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Original Issue

Inside The NBA

Charlotte's Eddie Jones has schooled doubters

Charlotte guard Eddie Jones had been in the NBA for four years
and had never missed the postseason. When it became apparent in
the last week of the season that the Hornets would come up short
in their mad dash for the last playoff slot in the East, Jones
told the team doctor to schedule surgery on Jones's right middle
finger, which he'd injured while trying to block a shot against
the Nets on April 19, for the day after the season ended. "I
told them I wanted it done right away so I wouldn't have to
watch the playoffs," Jones says. "I was too upset to have any

What was expected to be a routine procedure last Thursday turned
out to be a 2 1/2-hour operation to reattach a nerve, a severed
tendon and a severed artery. After the surgery Jones was stunned
to learn the extent of his injury. "I asked the doctors, 'How
could I have played with all these things wrong on my shooting
hand?'" says Jones, who hit a clutch double-overtime jumper on
the last night of the season to beat Boston. "They told me, 'We
don't understand it either.'"

The surgery was a fitting end to the most trying season of
Jones's career. After 4 1/2 seasons with the Lakers, he thought
he'd established himself as a cornerstone of a championship
contender. But he had also been the subject of trade rumors for
more than a year, and by the time L.A. pulled the trigger on the
deal that sent him and Elden Campbell to Charlotte for Glen
Rice, J.R. Reid and B.J. Armstrong on March 10, Jones was
relieved, even optimistic about making a new start. He concedes
that the distraction of his uncertain future affected his play
with the Lakers this season. While he played for Charlotte, his
shooting percentage jumped from 42.3 to 44.6, and his average
from 13.6 points per game to 17.0. "I needed to be out of that
place," Jones says of L.A. "Near the end I didn't enjoy it
anymore. Look at my numbers. I went from 23rd in the league in
steals with the Lakers to second with Charlotte. That's because
I was loving the game again."

Jones wants to lock up a long-term extension with the Hornets.
(Six years is the most he can sign for this summer.) "If they
make me the right offer, I'll sign," he says. "I want to be
here." He likes Charlotte's chances if Paul Silas re-signs as
the coach, and he can't wait to play alongside Anthony Mason,
who sat out the season with a ruptured right biceps tendon.
Jones believes that even though Michael Jordan's negotiations
with owner George Shinn hit a snag last week, His Airness will
end up running the club. "We could be the best team in the
East," Jones says.

There was a time when he believed the Lakers would be the best
team in the West, and he finds no consolation in the fact that
the trade he was part of has been a major disappointment for
L.A. and a major boost for Charlotte, even though most pundits
predicted it would be the other way around. "Lots of people had
lots to say," says Jones. "I'm sure some of them are wishing now
they'd never said a word."

Really Big Country

NBA scouts and agents burn up big chunks of their T&E budgets
beating the bushes worldwide in hopes of unearthing an
unpolished gem with the one thing you can't teach: size. That's
why the announcement last week that Evergreen Sports, a
Cleveland-based sports-management company, had signed 7'5"
Chinese center Yao Ming sent several general managers scrambling
for their checkbooks. Ming, who is 18 years old, played in a
Nike all-star game in Indianapolis last summer and piqued the
interest of scouts with his soft hands and touch. How well does
Ming move? "That depends on who you compare him to," says Billy
Knight, the Pacers' senior vice president of basketball
operations. "If you compare him to Gheorghe Muresan, Ming's a
ballet dancer."

The consensus among the NBA scouts was that with a few more
years of experience, Ming could become an impact player.
Mavericks assistant Donn Nelson, who has been to China to watch
Ming play, is certain he would be a first-round pick in this
year's draft. To be chosen, however, Ming has to declare himself
eligible for the draft by May 16. As of Monday he hadn't. In
fact, last Friday, Ming told the Chinese media, "I am not
thinking about playing in the NBA. At least not now."

That was bad news for Michael Coyne, the president of Evergreen
Sports, who claims he has a signed agreement with Ming to serve
as his management consultant. Coyne also says he has documents
from Ming's Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks, releasing him
from his contract.

League sources told SI that Ming was talked out of entering the
draft by both U.S. and Chinese basketball contacts, who feel he
needs more heft (he weighs 270 pounds) and more experience.
There were also concerns about Ming's deal with Evergreen. Two
sources who have read the contract say that it calls for over
half of Ming's earnings to go to Evergreen and the Sharks. The
agreement was forwarded anonymously to the players' association,
and sources there say executive director Billy Hunter proclaimed
it invalid because Coyne is not a certified agent.

Coyne says Hunter has no jurisdiction over his deal with Ming
precisely because he's no longer an agent. Coyne says he will
provide comprehensive management services for Ming, such as
assisting him in arranging his departure from China, helping him
adjust to a new culture and learn a new language, finding
international tax consultants for him and placing him with a
certified agent.

Coyne denies Ming backed out because of his contract with
Evergreen. "I think we disturbed the plans of bigger powers
here," says Coyne. He declined to say whether those bigger
powers were the NBA, the People's Republic of China or an even
more formidable force in sports, Nike.

Of course it's also possible that Ming just wanted to wait
another year before going to work for Coyne.

Nets Gain

As Nets officials begin their search for a permanent successor
to deposed coach John Calipari, the best choice may be right
under their noses. When Calipari was fired, assistant coach Don
Casey inherited a 3-17 team that was a pale imitation of the
group of swaggering young turks who made the playoffs in 1998.
Casey had no illusions that he was anything but a stopgap
replacement, but that was before he led the Nets to a 13-17
record despite losing center Jayson Williams (fractured right
leg), forward Keith Van Horn (surgery on left thumb) and forward
Scott Burrell (right knee injury) along the way.

The irony is that Casey didn't want to be in New Jersey last
season. Calipari no longer trusted him or consulted him, and he
forbade Casey and others in the organization, including senior
vice president Willis Reed, from socializing with the players.
Knowing all this, Casey began negotiating with Detroit during
the lockout to become Alvin Gentry's righthand man. He was on
the verge of joining the Pistons when new Nets owner Lewis Katz,
who had met Casey years ago through friends, asked him to stay
on. "I guess sometimes things happen for a reason," Casey says.

After his ascension the players gleefully dubbed Casey the King,
and many of them, including Williams and guard-forward Kendall
Gill, ardently hope he'll be named the permanent coach. Point
guard Stephon Marbury says he wouldn't mind having Casey
back--but only after Phil Jackson says nyet to the Nets.

Sources close to the former Bulls coach say that while he finds
the Nets situation "intriguing," he doesn't know Katz or New
Jersey's other owners, and he needs to have a better feel for
them before gauging his interest. Those same sources say that if
the Lakers were to have an opening, L.A. would be Jackson's
first choice.

In other words, Casey will be in limbo until Jackson decides
where to land. If it's New Jersey, Casey says he'll pack his
bags and be thankful for the 30-game tryout he was given.
Jackson, after all, has seven championships on his resume. "Even
I," says the King, "can understand that."

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CHAPMAN/NBA PHOTOS The fourth option as a Laker, Jones was the driving force behind Charlotte's turnaround.

Around The Rim

The Timberwolves' signing of Radoslav Nesterovic, a 7-foot
center from Slovenia, the last week of the season was a smart
move for both parties. The 22-year-old Nesterovic, who was the
17th pick in '98 but played in Italy this year, gets a taste of
the NBA playoffs and a big check--Nesterovic was paid this
season's full rookie-scale salary of $901,800, which, in turn,
will earn him credit for a full year of NBA service. It's never
too early to start thinking about your pension....

Count Dallas power forward A.C. Green among those free agents
who will be looking for a new team. Coach and G.M. Don Nelson
told him the Mavericks' other free-agent forwards, Gary Trent
and Samaki Walker, are more pressing priorities for the team....

No one was looking forward to the playoffs more than Suns guard
Rex Chapman, whose miserable season (12.1 points a game, 35.9%
shooting, both career lows) was due in part to a strained right
hamstring and was capped off by a fractured right eye socket he
suffered on April 28. Chapman keeps pretending to lose the
goggles that protect his eye, but coach Danny Ainge told him he
won't play unless he wears them. (Reserve forward Danny Manning
picked up the goggles one day and said to Ainge, "If I wear
them, can I play?") Chapman didn't wear them in last Saturday's
95-85 opening-round loss to the Trail Blazers, but his woes
continued. He shot 3 for 12 from the field and finished with
nine points.