Whatever concerns the Detroit Pistons have as they head into the
postseason, the attitude of Otis Thorpe is not one of them. When
happy and content--as he is now after an extended flap with
coach Doug Collins--the 6'10", 246-pound veteran power forward
is a good soldier whose work ethic is as admirable as the way he
executes the pick-and-roll. But when he feels he has been
slighted, he can go into a funk.
Thorpe's dark side emerged during a Feb. 2 game against the
Phoenix Suns at The Palace of Auburn Hills, when a sideline
confrontation with Collins sparked a six-week stretch of
strained relations. In a first-quarter timeout during a 106-97
loss to the Suns, Collins reportedly questioned--Thorpe would
say ridiculed--his power forward's defensive commitment in front
of the team, then later refused to discuss the incident with
him, which only made Thorpe angrier.
Thorpe is normally an unselfish player who doesn't demand the
ball or command the headlines. But he's also a proud man who
believes there are times when he should receive his due. The
Phoenix game was such a time. That evening he became the 43rd
player in NBA history to play in at least 1,000 games. Friends
and family, including Phyllis Freed, his agent and longtime
mentor, had come in from out of town to help him celebrate.
In Thorpe's eyes, Collins made him look bad in front of people
important to him. "For that to happen was totally uncalled-for,"
Thorpe said later. "I thought it was a special occasion for me,
a positive situation, but it came out negative."
A golf fanatic, Thorpe might have heeded his own advice about
that sport. "You can't concentrate on one bad hole too long," he
likes to say, "or you'll ruin your round." Yet that's what he
did. Although he led the Pistons with 27 points that night,
after his flare-up he went through the motions defensively and
on the boards, finishing with just six rebounds. Over the next
six weeks his offensive production dropped to 10.8 points per
game from his previous average of 12.9.
Around the league some who know Thorpe weren't surprised. When
he went to the Pistons from Portland in September 1995, his
baggage included a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer, prone to
griping and finger-pointing. "The guy can be like a wife," says
a former colleague, "nagging all the time."
Not until Collins met with his power forward one-on-one before a
road game in Cleveland on March 17 did the two patch things up.
"We just sat and talked," Collins told the team's beat writers.
"I told him how much we need him and that we can't win without
him. What's happened to this franchise over the last two
years--a major part of it is him. I wanted him to know that and
to hear it from me."
That smoothed the situation. In the 10 games from March 17 on,
Thorpe averaged 17.2 points.
But why did the incident last so long? And why does Thorpe seem
so sensitive to slights, whether real or imagined? Freed, who
has known him since he was 16, thinks she may have the answer.
"There have been so many times in his life when he hasn't been
treated with respect," she says. "I've counseled him about how
to handle that."
Thorpe's youth in Boynton Beach, Fla., was marked by
instability. His father and mother separated when he was 11, and
his mother passed away when he was in his early teens, forcing
him to move in with an aunt. As a teenager Thorpe had little
firm ground in his life until he met Freed through her son,
Chip, in 1979. The two boys became friends, and, says Phyllis,
"we just sort of took him in."
Thorpe didn't play organized basketball until his junior year at
Lake Worth (Fla.) High School, when Chip encouraged him to try
out. In his first game he was so inexperienced that he entered
without checking in with the official scorer. His playing career
thus began with a technical foul.
After Thorpe's junior year at Lake Worth, Freed arranged for him
to attend a summer camp in New Jersey run by Pete Carril, then
the coach at Princeton. Impressed with the youngster, Carril
recommended him to then Providence coach Gary Walters, a former
Princeton player. By the time Thorpe left Providence in 1984
after four seasons, he was the Big East's alltime leading
The Kansas City Kings selected Thorpe ninth in the 1984 draft,
and he selected Freed--who had learned about labor-management
relations when she helped run the family-owned business in
Canfield, Ohio--as his agent. (Of the 150 agents on the NBA's
approved list, Freed is one of just two women who currently
represent a player.)
Though instability followed Thorpe into the NBA--the Kings moved
from Kansas City to Sacramento after his rookie season--by his
fourth year in the league he had established himself as a
premier power forward, averaging 20.8 points and 10.2 rebounds
in 1987-88. As a rising young star, he was a valuable commodity,
and in October 1988, Sacramento traded him to the Houston Rockets.
Thorpe seemed to have found his place with the Rockets, working
alongside Hakeem Olajuwon on a perennial playoff club and in
1992 earning a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team. But
his All-Star appearance was another red-letter day turned black.
The game was held in Orlando, not far from Boynton Beach, and
Thorpe was looking forward to a triumphant homecoming in front
of his family and friends. But Don Nelson, coach of the West
squad, gave him only four minutes of playing time--by far the
fewest of any player in Orlando that day.
As Houston's starting power forward, Thorpe was integral to the
Rockets' 1994 championship, his first title at any level. In
consecutive postseason series that year, he held his own against
four other top power forwards: Buck Williams, Charles Barkley,
Karl Malone and Charles Oakley. But the following season the
Rockets stunned Thorpe by sending him to Portland in the Clyde
Drexler deal. "When I think about that," says Thorpe, "the one
word that comes to mind is loyalty. It was a disappointing thing
to me. It happened on Valentine's Day, and, yeah, you can say it
broke my heart."
In Portland Thorpe found himself relegated to a sixth-man role,
so he was happy when the Trail Blazers dealt him to Detroit
before the 1995-96 season. Thorpe's Pistons teammates have been
happy to have him around. "Otis comes to work, both in practice
and in games," says superstar swingman Grant Hill. "He's good
for me because sometimes he'll coach me out there on the court,
getting in my face when I need it or patting me on the back when
I need that. He sometimes sacrifices his game so I can do my
thing. He's the glue that holds our team together."
Says Thorpe, "I've been around long enough that players respect
what I've been through and what I'm about."
After Detroit beat Dallas 100-82 on April 1 for their 50th win
of the season, Thorpe and his coach shook hands. Collins, who
had taken over a 28-win Pistons team in 1995, said to his power
forward, "Thank you, Otis, for being part of this. We couldn't
have done it without you." Thorpe responded with kind words of
his own. "The coaching staff and players," he said, "have done a
Amazing what a little positive reinforcement can do.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO/NBA PHOTOS Productivity at both ends of the court has been the hallmark of Thorpe's 13-year NBA career. [Otis Thorpe in game]
FOR THE WEEK OF MARCH 31-APRIL 6
When Tim Hardaway signed with the Heat last July 23, he had an
incentive clause included in his contract that would pay him $1
million if his assist-to-turnover ratio was 3 to 1 or better for
the year. By dishing out nine assists and committing just one
turnover in his team's 98-84 win over the Raptors on April 5,
the Miami guard improved his season ratio to 3.01 to 1.
After jumping out to a 51-37 halftime lead on Sunday night
against the Lakers, Dallas scored just two points in the third
quarter--an alltime NBA low for a single period. The Mavericks
missed all 15 of their shots from the field, getting their
paltry points on two free throws by Derek Harper. Dallas went on
to lose 87-80.
Can the slowly sinking Cavaliers manage to avoid a losing
season? If so, Mike Fratello would be the first Cavaliers coach
to finish at .500 or better for four straight seasons.
"That might be the worst team in the world. They're an
embarrassment to basketball." --Rockets forward Charles Barkley
on the Nuggets, who fell to 20-52 after a 116-99 loss to Houston
on April 1.