LEGEND AT LARGE
He is a figure from a reel of grainy documentary footage spliced
into a modern highlight tape. While other players gyrate and jam
around him, Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis lumbers down
the floor to unleash a classic hook shot or a feathery finger
roll. At those moments he seems to be superimposed on the game,
as if by some technological trick, like Fred Astaire dancing
with a vacuum cleaner in that commercial.
The 7'3", 292-pound Sabonis seems even more anachronistic when
he delivers his pinpoint assists to reckless young talents such
as Isaiah Rider and Rasheed Wallace, who don't appreciate that
they have as their teammate one of the most gifted players in
history. "Arvydas and [Bill] Walton are the two best passing big
men ever," says Portland coach Mike Dunleavy. "No one else is
Despite his ailing knees and back and the chronic pain in his
right heel, Sabonis, 33, is enjoying the best stretch of his
three-year NBA career. At week's end he had achieved
double-doubles in seven of his last 10 games, raising his
averages for the season to 16.4 points and 10.2 boards in 32.4
minutes a night (up from 25.5 in 1996-97). He had hit 81.6% of
his free throws, connected on 26.9% of his three-pointers and
provided at least one moment of delicious creativity each night
that sent fans rocketing out of their seats. Against the Knicks
on March 9 at Madison Square Garden, his breathtaking move was a
no-look behind-the-head lob to the startled 19-year-old Jermaine
O'Neal, who would have had an easy layup if he hadn't dropped
Sabonis has grown accustomed to such misplays, just as he has
come to expect one of the Blazers' upstarts to wave him off when
he is entrenched in the post, despite the advantages in size,
skill and savvy he usually has there. In a March 17 game against
the Cavaliers, Sabonis uncharacteristically barked at his
teammates for not feeding him the ball. Afterward Rider
haughtily said, "He gets enough touches."
Portland's new point guard, Damon Stoudamire, disagrees. "We
should utilize him on every play," he says of Sabonis. "The guy
is an unbelievable weapon."
Sabonis developed his no-look passes and his shooting touch on
the courts of Kaunas, Lithuania. He loved to play guard, but
when he was nine years old--and almost 6 feet tall--his coach
sent him down to the blocks. "The reason I love to pass," he
says, "is I know the feeling of waiting and waiting for the ball
and no one giving it to you."
The Blazers drafted Sabonis in 1986, but nine years later, when
he finally went to Portland, the nucleus of the team with which
he was supposed to win a title--Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and
Terry Porter--was gone. In its place have come a succession of
youngsters whose up-and-down performances have disappointed
Sabonis. "I think, sometimes, when these young players win the
money, they have what they need, so they no longer play like
they could," he says. "I've always loved to play, whether I was
getting a lot of money or not."
Sabonis will exercise the escape clause in his contract this
summer and become a free agent. Portland is expected to double
his $3.1 million salary, and he would like to play there for
three more years. Yet the pain in his heel is constant, and it
will one day force him to call it quits. "When I see the ball in
the air," Sabonis says, "sometimes in my mind I think I can
still jump up and grab it."
LEAGUE AND UNION AT ODDS
When the NBA Board of Governors voted on Monday in Dallas to opt
out of the collective bargaining agreement, it was the first
grenade thrown in what promises to be a long, ugly labor war.
The board's actions were not unexpected, and players are
preparing to be locked out by the owners on July 1. But
according to players' association executive director Billy
Hunter, the union's resolve is firmer than it was during the
last long lockout, in the summer of 1995, and the players have
the numbers to decertify--the step that's necessary before they
can sue the league.
Although many issues, including the rookie salary cap and the
division of money from merchandising, will be revisited during
negotiations for a new CBA, the league is publicly beating the
drum on the need for a punitive policy on marijuana use. At the
All-Star Game in February, commissioner David Stern vowed to
take a tough stance on this issue, no doubt in response to the
avalanche of negative publicity generated when a number of the
NBA's top players, including Allen Iverson, Rider and Chris
Webber, were busted on marijuana-possession charges over the
previous 10 months.
The union has already said that it is willing to discuss
including marijuana in the drug policy of a new agreement, but
one thing is certain: It will not agree to a related proposal
that the league made last January, calling for the random
testing of both rookies and veterans. A first positive test
would result in mandatory drug counseling. (In more extreme
first-offense cases, such as a criminal conviction for
possession of marijuana, a five-game suspension would be
imposed.) A player testing positive a second time would receive
an automatic six-month suspension without pay and would be
required to submit to more intensive counseling. A third
positive would result in a lifetime ban; the same penalty would
apply to any player found guilty of distribution of marijuana.
The NBA anticipated that the union would resist such stiff
penalties. "This was merely our initial proposal," deputy
commissioner Russ Granik says. "We told them to review it and
give us a counterproposal, but we never heard anything back."
The union says it did not feel compelled to respond because the
league's drug policy had already been spelled out in the CBA.
While player reps have discovered that the majority of their
peers are in favor of including marijuana in a new drug policy,
hammering out the specifics could take time. In fact, the
biggest stumbling block may be not the penalties but the matter
of random testing. According to sources who attended the union
meeting during All-Star weekend, more than 70% of the players at
the meeting adamantly opposed random testing.
HAPPY TO BE HEADING OUT
When Houston's training camp opened last October, Clyde Drexler
was nearly a no-show. "I was seriously considering retiring," he
says. "I'd had a relaxing summer, and I was enjoying my free
time. But I felt we had a good chance to win it all, so I came
Instead, the Rockets, devastated by injuries, have struggled.
Among their plans for next season was to say goodbye to Drexler,
who would have been a free agent. But he beat them to the punch
last week, saying that he would retire at season's end to take
the coaching job at his alma mater, Houston. Drexler will take a
big pay cut from the $5.5 million he is earning this season; his
five-year contract with the Cougars calls for a base salary of
$150,000 with various incentives that could make the annual
package worth as much as $800,000.
Coach Drexler wasted no time in prepping himself for his new
job. Before the Rockets' game with Boston on March 19, he picked
the brain of Celtics broadcaster Bob Cousy, the Hall of Fame
player who also coached at Boston College. Then Drexler pulled
aside Boston coach Rick Pitino and asked for some pointers.
"Rick told me, 'Get two good assistants, and let your love of
the game help you learn on the job,'" Drexler says.
Drexler's final season with the Rockets has been uneven, but he
vehemently denies that there is friction between him and Charles
Barkley. "That's a fantasy someone dreamed up," Drexler says.
"Charles's locker is right next to mine. When we have a
difference, we air it out and move on. Charles is Charles. He
shouldn't change for anyone, and I would never ask him to.
Neither of us has ever had a problem lacing up our tennis shoes
and trying to win a game together."
Drexler admits that he has caught himself taking mental
snapshots at each NBA stop, and while he expects a tinge of
sadness when his 15-year career ends, he doesn't anticipate
having any regrets. "I knew, after this year," he says, "that my
patience with it was gone."
Line of the Week
SHAQ'S SHOOTING MOST FOUL
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, March 20 versus the Sonics: 42
minutes, 10-14 field goals, 4-15 free throws, 24 points, 16
rebounds, 2 blocks. Vintage Shaq: He dominated the middle but
missed 11 free throws--his teammates went 18 for 18--in L.A.'s
93-90 victory over its chief Western Conference rival.
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AIR-VYDAS Despite his chronically ailing knees, Sabonis has found clever ways to take his game to a higher level in his third NBA season. [Arvydas Sabonis in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH WAVING GOODBYE Drexler, who will coach at his alma mater next year, says he won't have any regrets about leaving the NBA. [Clyde Drexler in game]
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
A Winning Tribute
Somewhere, deposed Nuggets general manager Allan Bristow is
smiling. Against the Wizards last week Denver, down 89-87, had
the ball with 24.2 seconds left. Nuggets coach Bill Hanzlik
called for a play designed by Bristow when he coached the
Hornets: a three-man weave at the top of the arc with a double
screen on the left block. Anthony Goldwire, who had played for
Bristow in Charlotte, remembered the set, so he was chosen as
the weaver to break out from behind the screen. When Johnny
Newman passed him the ball with 7.2 seconds to go, Goldwire
stroked a three from the left corner, and the Nuggets won for
the third time in seven days, matching their victory total for
the past seven weeks.
AROUND THE RIM
Don't look for the Pistons to make a run at Bulls coach Phil
Jackson at season's end. Sources say Detroit won't spend more
than $2 million a year on a replacement for Doug Collins, or at
least half of what Jackson would command....
Think new Celtic Kenny Anderson knows where to get Antoine
Walker the ball? Before the point guard arrived on Feb. 20,
Walker was shooting 39.8% from the floor. In Anderson's first
nine games with Boston, Walker shot 47.4%. With Anderson playing
sporadically last week because of tendinitis in his left knee,
Walker's shooting dipped again....
Knicks center Patrick Ewing insists that if his right wrist
heals in time for the postseason, he won't have any problem
sharing the ball with Allan Houston, who has become New York's
go-to guy in Ewing's absence. "I'm a team player," says Ewing.
"Besides, I get my shots on the block, and that's not where
Allan hangs out."...
Sources on the Lakers report that Kobe Bryant's confidence has
waned dramatically since All-Star weekend. Through Sunday he had
seen his points per game drop from 17.9 to 15.7. Last week team
vice president of operations Jerry West pulled Bryant aside and
advised him to stop looking at the bench every time he makes a
Vin Baker continues to lobby hard for a contract extension for
Sonics coach George Karl, who is in the last year of his deal
with Seattle. But sources say Karl has told friends it might be
best for him to move on even if the Sonics ante up.
UTAH AT SEATTLE
The illustrious Jazz combo of John Stockton and Karl Malone
clashes with the Sonics duet of Gary Payton and Vin Baker in a
huge Western Conference matchup. Utah has won two of three from
Seattle this season, including a 111-91 rout at Key Arena in the
teams' last meeting, on Feb. 14. At week's end, however, Seattle
was tied with Utah, one half game behind Chicago, in the race
for the NBA's best record--and home court advantage throughout
the playoffs. If they lose again to the Jazz, the Sonics will be
singing the blues.