Gliding to Barcelona
Well, let's see. Magic Johnson retired (sort of). Larry Bird missed 30 games, including one on Sunday against the Bulls, because of his back injury. David Robinson had surgery on his left thumb. Michael Jordan was called in to confer with commissioner David Stern about his alleged unsavory associations and gambling debts (page 11). And Charles Barkley has...well, never mind. Yes, it has been an eventful year for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which has yet to go through even a two-lane layup drill.
The funny thing, though, is that at this point there's an excellent chance the original 10 NBA stars who were selected last September will all make it to the gate in Barcelona, barring new injuries. Magic effectively came out of retirement with his performance at the All-Star Game, while Bird has been, at times, as brilliant as ever since his return to the Celtics lineup last month. Robinson should be back by mid-May (it's anybody's guess, though, whether or not his Spurs will still be around); in case he's not, the Cavaliers' Brad Daugherty almost certainly would take his place on the Olympic roster. Jordan's off-the-court difficulties have had no effect on his play, and Barkley will be fine as long as 76er owner Harold Katz and certain of Barkley's teammates aren't around.
And who will be the 11th NBA player to join this select group? (The U.S. Olympic team will probably include 11 players from the NBA and one from the college ranks.) Insiders with knowledge of the selection process say the NBA player will almost certainly be the Trail Blazers' Clyde Drexler. The selection committee was hoping he would have an excellent season so it could in good conscience pick a player from Portland, the site of the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament from June 27 to July 5, and the Glide responded. Anyway, picking a shooting guard to back up Jordan is a necessity.
The announcement of the two roster additions—the final NBA selection and the college player—was originally to be made in mid-April, after the NCAA tournament, but Olympic and Piston coach Chuck Daly insisted it be delayed until the first or second week of May. It's going to be hard enough to drag the Pistons through a likely first-round encounter with Boston, Daly reasoned, without dealing with the probable Olympic exclusion of his three stars, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman.
The most farfetched scenario suggested by various media and league people for the Hakeem Olajuwon-Rockets civil war holds that the All-Star center was actually in cahoots with management to keep the Rockets out of the playoffs and thus eligible for a lottery pick. The evidence does not support such a conclusion, considering the uneasy relationship that has long existed between Olajuwon and his employers, as well as the downright nasty tenor of the recent and as yet unresolved contretemps over an injury to Olajuwon's left hamstring. The Rockets, who essentially accused Olajuwon of faking the injury and using it as a renegotiating ploy, had suspended him on March 23 for three games, which resulted in his losing about $46,000 per game. For his part, Olajuwon had called general manager Steve Patterson, among other things, "stupid" and "unqualified for his job."
This much is certain: If the Rockets fail to qualify for the playoffs—as of last weekend they were 1½ games behind the Lakers for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot—Olajuwon's five-game absence will be considered the major reason.
The Rockets were holding the eighth spot on March 17 when, in the fourth quarter of a game at home against the Clippers, Olajuwon complained of tenderness in his hamstring. He played on, and the Rockets won 100-92. But Olajuwon missed the next five games—despite being cleared to play for the last three by team physician Charles Baker—and the Rockets lost all five, enabling the undermanned but overachieving Lakers to pass them. Olajuwon returned last week for a showdown at The Summit against the Lakers, but even his 20 points, 16 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals could not prevent the Rockets' 107-101 defeat. The Lakers will probably make the playoffs even with Magic Johnson missing the entire season and three other starters (Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Sam Perkins) missing big parts of it. Meanwhile the Rockets are sinking to mediocrity with Olajuwon. That says everything about the differences between the two franchises.
The Olajuwon situation will not go away, even if the Rockets do on April 19, the last day of the regular season. For two weeks the imbroglio was front-page news in Houston, reaching even city hall, with city councilmen John Goodner and Vince Ryan taking the Rockets' side and Bob Lanier—the city's mayor, not the Hall of Fame basketball player—standing foursquare behind Hakeem. "I love Hakeem Olajuwon," Hizzoner told the Houston Chronicle. "He gave me a basketball for my birthday."
Olajuwon is seeking slightly more than that from the Rockets—a reported one-year, $15 million extension (including a $3 million signing bonus) on his existing contract, which runs through the '94-95 season. Olajuwon's middle name should be Renegotiate, so often has he asked that his contract be redone, and the Rockets' management has obviously had enough of it. But Patterson isn't blameless, either; it is a fatal error for any management to declare its franchise player, a proven warrior over the years, a faker, as Patterson essentially has done in the case of Olajuwon's injury.
What's to be done? That's obvious. Like the Rockets, the 76ers have a superstar—Barkley—who doesn't get along with management, has criticized teammates and unquestionably needs a new environment. Furthermore, a deal between the two teams is eminently doable under the constraints of the salary cap: Barkley's salary is $3.2 million and Olajuwon's is $3,169 million. As game-show host Gene Rayburn used to exclaim: "We have a match!" With a talent-rich lottery that could bring the Rockets a center and the Sixers a forward, these teams have the opportunity to do something rare and wonderful—trade a disenchanted superstar and actually get his equal value. Think about it.
A footnote to the Houston controversy: One Western Conference team executive who desires anonymity finds it ironic that the Rockets would complain about Olajuwon's putting business before basketball in the current situation. "This is a team that deliberately tanked games [during the 1983-84 season] so it could draft Olajuwon in the first place," the executive says, repeating an oft-made charge that the Rockets have always denied. Houston went 29-53 that season, then won a coin flip with Portland and chose Olajuwon with the first pick. Of course, Houston could have taken Jordan with the first pick; if it had, the recent course of NBA history would be considerably different.
Actually, for conspiracy theories, the man to talk to in the NBA is Pete Babcock, the vice-president/general manager of the Hawks. Over the years Babcock has become an expert and an occasional lecturer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A closet in Babcock's house in suburban Atlanta is filled with hundreds of slides, autopsy photos, index cards, charts and magazine and newspaper articles relating to the assassination. And his bookcases are filled with more than 50 tomes on the subject, as well as the 26 volumes of the Warren Report, with which he is not in agreement.
Babcock was teaching American history at a Phoenix high school in 1973 when he saw a film called Executive Action, a fictionalized account of the assassination. It started him thinking, which led to study, which led to extensive research, which led to obsession. Babcock's lecture appearances have increased recently, since the public's interest in the subject has been rekindled by Oliver Stone's movie JFK, which Babcock has seen twice.
Babcock does not subscribe to all of Stone's conspiracy theories, but he also rejects the finding of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. He believes there had to be a second gunman, a conclusion he reached largely by studying the Zapruder film, several copies of which are part of his research materials.
"One reporter wanted to know how I had the answer to the Kennedy assassination when I haven't figured out how to win an NBA championship," says Babcock, who has held scouting or executive positions with the Bucks, Clippers, Jazz, Lakers and Nuggets as well as the Hawks, without earning a ring. "My answer," he says, "is that I don't have all the answers to either one."
In his spare time Celtics assistant coach Don Casey might be found jogging, mixing up some mysterious vitamin potions, reading up on gun control or speaking out for animal rights. The latter avocation landed him on the cover of the March issue of AV Magazine, the journal of the American Anti-Vivisection Society.
"First cover I ever made, says Casey, "but I'll take it."
Casey's consciousness was first raised about 25 years ago when he read a newspaper story about dogs that were being stolen and sold to researchers for lab experiments. "I visualized my own dog—his name was Swish, by the way—being dognapped and sent to be tortured," says Casey, who later joined the anti-vivisection society. He does most of his lobbying behind the scenes—"I'm not sure my employers want me showing up in news clips spilling blood around animal labs"—and frequently wears animal rights shirts to practice. "I've talked to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale about it some," he says, "but I'm not sure they listened much. Then again, they don't listen much when I talk about basketball, either."
Rice Is Nice
One is a shooting guard with the all-around scoring and athletic skills associated with small forwards. The other is a small forward with a long-distance shooting touch that should be the envy of almost any guard in the league. This week's poll asked the question: Would Hornet guard Kendall Gill or Heat forward Glen Rice, two emerging stars, be your choice if you could pick only one?
Rice won the balloting by a 13-6 margin, with several voters abstaining because they liked both players too much to choose. Says Piston assistant coach Brendan Suhr: "Ain't a G.M. in the league that can make a pick between those two."
Several did but requested anonymity. "I'll take Gill because he docs so many things well," says a Western Conference general manager. "Gill won't get you 30 as often as Rice will, but then his guy won't get 30 either." All of the Gill voters mentioned his versatility, his toughness and his defensive ability. But the lesson to be learned from this poll is to never, never, never underestimate the desirability of a great shooter, a category into which Rice has definitely moved this season. "Gill is more versatile, but Rice takes over games with his scoring," says a Western Conference coach. "You can teach ball-handling skills and defense if a guy's willing to work. But great shooters don't come along often, so when you get your hands on one, don't let him go."
Actually, the term great shooter is sometimes a pejorative in the NBA, indicating a player who can do little else besides stand in one spot and heave it up. That is not the case with Rice, who has shown an ever increasing toughness and maturity. What the Heat's hot hand must avoid, says one head coach, is the Dale Ellis syndrome. "Dale didn't become a superstar, because he didn't develop his floor game," says the coach, who chose Gill in this poll. "If Rice works on handling the ball and passing, he will be one of the great players in IC '90s."
The CBA has sent 27 players to the NBA so far this season, with more call-ups possible for the playoffs. The ones who have made the most impact:
•Backcourt. Morlon Wiley, Hawks by way of the Rapid City Thrillers. Wiley did an excellent job of holding the fort at the point position until Rumeal Robinson finally became competent at it. (Well, reasonably competent.) Tracy Moore, Mavericks by way of the Tulsa Zone. He has been productive (8.2 points per game) as Dallas's fourth guard.
•Frontcourt. Anthony Bowie, Magic by way of the Quad City Thunder. His steady scoring (13.5 points per game) has helped Orlando through a difficult year. He's easily the MVP of the call-up team. Donald Royal, Spurs by way of the Tri-City Chinook. At times he has been in the San Antonio rotation, but he'll have to battle to make the club next year. Cliff Robinson, Lakers by way of Rapid City. An alltime NBA underachiever who left for Europe after an injury-plagued 1988-89 season with the 76ers, Robinson is getting one more chance with a quality franchise. Will he make the most of it this time around?
NATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS
Drexler should glide right onto the U.S. Olympic side.
This season has been anything but a dream for Hakeem and the struggling Rockets.
Rice, the poll winner over Gill, has stepped up his game and helped raise the Heat.