A Yugoslav center turned heads courtside--and Stateside
The elimination of the U.S. Dreamers' Team from the World
Basketball Championships in Athens on Aug. 8 came with a dollop
of deja vu. Against the Americans in the gold medal game of the
1972 Olympics, the Soviet Union threw a full-court pass for the
winning layup as time ran out; this time, in a 66-64 semifinal
victory, Russia struck over land, with forward Serguei Panov
dribbling the length of the floor for a layup with four seconds
to go. In Munich a referee made the final basket possible by
putting three seconds back on the clock; in Athens no referee
intervened when, after Panov's score, Vassilij Karassev pinned
the ball to the floor behind the baseline as the clock ticked
down. At least as much time as was given to the Soviets in '72
was taken from the Americans 26 years later, and a running
three-pointer by Wendell Alexis of the U.S. dropped in just
after the buzzer.
Despite the bitter finish, several of the CBA lifers, European
league vagabonds and green collegians making up the American
team caught the eyes of NBA scouts during their three weeks
together--and not Alexis and Jimmy Oliver, the top U.S. scorers,
both of whom were deficient defensively. Bird dogs couched their
comments warily because of lockout-related restrictions, but
scouts took note of Michael Hawkins, the 6-foot point guard who
played last season with Olympiakos of Athens; of 6'9" power
forward Gerard King, a banger who has filled out during two
seasons with Fontanafredda of the Italian league; of 1998 CBA
MVP Jimmy King, a 6'5" guard whose in-transition slam on a
shovel pass from Hawkins on Aug. 8 gave the crowd a hint of a
Dream Team floor show; and of Brad Miller, the 6'11" center out
of Purdue who went undrafted in June. The first three are free
agents; Miller signed with Livorno in Italy's Serie A--but with
an out-clause if an NBA team shows interest after the lockout
Easily the finest player of the tournament was 6'11" center
Zeljko Rebraca of Yugoslavia, which beat Russia 64-62 on Sunday
for the title, with Rebraca blocking a shot, scoring off a
rebound and making two free throws in the closing minute. He has
a reported $1.5 million deal with Italy's Benetton Treviso for
the coming season, and Virtus Bologna is trying to lock him up
for three years after that.
Minnesota holds the NBA rights to this fluid 25-year-old shot
blocker and scorer (13.6 points a game in Athens) whom U.S.
coach Rudy Tomjanovich calls "poised, strong and streamlined,"
and Rebraca is interested in joining the T-Wolves for the
1999-2000 season. A year ago he told Minnesota vice president
Kevin McHale he didn't feel prepared for the NBA. "I think I'm
ready now," Rebraca says. "After this season I think I'll be
even more ready. I really want to play in the NBA. But I want to
play. I don't want to sit on the bench." He also says he would
expect to earn more than he's getting in Europe--all the more
reason for the Timberwolves to make sure they can afford to pay
players besides Kevin Garnett.
MALONE WEARS THE UNION LABEL
The biggest shock of last week's aborted NBA-labor negotiating
session came not when the owners walked out, feigning
indignation over the proceedings, but when Karl Malone walked
into the press conference afterward and sat beside union
executive director Billy Hunter in a show of solidarity. It was
a curious about-face for a player who in 1995, during the
league's last round of labor strife, had been a vocal critic of
efforts by some of the league's other big stars to decertify the
union so the players could pursue an antitrust suit against the
league. At that time Malone not only exchanged barbs with
Patrick Ewing (now the union president) over Ewing's hard-line
labor stance but also wondered aloud why his peers were so greedy.
Yet there was Malone on Aug. 6, slapping Ewing on the back and
vowing support. "It [supporting the union] isn't about helping
Karl Malone," he says. "I'm going to get mine. But if you look
at the history of the NBA, the leaders always left the next
group of players with something better, from Dr. J to Larry Bird
to Magic Johnson. I'd like to be part of that."
One of those legacies--the Larry Bird exception, which enables a
team to re-sign a veteran free agent for any amount, regardless
of the team's salary cap status--is the sticking point in these
talks. The owners favor eliminating or modifying the rule;
players want it left alone.
Malone hadn't been represented by an agent for the past decade,
but he recently hired Dwight Manley, who also handles Dennis
Rodman and Brian Williams. That could be bad news for the Jazz.
Malone's contract (worth $6.2 million this season) expires next
summer, but Malone says that he and Jazz owner Larry Miller had
a secret agreement that would have circumvented the salary cap
and paid Malone more than the rules allow. Now Malone says he
wants no part of such deals.
"No handshake agreements, no secret 'We'll take care of you'
meetings," he says. "I've had those for 13 years, and the person
taken advantage of was me. The Jazz had more than enough
opportunities before they signed Greg Ostertag [for $39 million
over six years last September] to say, 'Karl, what will it take
you make you happy?' Instead, they said, 'We'll get back to
you.' Now they can get back to Dwight."
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
COLOR PHOTO: THOMAS CHRISOHOIDIS EURO SMASH Rebraca (rebounding against Greece) says he needs one more season to get ready for the NBA. [Zeljko Rebraca in game]
AROUND THE RIM
Pacers center Rik Smits was in so much pain from damaged nerves
on the bottom of both feet that he considered retiring last
spring. Then coach Larry Bird hooked him up with physical
therapist Dan Dyrek, who has helped Bird with back and elbow
woes, and Dyrek's ability to break up scar tissue in the feet
has left Smits eager to resume playing. "I'm walking barefoot
now, something I haven't done in years," says Smits, 31. "Last
week I played on a blacktop, which I hadn't done since college."
A free agent, Smits commutes each week from his home in upstate
New York to Boston to see Dyrek at his own expense. (The lockout
prohibits Indiana from paying for the treatments.)...
Free agent Scottie Pippen's rehabilitation from back surgery
includes up to three miles a day on the treadmill but no
basketball workouts yet. Pippen continues to tell friends he is
pessimistic about remaining in a Bulls uniform....
Word is that Lakers owner Jerry Buss finally came to his senses
and plans to give executive vice president of basketball
operations Jerry West a raise....
Sources in Cleveland say the Cavs were poised to make
a run at free agent LaPhonso Ellis before the lockout hit.