There was something a little unseemly about the wide smile and the I-can't-believe-how-happy-I-am demeanor of Maverick general manager Norm Sonju as he escorted No. 1 pick Jim Jackson into last Thursday's press conference at Dallas's Reunion Arena. It wasn't too long ago that the mere mention of Jackson's name and that of his agent. Mark Termini, would have brought on indigestion for Sonju and his boss. Maverick owner Donald Carter. The word Dallas had much the same effect on Termini and Jackson, the All-America swingman from Ohio State, so intense was their dislike for the Mavericks, who had offered Jackson "only" a four-year, $10.8 million contract during acrimonious negotiations. At least Jackson had the good sense to look a little tentative as he announced his intention to give his all for those fine folks who just days earlier were the subject of his scorn.
Well, it just shows that you can't believe everything you hear, particularly during a contract negotiation.
Jackson ended four months of rancorous and tiresome debate with the Mavs because he started to hear a few magic words: "six years," "$20 million" and "Quinn Buckner." Although both Sonju and Buckner (the NBC announcer was named Dallas's new coach, also on Thursday, but won't take over until the end of the playoffs) denied that Buckner's hiring and Jackson's signing were a package deal, Buckner and Jackson had had several conversations since Buckner's name was floated as the favorite for the Mavs' job. At the very least, one signing was certainly the catalyst for the other.
Jackson will receive $3.6 million ($2.6 million in salary, $1 million in signing bonus) for playing 28 games this season. And once he joined them, the Mavs (4-52 at week's end) were immediately a better team. Jackson, with six and 19 points last weekend against the Rockets and the Suns, respectively, in his first two games, both home losses, became Dallas's second-best player the moment he signed on the dotted line. Fortunately for the Mavs, their best player, Derek Harper, who will earn about $1.5 million less than Jackson this season for slogging through the first 54 games with the franchise on his back, warmly welcomed the wayward rookie.
"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it," said Harper, referring to the paycheck disparity. "But the Mavs have always been fair to me. They've taken care of me. We need Jimmy. I need Jimmy. Only my family and I know what a burden it's been carrying a team mentally and physically, and now I have help. As far as the money goes, Jimmy was just in the right place at the right time."
Can the same be said for Buckner, who signed a reported five-year, $2.5 million contract? Hard to tell. Obviously the Mavs made their choice with one eye to the south, where another heady, high-profile former NBA point guard—Spur coach John Lucas—is getting the job done. But Lucas has a team to support his indefatigable supply of energy and enthusiasm; Buckner does not. One wonders if the Mavs' coach-in-waiting, who has been out of the game since 1986, his last year as a player, and has never coached on any level, has the know-how to be a mighty Quinn.
WHO CAN EXPLAIN IT?
The NBA game usually is defined by X's and O's, triangle offenses and illegal-defense calls, but on some nights it seems to free itself from all rules of logic. How else to explain the events of March 3? That evening the 76ers' 7'7" Manute Bol, whose shooting range is usually infinitesimal, made six three-pointers against the Suns, while two time zones away Heat center Rony Seikaly, not known for his tenacity, had 34 rebounds against the Bullets, four more than Washington had as a team.
Seikaly's Windex job, which surpassed his old career-rebounding high by 10 and was seven more than the previous season high established by Dennis Rodman on Dec. 23 against the Hornets, can at least be partially explained. The Bullets, who lost to Miami 125-106, were playing without center Pervis Ellison, so Seikaly was opposed for most of the evening by rookie forward Tom Gugliotta, who had last regularly played the pivot in high school.
But what alien being entered Bol's body in Phoenix? After all, over the last three seasons he had made just two of 31 three-point attempts. But against the Suns—and old teammate Charles Barkley, who in his autobiography had derided Bol's lack of offensive skills—Bol made his first two three-pointers and five of his first eight. So Sixer coach Doug Moe, who has always enjoyed a sideshow as much as the next guy, allowed Bol to keep launching. Incredibly Bol converted a few of his attempts from well beyond the 23'9" circle. "They don't guard me so I shoot," deadpanned Bol, who finished with 18 points on six-for-12 shooting from three-point range in a 125-115 Phoenix win. (Moe's move proved to be one of his final coaching decisions. He was fired on Sunday evening, just one day after the 76ers were thrashed by the SuperSonics 149-93 in Seattle. The 76ers' record was 19-37, the league's fifth-worst.)
Seikaly, the Heat's starting center for the past five seasons, has been unhappy lately, so maybe he was trying to prove a point. Though he started against the Bullets, he had lately been coming off the bench, a role he clearly did not relish.
MR. SMITH RETURNS
It's difficult for a 6'8" point guard to be overlooked, but that's what has happened to the Heat's Steve Smith this season. The explosive potential of rookie Harold Miner, the speculation about whether coach Kevin Loughery would lose his job and the mercurial nature of Seikaly have all overshadowed Smith's quiet return to the lineup, on Jan. 20, after having missed 34 games while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. But this much is clear: Miami, which was awful without Smith, now could make the playoffs—and the reason isn't Miner, Loughery or Seikaly but Smith.
Smith (along with Nugget Dikembe Mutombo) was the early sensation of last year's rookie class. His size, composure and leadership abilities drew comparisons to his boyhood hero Magic Johnson, a fellow Michigan State alumnus and sometime workout partner in summer pickup games during Smith's college days in Last Lansing. But Smith underwent knee surgery after 33 games of the 1991-92 season, and he was further set back by the death of his mother—her nickname, Bell, is embossed on his sneakers—from cancer last spring. When he returned to action in February of last season (too soon, it turned out), he played tentatively, and many people forgot just how good he had been earlier in the year.
The same knee bothered him again in training camp this season, and he was 'scoped for a second time in October. Without him the Heat was 10-24, while relying on a point guard combination of Bimbo Coles, a solid backup but not much more, and Brian Shaw, who has been on the Miami trading block since soon after he arrived from the Celtics in January 1992. But with Smith's sure hands on the reins again, Miami had gone 14-8 as of Sunday. They were on a six-game winning streak and in a battle with the Pacers, the Hawks and the Pistons for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
The versatile Smith was averaging 15.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists since his return. He can swing to shooting guard from time to time, and he is one of the better post-up guards in the league. In a solid 114-99 victory over Indiana on Sunday, for example, Smith frustrated the 6'1" Pooh Richardson by taking him low and scoring repeatedly. Smith's only liability is on defense, where he has trouble guarding small, quick opponents. Then again, so did Magic.
"The big difference recently is how we play with Steve," said Loughery. As long as the rest of Loughery's players feel the same way, the Heat will be all right.
HE HAS A DREAM
In his spare time Celtic assistant Jon Jennings is not likely to be found watching soap operas or poring over the sports pages. More likely he will be holed up in a library somewhere researching a book he plans to write on some of the most celebrated political speeches of the 20th century. During a road trip to Atlanta earlier this season, for example, Jennings conducted research at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, where he met King's son, Martin Luther King III. He has also examined material at the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester, Mass.
"I've always been fascinated by the spoken word and its impact," says Jennings. "Most people don't realize the extent to which history has been influenced by great speeches."
Jennings plans to reprint 10 speeches, followed by an analysis of each explaining why it was significant. "My name doesn't exactly add immediate legitimacy to the project," he says, "so I plan to interview leading historians to get their perspectives." Two of Jennings' early choices are King's "I Have a Dream" speech ("It galvanized the civil rights movement," says Jennings) and Kennedy's address before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, in which he promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade ("It's not as well known as sonic of his others, but it had a lot more impact").
This week's question was particularly rough for two of our voters, Harper and Eddie Johnson of the Sonics.
"Man, I can't believe you want me to pick between two Illinois guys," said Johnson, who, like Harper, played his college ball for the Illini. This was the question: If Nick Anderson of the Magic and Kendall Gill of the Hornets, two versatile and dynamic swingmen who played together for coach Lou Henson between 1986-87 and '88-89, were available now, whom would you choose first?
The two Illini polices showed some guts by putting their answers on the record. Harper went for Gill ("Kendall's a little more consistent outside, and he's on his way to being a star"), while Johnson selected Anderson ("Kendall's going to be a better player, but he isn't as tough as Nick right now").
Gill won the overall balloting, with eight votes, while Anderson had six. Two voters, Scott Hastings of the Nuggets and Xavier McDaniel of the Celtics, said they could not make a choice.
Johnson lent some veteran advice regarding Gill's persistent complaints about his contract and his role in the Hornet offense behind Larry Johnson and rookie center Alonzo Mourning: "It all has to do with ego. If anybody would just sit Kendall down and explain that money and fame will come when they win, I think he'll be all right. He's much too distracted by what isn't important right now."
If Jackson harbored any ill feeling toward Carter (above, left), he didn't carry it onto the court.
Gill (13) won the pick-an-Illini poll although one voter proclaimed Anderson (25) the tougher of the two.