GREEN WITH ENVY
Celtics rookie Paul Pierce is making the teams that didn't draft
him regret it
He always saved the shooting drills for last, when his legs were
dead and his breathing labored. It was a self-imposed rule at
all his off-season workouts. Celtics rookie Paul Pierce had to
be close to exhaustion before he would grab a basketball and
begin his roll call.
"Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers!" he would shout as he
buried a 20-footer. "Mike Bibby, Vancouver Grizzlies!" he'd
holler as he swished a second jumper. "Raef LaFrentz, Denver
Down the line he would go, naming each player taken ahead of him
in the 1998 NBA draft. The names of those nine players and the
teams that selected them are branded into Pierce's psyche.
Whenever he feels fatigued, or complacent, he simply recalls the
list and feeds off the jolt of adrenaline that slight still
gives him. "Whatever little thing I can find," Pierce explains,
"I use to motivate myself."
At week's end, Pierce was third in the league in steals (2.67
per game) and averaging 18.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.4
blocks. Sure, Kings point guard Jason Williams is everybody's
favorite highlight-reel rookie, and the Raptors' Vince Carter
has thrown down a few tasty dunks in his first season, but the
6'7" Pierce is the complete package on both ends of the floor.
"He's the cream of the crop," says Heat president and coach Pat
So why did he slip to No. 10? A combination of things: Pierce
made it clear that he didn't want to play in either Toronto or
Sacramento; he plays the same position--small forward--as Carter
and Antawn Jamison, who were picked ahead of him; and after
Kansas lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last
year, there were whispers that Pierce looked a little soft.
Regardless of why he was still available after nine picks,
Boston is delighted Pierce dropped into its lap, and Pierce is
fortunate to have ended up where he did. The Celtics' up-tempo
style is a good fit for his skills and athleticism. Pierce's
superior upper-body strength, meanwhile, has prevented other
small forwards from muscling him off the blocks.
Pierce's fast start has made him wildly popular in Boston, where
fans have been thirsting for a new star since the end of the
Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish era. Forward Antoine
Walker auditioned for the part the past two seasons, to mixed
reviews; while his talent is unquestionable, he doesn't exhibit
the poise or consistency Pierce has shown in just 15 NBA games.
Pierce's teammates say Pitino rides the rookie harder than
anyone else in practice, dwelling on the tiniest of
deficiencies. In Pitino's world, that's the ultimate sign of
affection. Pitino lusted after German star Dirk Nowitzki on
draft night, and would have taken Nowitzki, had he been on the
board, ahead of Pierce. This fact has not escaped Pierce. Nor
has the fact that Kentucky, coached by Pitino, did not pursue
him as a high school prospect.
Is all forgiven? Perhaps--but not forgotten. Asked if he has
ever mentioned those slights to Pitino, Pierce says, "I may have
brought it up a time or two."
Resign of the Times
COWENS STINGS HORNETS
Charlotte coach Dave Cowens couldn't shake the feeling. "I kept
wondering whether I was still part of this franchise," he says.
"It had been kind of tense the past couple weeks."
The major source of tension was Cowens's announcement on March 7
that he considered himself a lame duck because owner George
Shinn had already made it clear he would not pay Cowens market
value when the coach's $675,000-a-year contract expired at the
end of the season. So, on Sunday afternoon, Cowens, who had led
the Hornets to consecutive 50-win seasons, confronted executive
VP of basketball operations Bob Bass. "I asked Bob if there was
a future for me here," Cowens says. "The response was no. So I
said to him, 'Well, then, we've got problems.'"
Those problems were ironed out pretty quickly when Cowens
resigned. So ended a frustrating year for Cowens, a year in
which injuries destroyed his team and his public complaints
about being the lowest-paid coach in the league destroyed his
future with Charlotte. Cowens says Shinn had offered him a new
contract last February that would have paid him $1.2 million
this season, $1.4 million in 1999-00 and $1.6 million in '00-01.
Although those figures still would have left him the NBA's
lowest-paid coach, Cowens reluctantly signed the pact because he
wanted his 18-year-old daughter, Samantha, to finish high school
in North Carolina. When Cowens signed the contract but expressed
his disappointment over the terms, Cowens says an infuriated
Shinn rescinded the offer. Cowens did not go public with his
unhappiness then, but the bad news kept coming. In training
camp, the team learned that Glen Rice would be out six to eight
weeks with an injured right elbow, and a few days before the
season started Anthony Mason was lost for the year with a torn
right biceps. As the losses piled up, so did Cowens's
frustrations. By Sunday he felt his status had become too much
of a distraction for his players.
"I couldn't go out every day with this team and give it a
half-assed effort," Cowens said on Sunday night. "I had to feel
like I was in this for something bigger."
Cowens talked to his players before making his resignation
official, and argued that he was not quitting on them, but
rather giving them the chance to move forward under interim
coach Paul Silas, his friend and top assistant. His players were
surprised and confused. Cowens knows he will be criticized for
abandoning them, but he wanted to leave with his integrity
intact. "I told my players this had nothing to do with them,"
Cowens says. "They're beat up, but they haven't packed it in.
They've played hurt. I also told them they don't have to defend
me. I'm a big boy."
Cowens says it was important for him to know he could pursue
another job next season, instead of worrying that the Hornets
might hold him to the option year. "I'm taking a chance," he
says. "But at least I have a little control now."
WHY CAN'T MITCH GET RICH?
Veteran All-Star Mitch Richmond must be wondering what he did to
anger the basketball gods. After toiling in Sacramento for seven
seasons, a stretch in which the franchise's record was 221-353,
Richmond finally slipped through the escape hatch last May when
the Kings dealt him and Otis Thorpe to Washington for Chris
Webber. So what happens? Sacramento drafts Williams, a Pete
Maravich clone, and signs free-agent center Vlade Divac. Webber
starts racking up career numbers, and the Kings become one of
the NBA's most intriguing teams. The Wizards, meanwhile, find
themselves in a familiar position: struggling and bickering.
"It's pretty frustrating," Richmond says.
On paper Richmond, 33, and Rod Strickland, 32, give Washington
the best backcourt in the league, but they haven't played to
form yet. The Wizards also have an anemic front line, featuring
Terry Davis and Ben Wallace in the middle. Juwan Howard is a
solid player, but not the dominating force he's getting paid to
be. Despite having Strickland and two former All-Stars in its
lineup, Washington was 7-9 through Sunday.
The Wizards haven't helped their cause by sniping at one
another. After a loss to Miami on Feb. 23, Howard publicly
questioned coach Bernie Bickerstaff's defensive strategy. (He's
lucky Bickerstaff didn't publicly question his tepid rebounding
in return.) Strickland admits that tensions have run high as the
losses have piled up, and speculation is already swirling about
Bickerstaff's job security.
Opponents have noticed the strife. "I know there's dissension,
because I know those guys personally," says Detroit forward
Jerome Williams. "You can sense it when you play them."
All this paints a bleak picture for Richmond, who will be a free
agent this summer. He desperately wants a final big payday, but
he welcomed a trade out of Sacramento because he was tired of
losing. If Richmond doesn't re-sign with Washington, he'll
forfeit his Larry Bird rights and likely have to settle for
significantly less cash from a cap-strapped contender. For a
player who has been underpaid most of his career (he's making
just $1.5 million this shortened season), that's a sobering
reality. "I thought it would be a lot easier," Richmond says of
his rocky transition in D.C. "But there are still some games
left to figure it out. We have some nice pieces here."
Strickland, who re-upped with the Wizards in February after
thorny negotiations, has told Richmond to do what's best for
himself. "I like Mitch, and I love playing with him," says
Strickland, "but if he sees that things aren't going well here,
he has every right to move on."
The Fine Line
PATRICK EWING, KNICKS
March 2 versus Miami: 43 minutes, 10-26 FG, 11-14 FT, 31 points,
16 rebounds, 6 blocks. At age 36 and still getting back into
shape after wrist surgery and protracted labor negotiations,
Ewing outplayed MVP candidate Alonzo Mourning (28 points, 11
rebounds, 7 blocks). Even though he missed a game-winning shot
at the buzzer, this was an impressive performance by the much
maligned Knicks center.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Marty Burns's exclusive
NBA team rankings, check out www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS Pierce is a good shooter and defender, but nursing a grudge is what he does best.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN The grossly underpaid Cowens finally grew tired of coaching an undermanned team in Charlotte.
BRICK OF THE WEEK
On March 2, the same day he was named Rookie of the Month,
Celtics forward Paul Pierce went 0 for 11 from the floor,
finishing with just two points, in a 116-99 loss at Cleveland.
The last time Pierce didn't make a basket in a game? "In
college, my freshman year," the former Kansas standout says.
Around The Rim
No wonder Orlando coach Chuck Daly was so confident Dennis
Rodman wouldn't have been a distraction. Daly has canceled most
of the Magic's practices this season, hoping to avoid injuries.
In light of Orlando's hot start, maybe Rodman's right--practice
Sources say the Terrell Brandon-for-Sam Cassell swap floated
last week is little more than wishful thinking by the Bucks.
Cassell's contract makes him a major bargain for the Nets, while
Brandon is looking for big money when he becomes a free agent
this summer. (He'd like the bidding to start at $10-to-11
million per year.) The Nets have to lock up Keith Van Horn and
are hoping they have enough left in the kitty to keep Kerry
Golden State forward Jason Caffey, who signed a seven-year, $35
million contract on Jan. 22, was struggling so badly as a
starter that he contemplated asking P.J. Carlesimo to bench him.
Then he scored 14 points and pulled down 11 boards in the
Warriors' win at Indiana last Friday....
Pacers center Rik Smits, who underwent extensive therapy over
the summer for his chronically ailing feet and started the
season declaring that they felt as good as they had in years, is
experiencing pain again. "I signed a two-year extension," Smits
says. "I hope I can make it that long." ...
Chris Webber on the Trail Blazers, who have six players
averaging in double figures: "They have two starting lineups."
Coach Mike Dunleavy says his team's success hinges on how well
he--and the players--handle the parceling out of playing time.