the driver emptying a beer bottle into what appeared to be the gas tank. "That's the first one I've ever seen that runs on Budweiser," Fitch said. It turned out that the driver was attempting to fill the empty cooling system with water from a seven-ounce Falstaff bottle. It took a long, long time. Then, after the job was completed, the vehicle still would not start. There was a long wait, another bus arrived, the team piled on and the transmission froze. Standing in a fine cold mist watching for long overdue cabs to arrive, Fitch's frustrations finally took hold. "This bus won't start, that bus won't start. When the hell is it gonna end? When?" he asked.

Well, at least Fitch knows he is not alone. Gene Shue coached the Bullets into the NBA finals last year, but now that seems like a long time ago. "I saw Gene this morning," reported Fitch. "He looks like I did last year. He's got that same glassy stare, and a little old lady was helping him across the airport waiting room." Still, Shue can walk under his own power, which is more than can be said for some of the Bullets. Wes Unseld is playing, but clearly hobbled by the aftereffects of a knee operation. Gus Johnson has yet to suit up, slowly recovering from surgery on both knees during the off season. Ex-Bullet (now 76er) Fred Carter was asked last week when he thought Gus would be ready to play again. "Ready to play what?" he asked. "The harp?"

Still, Johnson may be back in uniform sometime this month; Earl Monroe, on the other hand, has played his last game for Baltimore. The Pearl has long been openly disenchanted with both the city and the Bullet management, and was conspicuously absent in several preseason games. To protect themselves, the Bullets traded Carter and Kevin Loughery to Philadelphia for All-Star Guard Archie Clark. Individualists who both need control of the ball to be effective, Clark and Monroe would have been an odd couple in the same backcourt. This was one problem the Bullets never had to solve. Just hours before the players were supposed to make their debut together, their lawyers called Baltimore Vice-President Jerry Sachs and announced their clients would not play that night. Clark claims it was not a joint power move; Sachs simply calls it "a fantastic coincidence."

Clark, who apparently wants his present $125,000-a-year contract extended, capitulated after missing two games. He fired his lawyer and issued a public apology to Bullet fans at the insistence of the Baltimore management. Meanwhile, Monroe has been seen watching basketball games in New York and Philadelphia and walking his dog, Magic, in the streets of Baltimore. The Bullets say they are attempting to trade him. So far, there are no takers. It is likely that Monroe has stipulated that he will shift only to the league's bigger cities, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. And Baltimore, according to general managers of other teams, probably overestimates the value of its star, whose shaky knees, $100,000 salary and recent recalcitrance make him unattractive to prospective bidders.

"They can't give Earl away," says Fitch, who also doubles as Cleveland's director of player personnel. "If they asked me to come up with a ball boy for Monroe, I'd say, 'Hell, no!' " Since Austin Carr is the only Cavalier that Baltimore is rumored to want, that leaves a wide negotiating gap. Similar assessments of Monroe's low trade value have been expressed in other NBA cities, and a prompt deal for The Pearl seems unlikely if the Bullets stick to their guns. Baltimore claims it will not throw him away for second-line players as Cincinnati did Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson two seasons ago.

Shue claims Monroe's departure has not affected Bullet morale—but the team has suffered four of its six losses by 20 points or more. There also has been open disagreement in the locker room over The Pearl's case. Conservative Jack Marin has openly defended management, urging the front office to be tougher than it has been on Monroe. "I don't ever know when there has been a case of a player not siding with another player in a situation like this," Marin says. "The club ought to tell him to get a job somewhere—sweeping streets or something. Management will only hurt itself in this predicament by patronizing him. If management doesn't take a firm position to protect me and the rest of the players on the team, then it's not showing any loyalty."

Most of Monroe's other teammates have supported him, however. "What if Earl was playing in New York?" one asked. "Do you realize how much money he'd be making? A lot. I don't mean his salary; I'm speaking of endorsements." Ironically, Sachs claims he received an offer for Monroe to do a commercial on the morning he jumped the team.

With the Bullets in obvious turmoil and Cincinnati off to a slow start even by Central Division standards, Atlanta came to battle for first place in Cleveland, where 3,442 fans thought it a grand enough event to bother showing up. The Cavaliers—surprisingly the division's most consistent team with two of their losses coming in overtime—fell 12 points behind in the early minutes. But the Laurel and Hardy play set off a Cleveland rally that occurred with an unlikely second unit including Washington, Steve Patterson, John Warren and Luther Rackley on the floor. After that, there were several Marx Brothers, a few Abbott and Costellos and a Homer and Jethro or two mixed in with the pick and rolls and fast breaks.

It remained for the timekeeper to pull off the final joke, a dirty one for his Cleveland employers. The Cavaliers lost 98-97 when four points were scored in the last second. Two of them came on Dave Sorenson's tip-in, which apparently returned Cleveland to first place. The final two scored on a desperate, swishing, 35-foot jump shot by May. "I want that timer at all my games," Hawk Coach Richie Guerin said afterward. He knows that in the Central Division the teams need all the help they can get.


POINTING THE RIGHT WAY, while the game goes the wrong way, Fitch shows frustration.