AN ALL-STAR TURN
The first time the NBA's fans and coaches snubbed him as an
All-Star selection, in 1994, Wizards point guard Rod Strickland
was a 27-year-old with the Trail Blazers averaging 16.5 points
and 8.0 assists. Despite putting up even better numbers in '95,
he was overlooked again. The next year Strickland vowed that
even if chosen, he would never play in an All-Star Game. He
hasn't yet had a chance to go back on his word.
Strickland has become, along with 15-year veteran Derek Harper,
the best player never to have made an All-Star team. (They are
the only two players with more than 10,000 points and 5,000
assists who haven't been invited to the game.) "When I came into
the league, I was planning on being a perennial All-Star,"
Strickland says. "I felt if I had made it [in '94], I could have
kept it going. But when I got passed over year after year, I
gave up on it. Coaches weren't picking me, based on my
That reputation has been colored by contract squabbles, missed
shootarounds and feuds with his coaches. Strickland's latest
scrape came on Dec. 10, when he got into a fistfight with
teammate Tracy Murray after hearing tape-recorded comments from
Murray disparaging him. "I wish I hadn't done it," says
Strickland. "I felt that way later in the day. But I'm a
Strickland was leading the league in assists with 10.5 a game
through Sunday, while averaging 16.4 points. Since coming to
Washington from Portland in July 1996, he has proved to be the
glue for a team that had lacked cohesion on the floor. Yet last
week's returns on fan balloting for the All-Star Game didn't
list him among the top 10 Eastern Conference guards. His only
hope is that the coaches will vote him in, and it will be a
travesty if they don't. Asks Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff,
"Who is playing better?"
While Strickland now says he will suit up as an All-Star if
chosen, his promise be damned, he's noncommittal about his
future in Washington. Aside from Murray--"Obviously we don't go
out to dinner or nothing"--Strickland says the Wizards are the
best group of guys he has ever been around. But indirectly
because of the December dustup, he might leave when he becomes a
free agent next summer. "After [the fight] I heard things
through the grapevine that changed my mind about here,"
Strickland says. "I learned a long time ago never to get close
to coaches or management, because you'll only end up
He would not be specific about the comments that disturbed him,
but he did say that he was unhappy with general manager Wes
Unseld. "Wes was sitting there, right in my face, saying he
believed me," Strickland says, "but later I found out he was
saying something different to other people. So now I need to
keep my options open. I just think people should be straight
Unseld says Strickland objected to being fined $25,000, but
adds, "I felt what happened was detrimental to the team. I fined
Tracy too, and I'm sure he didn't like it either. I've heard Rod
is upset with me. But he should be upset with himself too."
If Strickland does change addresses, it will be for the fifth
time in 10 seasons. "I've been thinking about the Rockets," says
Strickland. "They look like a good group. And New York. I could
see going back." The Wizards would love to see Strickland in New
York, but only for the All-Star Game on Feb. 8. Unseld, who has
pushed hard for Strickland's selection, wants to keep his point
guard, reputation and all.
REFEREES UNDER FIRE
Sources tell SI that the federal government, which has been
investigating NBA officials since 1994 for tax fraud, is poised
to indict as many as seven referees next month, while 15 more
remain under investigation. The refs allegedly downgraded
airline tickets supplied by the league from first class to
coach, pocketed the difference and failed to report that cash as
income--the same practice that resulted in the indictment last
year of four other veteran officials. At least three referees
who are under investigation but have not yet been charged are
receiving psychiatric counseling, according to sources. "We're
all a bunch of basket cases," says one veteran who worked deep
into the playoffs last season and expects to be indicted.
The referees' anxiety is understandable: According to the
collective bargaining agreement between the their union and the
NBA, any official convicted of a felony must resign. Three of
those indicted in 1997--Hank Armstrong, Jess Kersey and George
Toliver--avoided incarceration by pleading guilty to filing
false income-tax returns but lost their jobs. The fourth, Mike
Mathis, has not yet pleaded and is facing four charges of filing
false tax returns and one charge of obstructing Internal Revenue
Service laws. He has a March 9 trial date in Cincinnati. "It's
been rough," says Mathis, 55, who has been suspended by the
league since last year and has already spent close to $80,000 in
legal fees. "It's killing me to watch all these games and not be
on the floor, and to not know what my future is."
Commissioner David Stern remains tight-lipped about the federal
investigation, except for saying that the referees who pleaded
guilty last year are not necessarily barred from the NBA for
life. "No one has called this a death sentence," Stern says. "We
have refused to say this is a permanent ban." The league has
continued to pay Mathis during his suspension and has indicated
it will do the same for any subsequent referees who are
indicted. It has also granted severance pay to both Toliver and
Armstrong even though each was a nine-year veteran at the time
of his indictment, one year short of the time required to qualify.
Sources confirmed that Mathis's attorneys met with league
officials last Friday in hopes of gaining some assurance of
future employment. But, the sources say, the NBA's legal team
would not offer any guarantees. As part of their plea agreement,
Armstrong, Kersey and Toliver will be called as government
witnesses in the Mathis trial and will have no choice but to
give testimony that could be detrimental to their friend and
former colleague. On Jan. 12, the NBA's supervisor of officials,
Darrell Garretson, appeared before a grand jury investigating
other referees. "If we lost anyone [else], obviously it would
cause concern," Garretson says.
A sampling of coaches and general managers told SI that the
officiating has been satisfactory this season. But most of those
asked agreed that the removal of seven more veteran refs would
be disastrous. "If they go down," says one Eastern Conference
coach, "we go down with them."
PICKING THE STARS
The fans' choices to start in the All-Star Game will be
announced on Sunday. As an alternative to that popularity
contest, SI offers its All-Star picks (missing games due to
injury lessened a player's chances of making the cut):
Eastern Conference. Starting lineup: Grant Hill, Pistons, and
Shawn Kemp, Cavaliers (forwards); Dikembe Mutombo, Hawks
(center); Michael Jordan, Bulls, and Tim Hardaway, Heat (guards).
Reserves: Glen Rice, Hornets, and Dennis Rodman, Bulls
(forwards); Rik Smits, Pacers (center); Rod Strickland, Wizards,
and Steve Smith, Hawks (guards).
Wild-card entries: Antoine Walker, Celtics (forward); Reggie
Miller, Pacers (guard).
Toughest omissions: Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Wizards forward
Chris Webber, Bucks forward Glenn Robinson, Raptors guard Damon
Western Conference. Starters: Karl Malone, Jazz, and Vin Baker,
Sonics (forwards); David Robinson, Spurs (center); Gary Payton,
Sonics, and Mitch Richmond, Kings (guards).
Reserves: Tom Gugliotta, Timberwolves, and Tim Duncan, Spurs
(forwards); Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers (center); Eddie Jones,
Lakers, and Stephon Marbury, Timberwolves (guards).
Wild-card entries: Nick Van Exel, Lakers (guard); Jason Kidd,
Toughest omissions: Jazz guard John Stockton, Sonics forward
Detlef Schrempf, Rockets forward Charles Barkley, Timberwolves
forward Kevin Garnett, Grizzlies forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Jan. 17 against the Lakers: 27
minutes, 1-5 field goals, 3-8 free throws, 5 points, 4 rebounds,
2 turnovers. It was a night of futility for Zo against his
nemesis, Shaquille O'Neal, who scored 24 points and had 14
rebounds in L.A.'s 108-99 win at the Forum.
AROUND THE RIM
At the Jan. 27 hearing to appeal his suspension, the attorneys
for Latrell Sprewell will call P.J. Carlesimo's former Portland
players to testify on the confrontational style of the Warriors
coach. Talk about the victim being turned into the accused....
Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean spent last week
hunkered down in his office trying to determine the trade value
of free-agent-to-be forward Joe Smith. What he found, in calls
around the league, was similar to what the Sixers experienced
with guard Jerry Stackhouse before moving him to the Pistons:
Teams interested in the player's potential are often scared off
by the dollars it would take to re-sign him....
Spurs point guard Avery Johnson, on Stoudamire's assertion that
while Johnson is a good guy, San Antonio is going nowhere with
him at the helm: "That's O.K. I wish Damon luck. I hope he finds
himself a winning team."
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS Strickland is a wizard at getting into the lane--and at getting under the skin of his coaches. [Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard in game]
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Center Vlade Divac was devastated in July 1996 when the Lakers
traded him to the Hornets. But the team and the city of
Charlotte have grown on Divac--and on his wife, Snezana, an
actress who spent most of last season in L.A. Still, there's no
guarantee the Hornets will offer the big money needed to keep
their big man, who will become a free agent this summer. Sources
say a Bryant Reeves-type deal ($11 million a year) might not be
enough to satisfy Divac.
Forgive the Heat for being concerned about the lingering pain in
center Alonzo Mourning's surgically repaired left knee. Mourning
concedes that the knee, which was operated on on Sept. 27,
probably won't fully heal until the off-season, and coach Pat
Riley has already told him to rest it whenever he needs to. If
backup center Ike Austin is dealt, as expected, any missed time
for Mourning would make Miami vulnerable in the middle.
Larry Bird may be a legend in his home state, but his presence
on the Pacers' bench has not boosted attendance at Market Square
Arena. Despite a 26-11 record through Sunday, the best start in
franchise history, Indiana had sold out only three games and was
averaging 15,284 fans, a 2% drop from last season.
Spurs rookie forward Tim Duncan was averaging 11.7 boards a game
at week's end, fourth best in the league; some teammates think
he's already a better rebounder than San Antonio center David
Robinson. "Once he learns to root people out from under the
basket, he'll be even stronger," says Spurs coach Gregg
Popovich. On the offensive boards Duncan has a knack for
catching a rebound, keeping the ball high and putting it right
back up, like Celtics great Kevin McHale.
Coaches implore their players to take the ball to the hole,
which often results in a trip to the line. At week's end the
Lakers had attempted 1,248 free throws, the most in the league,
but they had connected on only 69.4%, fourth worst in the
league. Notorious bricklayer Shaquille O'Neal (49.4%) isn't the
only culprit. L.A.'s other power players (Elden Campbell, Robert
Horry, Sean Rooks and Corey Blount) were shooting a combined
Even more enjoyable for Hawks guard Steve Smith than the 22.5
points he was averaging over his last 14 games through Sunday is
the fact that he's playing without a brace or sleeve on right
knee, which was surgically repaired after the 1991-92 season.
Smith was told by team doctors that he would never play again
without some support for his knee.
ON TAP: UTAH AT CHICAGO, JAN. 25
With the Bulls' Scottie Pippen and the Jazz's John Stockton
having returned from injuries, all but one of the principals
from last year's NBA Finals are back for the teams' first
meeting of 1997-98. The lone exception: Chicago's Steve Kerr
(broken left clavicle), whose jumper in Game 6 clinched the
Bulls' fifth title. Utah will need a Super Sunday to win at the
United Center, where Chicago is 38-0 against Western Conference
foes since Michael Jordan came out of retirement in March 1995.