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After getting off to a sluggish start and hearing catcalls from
the Madison Square Garden fans, Allan Houston has begun to show
why the Knicks gave him a seven-year, $56 million free-agent
contract last summer. Houston, a 6'6" guard, has found his
shooting stroke, averaging 22.2 points over his last six games,
and has played solid defense (he helped limit Pacers guard
Reggie Miller to three points in the fourth quarter of New
York's 89-80 win on Sunday). He says he just needed to gain the
confidence of his teammates, particularly center Patrick Ewing.
"Earlier in the season Patrick wanted to force things
offensively because he didn't know me," Houston says. "Now if
Patrick doesn't get a good look, he passes it out. That's made
us a much better team." Apparently so. At week's end the Knicks
had won 28 of their last 36 games.... In a two-game stretch
earlier this month, Hornets guard Muggsy Bogues connected on six
three-point shots. That's as many three-pointers as Bogues has
made in any season during his 10-year career.... Earlier this
month Lakers guard Nick Van Exel boasted that he would buy every
Seattle player a gift worth less than $100 if L.A. didn't win
the Pacific Division. Now that Shaquille O'Neal may be out for
the rest of the regular season with a hyperextended left knee,
the Sonics are checking their shopping lists. "All I know is I
want something that costs $99.99," guard Gary Payton says....
After Bernie Bickerstaff left his position as the Nuggets'
president to become the Bullets' coach on Feb. 10, Denver G.M.
Todd Eley was shown the door. His firing could undermine the
Nuggets' efforts to sign their '96 first-round pick, 6'11"
Efthimios Rentzias. Eley had been the team's sole contact with
Rentzias throughout the negotiations.... While seated on the
bench late in Utah's 110-86 home win over the Blazers last
Thursday, Jazz forward Karl Malone turned to a fan in the stands
and began arguing that the state should lower its income taxes.
The recipient of the Mailman's advice? Gov. Michael Leavitt....
Forward Loy Vaught leads the Clippers in scoring with 13.8
points per game. The lowest scoring average to lead a team in
the 42 seasons since the advent of the shot clock is Bobby
Wanzer's 13.1, which topped the Rochester (N.Y.) Royals in
1954-55.... Frustrated that center Vlade Divac (18 points, 12
blocks, nine rebounds) was having trouble hunting down the final
board he needed for a triple double in Charlotte's 113-100 win
over the Nets on Feb. 12, Hornets coach Dave Cowens turned to
the scorers' table and said, "Just give him the rebound; we're
at home." Alas, Divac fouled out before he could get (or be
given) one.... The Rockets' Charles Barkley wasn't surprised
that fans at Gund Arena booed Malone at the Feb. 9 All-Star Game
after Malone was quoted as saying he wanted to get out of
Cleveland as fast as possible. "He sounds like he's from the
South of France or something," Barkley cracked. "He lives in
Utah and he bad-mouths Cleveland? That's what happens when a
brother gets too much money."... Several NBA scouts are calling
Texas Tech forward Tony Battie the rising star in this year's
thin college draft pool. A 6'11" junior, Battie is likely to be
a lottery selection if he decides to leave school early....
Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell, never bashful about shooting,
has a new nickname: World B. Spree.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH With O'Neal sidelined, the cocky Van Exel may have to dish off gifts to the Sonics. [Nick Van Exel in game]


COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW MCCLOSKEY [Straw hat with red, white, and blue band]


Rockets forward Charles Barkley has said he will run for
governor of Alabama as a Republican in 2002. What does he stand
for? Perhaps we can gather some clues from this list of the
political figures he respects most.

1 Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
2 President Clinton (D.)
3 Bill Gray (D.), former congressman from Pennsylvania
4 Bill Bradley (D.), former senator from New Jersey
5 Ronald Reagan (R.)