Want to see The Future? You may have to stay up until the wee
hours of the morning for the night-owl edition of the cable
highlight shows, or endure quizzical looks when you walk into a
sports bar on the East Coast and ask to have the
Vancouver-Sacramento game punched up on satellite. If you don't
want to go that far, make sure you are in front of your
television on the one night each year when the entire nation has
a chance to see The Future. Failing all that, your best option
is a plane ticket and a passport.
The Future is better known--but just barely--as Shareef
Abdur-Rahim, the Vancouver Grizzlies' quietly sensational
second-year small forward. Because he is tucked away in a remote
corner of the NBA map on a struggling third-year franchise,
Abdur-Rahim doesn't get the exposure that most players of his
caliber enjoy. The only place it's easy to find him is on the
list of the league's scoring leaders, where he ranked fifth at
week's end with an average of 22.8 points. The only night he
gets prime-time national coverage is when the Grizzlies make
their annual appearance on either TNT or TBS, and that is
because Turner Sports is contractually obligated to show each
team in the league at least once per season. (The Grizzlies'
appearance this season came on Jan. 6 on TNT, when they lost to
the Los Angeles Lakers 100-87.) Michael Jordan gets more
exposure in one of his underwear commercials.
Since making a few headlines in June 1996, when the Grizzlies
drafted him with the No. 3 pick after his freshman season at
Cal, Abdur-Rahim has simply been the least visible star in the
NBA, which he insists bothers him only slightly. He is genuinely
modest, a rarity among players of his generation, and he talks
at far greater length about his deficiencies--defense and
perimeter shooting--than he does about his remarkable scoring
ability. He even cringes a little at the mention of his
nickname, The Future, which he earned when he was playing for
Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga. A teammate suggested that in the
future all players would be like the 6'9" Abdur-Rahim, with the
size of a power forward and the ball handling skills of a guard.
"People said watching me play was like looking into the future,"
he says. "I kind of wish they'd forget about it. It was just
meant to be a description, not a nickname." Those are not the
words of a player thirsting for the spotlight. "I'd like to get
more attention, not just for myself but for the team," he says.
"You can be forgotten up here, but I think that's because we're
not winning [the Grizzlies were 13-30 through Sunday], not
because Vancouver is a small media market. When we start to win,
the attention will come."
But Abdur-Rahim gets more than his share of attention from
opponents. So far, no one has come up with a very effective way
to stop him. "He's tough to guard because he's got so many moves
down in the post, so many ways to get his shot off," says Golden
State Warriors forward Donyell Marshall. "You think you have him
locked up, but he still winds up getting to the hoop somehow."
Abdur-Rahim is capable of the occasional highlight-tape spin
move or one-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass, but his game is
more efficient than it is spectacular. He is a natural scorer,
with a way of slithering around and between defenders near the
rim. Think George Gervin with fewer flourishes. Abdur-Rahim
likes to set up in the low post, where he gathers in any pass
that is remotely near him with his huge, soft hands and scores
on a variety of jump hooks and short flips. Although he is
slender at 230 pounds, Abdur-Rahim has quickly established
himself as one of the best finishers in the league, able to
score even after he draws contact, which he often does. And at
week's end only Jordan (320), San Antonio Spurs center David
Robinson (292) and Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone (290) had made
more than Abdur-Rahim's 274 free throws (he was shooting 75.5%
from the line).
"Reef gets his points in a lot of different ways," says
Vancouver coach Brian Hill. "He'll get six to eight free throws,
two or three baskets off offensive rebounds, and before you know
it, you look up and he's got 20. The other thing that makes him
so effective is his body control. He can twist and lean and move
the ball around to get his shot off, and no matter what the
angle is, he puts it up softly and gives it a chance to go in.
It's just a knack, a scorer's instinct."
Abdur-Rahim's instincts were developed on the playgrounds in and
around Atlanta, where his father, William, began working with
Shareef, the second of his eight children, at age six. The elder
Abdur-Rahim, for instance, had his son practice his ball
handling skills with a tennis ball so a basketball would seem
easy by comparison. But William and Aminah, Shareef's mother,
were even more dedicated to their son's education, including the
ways of the Muslim faith. "When Shareef was just a little boy,
he would come with me to distribute food to the hungry or to
visit people in drug rehab," says William, who is an imam, which
is similar to a minister in other faiths. "He saw a lot at a
very young age."
Those experiences no doubt contributed to the maturity that
everyone who knows Abdur-Rahim marvels at. Excess is not a part
of his lifestyle. His only concern when he bought his home in
Vancouver, where he lives alone, was that it be spacious enough
to accommodate a steady stream of houseguests, mostly friends
and relatives from Atlanta. He doesn't smoke or drink, and in
keeping with Muslim teachings, he prays five times each day.
When he celebrated his 21st birthday, on Dec. 11, there was no
wild party, no late night. "I had dinner with a few friends,
then I went back to my room by myself and just reflected on how
far I'd come in these 21 years," he says. "I didn't really think
of turning 21 as a big thing, like it made me a man. I think
I've been a man for a long time."
The Grizzlies are cautiously optimistic that Abdur-Rahim won't
be lured away by a bigger media market when he is eligible to
become a free agent after next season. "I don't think he's one
of these guys who's going to base his decision on whether we're
on NBC every Sunday or how many shoe commercials he'd get if he
played in some other city," says Vancouver president and general
manager Stu Jackson. "Knowing him, knowing the way he was
raised, I know he has more depth than that, and that bodes well
for our franchise."
Abdur-Rahim is noncommittal, saying only that although he misses
his friends and family in the Southeast, he has warmed to
Vancouver. "It doesn't even make sense to talk about free agency
now," he says. "There's so much that can happen between now and
then." Apparently Abdur-Rahim knows as well as anyone how hard
it can be to see The Future.
COLOR PHOTO: KIM STALLKNECHT/NBA PHOTOS Abdur-Rahim's ball handling skills make him dangerous around the basket and often get him to the foul line. [Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Shawn Kemp in game]