Antoine Walker can't get a break in Boston
It was a high-percentage, routine jumper from the foul line. Too
bad Boston forward Antoine Walker missed it. As soon as the ball
rolled off the rim, the FleetCenter crowd began booing the
Celtics' captain. The game against Atlanta on April 14 was less
than a minute old, yet already the fans wanted blood, and it was
clear whose they wanted.
Before the Hawks put the finishing touches on a 77-70 win, the
so-called home crowd was hooting Walker every time he touched
the ball. In that atmosphere Walker, a third-year player out of
Kentucky, produced one of the worst lines of his career: six
points on 3-of-12 shooting with four rebounds and one assist. "I
guess I'm not the kind of player these fans want," he said, near
tears, following the loss.
Two nights later, on the same parquet floor, Walker banked in a
difficult three-pointer with .7 of a second to play, propelling
the Celtics to an 82-81 win over the Heat. The crowd, roaring
with delight, gave him a standing ovation. Then last Sunday, in
the first quarter of a game against the Wizards, Walker's season
took another twist when he sprained his left ankle. Team
officials feared he would miss the Celtics' final 10 games.
As a Boston team that had delusions of playoff grandeur fights
to keep itself out of the Atlantic Division basement, Walker's
injury may have a devastating effect. Before going down, though,
he had become almost as infamous among Celtics fans as Sidney
Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the poster boys of the Celtics' darkest
days. No other team leader in the history of this storied
franchise was exalted and then condemned the way Walker has
been, with sentiments often shifting from one quarter to the next.
The Celtics clearly consider Walker their star of the future,
having signed him to a six-year, $71 million contract extension
in January. Walker was deemed a sound investment three months
ago because he's only 22 years old and can score, rebound and
pass. Yet Boston fans, spoiled by decades of excellence and
blinded by faith in coach Rick Pitino, have not warmed to
Walker, who has never been to the playoffs and whose career
record in Celtics green was 67-137 at week's end. Some parochial
Bostonians despise his signature celebratory move, the wiggle,
which he performs even after scoring meaningless baskets.
Walker's declaration last summer that he was "a veteran
All-Star" also cost him, and he did not endear himself to
Celtics fans this season by reporting to camp out of shape.
What Walker's critics fail to note is that he had played
extremely hard over the past month, and his once reckless shot
selection had been remarkably judicious. "If I have a bad game
and they boo me, that's fine," Walker said after the loss to
Atlanta. "I make the big money. I'll take the blame. But if I
take a shot and it doesn't go in, you're going to boo me? It's
No athlete could have endured the scrutiny Walker was under. His
heroics against the Heat last Friday were a welcome salve for
his wounds, but he understood such relief was only temporary.
The larger issue is how Walker's woes have affected his
teammates, notably rookie forward Paul Pierce and second-year
swingman Ron Mercer. Team sources say that Mercer, who can sign
an extension with the Celtics this summer but was shopped before
the trading deadline, will think long and hard before re-upping.
Mercer recently changed agents. He dumped David Falk--who has a
cozy relationship with Pitino and handles a number of Kentucky
alumni, including Walker and Celtics forward Walter McCarty--to
go with Master P. Mercer also severed ties with financial
adviser Rick Avare, a Pitino pal from Kentucky who is now on the
Mercer says the moves were business decisions, not a declaration
of independence from a controlling coach. He has spoken very
little about his future, but after the Hawks game he was visibly
shaken by the treatment Walker had received. "Antoine is a
strong person," Mercer said. "If anyone else on the team was
going through that, I don't think we could deal with it. It's so
unfair to put all the blame on him."
Pierce admits that he, too, was jolted by the fans' hostility
toward Walker. "I don't understand," says Pierce. "He's been
playing some of his best basketball, but he can't make mistakes
Walker says he will "reevaluate everything" at season's end. He
has few options. He is locked up in Boston until 2006, and even
if he decides to ask for a trade, his base salary makes him a
poor candidate for a swap.
Perhaps that's why there's so much frustration in the air at the
Fleet. The stark truth is that Walker is stuck with the Celtics,
and they are stuck with him.
Life Without Jordan
PIPPEN HURTING, BUECHLER ROLLING
When Chicago swingman Toni Kukoc tunes into a Houston game and
tracks his old teammate Scottie Pippen, he wonders if he should
adjust his set. The guy languishing on the perimeter with a look
of frustration on his face sure doesn't appear to be the All-Star
who won six NBA titles with the Bulls.
Conversely, neither Kukoc nor anyone else would have guessed
that the former Chicago player who would flourish most in a new
environment would be swingman Jud Buechler. He was a bit player
in Chicago's title runs, yet he has been a significant
contributor for Detroit this season, averaging 5.6 points and
21.6 minutes a night through Sunday.
Pippen, meanwhile, was shooting a career low 42.6% from the
floor and averaging just 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds at week's
end. Clearly he misses playing alongside Michael Jordan--who
wouldn't?--but he seems to pine nearly as much for Chicago's
triangle offense, which accentuated his strengths. Pippen,
Jordan and Kukoc all knew what the others planned to do before
they did it because the rhythm of the offense had become second
nature to them. "Most teams have plan A, B and C," Kukoc said
last week. "With us, it was A and, only if necessary, B. C never
In Houston, plan A is Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets won two
championships by going to him in the low post. The team's other
primary offensive threat is Charles Barkley backing into the
basket. That leaves Pippen in the unfamiliar role of a perimeter
player waiting for a kick out from the double team. "I'm not
sure why that's a surprise to Scottie," says longtime Bulls
assistant Tex Winter, the architect of the triangle offense.
"I've always said that for Scottie to score big, he has to score
Pippen's success shooting the three in Chicago was bolstered by
his effectiveness as a penetrator and creator. He says those
skills are often lost in Houston's offensive schemes. "I got
used to getting touches and cutting and creating and
anticipating what I could do next to get easier shots," says
Pippen. "Here I'm not allowed to do that. I'm not used to an
offense focused on one individual. The biggest adjustment has
been standing out there, waiting to catch and shoot threes.
That's not my style."
Most observers agree that Pippen will eventually have a bigger
impact on the Rockets. "It may take some time, but Scottie will
find his niche," Winter predicts. "You can't make too much of
his demeanor. It's Scottie's personality to get frustrated with
If Buechler was frustrated by his lack of playing time in
Chicago, he at least had the privilege of playing for a
champion. Winter says he always felt that Bulls coach Phil
Jackson should have used Buechler more, but Jackson's dilemma
was obvious: Carving out time for Buechler meant shaving minutes
from either Jordan or Pippen.
Detroit has experienced no such difficulties. The Pistons
envisioned Buechler as a hardworking role player who could knock
down three-pointers and give them between 10 and 12 minutes a
night. "But right away he surprised us with his athleticism and
his defense," says coach Alvin Gentry. "The more I saw, the more
I wanted him in there. He was a big-time find for us."
Clipper at a Crossroads
OLOWOKANDI NOT GIVING UP YET
When Michael Olowokandi was drafted first by the Los Angeles
Clippers last year, he steadfastly refused to discuss his new
employer's disastrous past. As the 1998-99 season inches
mercifully to a close, the rookie center must now confront the
past as well as the present and the future.
The grisly details include a year in which the Clippers could
have set records for futility if the schedule had not been
shortened by the lockout. Through Sunday, L.A., which opened the
season with 17 consecutive losses, had won only seven games. Now
Olowokandi must consider what will be left next year of what is
already a shell of a team. Forwards Rodney Rogers and Lorenzen
Wright--both of whom will be free agents this summer--and
veteran guard Pooh Richardson have made it clear they want out.
Forward Maurice Taylor, the Clippers' first pick in the '97
draft, also could become a free agent after next season and opt
"I think Maurice will stay," Olowokandi said last week. "His
attitude has always been positive. He gets upset when we lose.
He cares what happens to our team."
That in itself is a novelty. Players who have been in Clippers
purgatory for several seasons tend to become indifferent. Losing
breeds losing, and too often in close games this season, veteran
players who have seen their team blow it in the past have let it
happen again. "I have to overcome whatever negativity surrounds
the Clippers," Olowokandi says. "I don't dwell on last year or
experiences that are specific to some of my teammates. If my
experience turns out to be sour [too], then so be it."
Olowokandi, who had hoped to be Rookie of the Year, concedes
that he didn't expect such modest personal statistics (averages
of 9.1 points and 7.8 rebounds through Sunday) or such gruesome
team results this season. With point guard Sherman Douglas
finally healthy and contributing, Olowokandi's revised goals
include finishing the year with a win total that reaches double
A (Not So) Fine Line
DALE DAVIS, PACERS
April 16 versus Philadelphia: 28 minutes, 0 of 2 FG, 0 of 0 FT,
0 points, 3 rebounds. Forty-eight hours after Davis's 12 points,
16 boards and four blocks clinched a critical win for the Pacers
over Orlando, he came up empty in a 93-83 loss to the Sixers,
typifying the inconsistency of Indiana's roster this season.
Send your NBA questions to Phil Taylor at www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Celtics fans, unlike the Raptors' Charles Oakley, have been slow to embrace Walker.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Pippen misses the triangle and feels like a square peg in Houston.
NUGGETS AT TRAIL BLAZERS
Monday, April 26
Since it opened in 1995, Portland's Rose Garden has been a bed
of thorns for the Nuggets. Denver has lost seven games by an
average of 27.6 points at the high-tech, fan-friendly palace.
Among the Blazers' blowout victories was a 105-65 pummeling in
November '96 and a 107-63 rout in April '97. By those standards,
Portland's 100-85 win over Denver on Feb. 17, which the Blazers
led by 29 points in the third quarter, was a squeaker.
Around The Rim
Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens, who is also head of the National
Basketball Coaches Association, has petitioned the league to
change the injured reserve list to the reserve list, thereby
allowing teams to carry 14 players legitimately, instead of
conjuring up injuries to stash healthy players. Wilkens proposes
that the two players on reserve receive the minimum salary, with
the understanding that they cannot be kept on reserve for more
than one season. "The way it works now is a farce," says
Wilkens, who dressed only 11 players against Boston last week
because his organization refuses to put players on injured
reserve unless they are really hurt....
Portland is concerned that forward Brian Grant may be hindered
the rest of the way by a sore left knee. Grant has missed two
games in the past two weeks....
Utah coach Jerry Sloan, an assistant to Wilkens on the 1996 U.S.
Olympic team, expressed disappointment last week at not being
chosen team coach for the 2000 Games. Houston coach Rudy
Tomjanovich, who coached the U.S. in the world championships
last summer, was given the nod instead. "What did I do wrong?"
Sloan said. "I don't mind criticism. Did I do something wrong?
I'd like to know." Those in the know say that USA Basketball's
intent was not to slight Sloan but rather to reward Tomjanovich
for having coached a team that was supposed to be composed of
NBA All-Stars but, because of the league's labor strife, was
made up of CBA and college players.