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Dice On A Roll The Nuggets' supertalented power forward, Antonio McDyess, may be the NBA's hardest worker and its softest soul, who cries over losses and switching teams

Analyze this. Denver Nuggets power forward Antonio McDyess is
one of the NBA's most dynamic young stars, but he's so bereft of
bravado that he's not afraid to cry in public. In January he
chose to leave Phoenix, the league's Shangri-la, and accept $20
million less to sign as a free agent with the Nuggets, who went
11-71 last year. He treats rims with utter disdain, but
teammates use words like sweet, teddy bear and--no
joke--huggable to describe him. Compared to McDyess, a mob boss
with a fragile psyche hardly even qualifies as conflicted.

McDyess's dissonance can be more compelling than, say, that of a
Los Angeles Lakers forward with generous flextime. But because
McDyess plays for a woebegone team and has Betty Currie's
instincts for self-promotion, he's known for little more than
his hellacious dunks, a staple of the sports highlights shows.
Most fans are oblivious to his downy-soft jumper, his knack for
rebounding in traffic and his breakneck ferocity, all of which
were on display in a 46-point, 19-board performance against the
Vancouver Grizzlies on Feb. 28. They don't realize that in a
sport that has left so many with a sour taste, McDyess ought to
be regarded as a 6'9" Altoid. "He's refreshing," says Nuggets
coach Mike D'Antoni. "You don't often find a kid who isn't
embarrassed to be nice and sensitive but who is also becoming
one of the best players in the league."

The numbers bear D'Antoni out. Through Sunday, McDyess was among
the NBA's top 10 in scoring (21.2 points per game), rebounds
(10.6) and blocks (2.64). The only forward with comparable stats
was the Sacramento Kings' Chris Webber. What's more, McDyess
demands to guard the opposition's best frontcourt player and,
because of Denver's lack of punch, is inevitably doubled when he
has the ball. "As we get better as a team, more people will
recognize Antonio," says Dan Issel, general manager of the 7-18
Nuggets. "Talentwise and as a physical specimen, he's up there
with anyone."

McDyess's god-given gifts are extraordinary. He runs the court
as effortlessly as an impala, his body carries 245 pounds of
muscle, and he has hops worthy of a brewery. As a Nuggets rookie
in the fall of '95, McDyess blocked a shot in practice with such
zeal that he left a handprint on the glass. Measurements later
showed that the print was about two feet above the rim.

McDyess's success, however, is founded less on his having won
the genetic Pick Six than on his impeccable work ethic. Since
being drafted as a 20-year-old out of Alabama, McDyess has made
huge strides in his footwork and shot thousands of turnaround
jumpers alone in the gym. The Nuggets' strength coaches say they
haven't seen a player so relentless in the weight room since
Calvin Natt, a renowned workhorse for Denver in the mid-1980s.
"Dice leads by example," says Nuggets center-forward Danny
Fortson. "I like to think I play mean, but he plays mean."

The considerable, ahem, Rocky Mountain oysters that McDyess
shows on the court make his Doris Day personality all the more
perplexing. He doesn't drink, swear or refer to himself in the
third person. His body is unadorned by tattoos, earrings and
other trimmings, save a mesh bracelet embroidered with a small
reptile and the letters F.R.O.G. ("You don't know what that
stands for?" he asks incredulously. "Fully reliant on God.")
McDyess also regards trash talk the way others speak of illicit
drugs. "I tried it a few times, but it just wasn't for me," he
says. "I can't be someone I'm not. I try to be a warrior on the
court, but where I come from--Quitman, Mississippi--being macho
doesn't get you anywhere."

Macho he's not. After the Nuggets lost 95-87 to the Miami Heat
on March 4, McDyess emerged from the shower and stood before his
locker weeping. "It's all my fault," he said, his voice riven
with pain. The assembled members of the media, a species seldom
summoned to dispense TLC, were dumbfounded. "We felt like we had
to console him," says Vicki Michaelis, who covers the Nuggets
for The Denver Post. "We were all patting him on the back and
telling him to keep his head up." How badly had McDyess played
to occasion such self-reproach? He had scored only 20 points and
grabbed a mere eight rebounds. Against the best team in the
Eastern Conference. On the road. When the Nuggets' bench had
been outscored 35-2. "I just felt my teammates were looking for
my guidance in the fourth quarter," McDyess says sheepishly,
"and I let them down."

Fact is, there are plenty of nights when McDyess could sue the
other Denver players for nonsupport, particularly point guard
Nick Van Exel, who was shooting just 38.1% at week's end. But
loyalty is vital to McDyess, and no amount of time spent
standing wide open in the paint without seeing the ball could
justify disparaging a teammate. "Here's all you need to know
about Dice," says Nuggets assistant coach John Lucas, a mentor
to McDyess. "I first met him before the draft in 1995, when I
was coach and general manager of the Sixers. I invited him and
six other draft picks to work out for us and stay at my house.
Well, only one of the seven guys made his bed. You can guess who
that was."

The Nuggets made their bed before last season. Doubting that
McDyess was a franchise player, they traded him to Phoenix. When
McDyess left town tearfully, vowing he'd be back someday, few
took him seriously. But after deciding that he didn't fit in the
Suns' pell-mell system, he signed a six-year, $67.5 million
contract with Denver after the lockout ended. "I just felt more
comfortable with the Nuggets' organization and the city of
Denver," says McDyess, who, yes, was reduced to tears as he
agonized over choosing between the teams. "I guess I wanted the
pressure of being a leader."

He has acquitted himself well under that pressure, especially
against top opponents. In a March 11 game with the Utah Jazz,
for instance, he pushed Karl Malone off the blocks and
repeatedly demanded the ball, abusing the Mailman like a yapping
dog. The Nuggets lost 94-89, but McDyess finished with 39
points, including 15 in the fourth quarter. "He was a great
pickup for Denver," said Malone that night. "The Nuggets ought
to be thankful they got him."

Rest assured they are. A snakebit team that has won but one
round in the postseason over the past decade, Denver plays in
frumpy McNichols Arena, where a disco ball--not a
multimillion-dollar Jumbotron--hangs above midcourt. Change,
however, is in the thin mountain air. Next season the Nuggets
will relocate to the Pepsi Center, a privately funded,
state-of-the-art venue. In addition to McDyess, they have
quietly developed a solid nucleus in Fortson, guard Chauncey
Billups and rookie center Raef LaFrentz, who's out for the
season with a knee injury after getting off to a fast start.
McDyess, the oldest of that bunch, won't turn 25 until September.

"Next year's going to be a fresh start for the Denver Nuggets,"
says Lucas. "Dice can't do it all by himself, but we just know
that he's going to keep coming up snake eyes for us." Snake eyes
that may need to be dabbed with tissues from time to time.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Low-profile McDyess, in the NBA's top 10 in three categories, has quietly emerged as a load in the low post.