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Original Issue

Inside The NBA

The Pistons are leaning toward hiring Bill Laimbeer as their

For one glorious evening last Friday, the Pistons' championship
teams of 1988-89 and '89-90 were reunited to celebrate the
14-year career of retired guard Joe Dumars, to applaud the
league's decision to rename its sportsmanship trophy after him
and to watch Dumars's number 4 be raised to the rafters of The
Palace at Auburn Hills.

But make no mistake: This was not a cue for Dumars to gracefully
exit Detroit. In fact it might as well have been his coming-out
party with the franchise. The six-time All-Star has held the
title of Pistons vice president of personnel for nearly a year,
but the position was largely ceremonial, and Dumars exerted
little influence in the front office. That, say team sources, is
about to change. Dumars has assumed a larger role in recent
weeks--okaying the March 6 firing of coach Alvin Gentry, for
example--and he has told friends he's ready to take more control
over the team's personnel.

In fact, Pistons sources confirm, Dumars met last week with a
surprising candidate to replace Gentry: Bad Boys center Bill
Laimbeer. Although nothing will be announced until the end of the
season, those sources say the job is Laimbeer's to lose. Forget
about the false reports that his hiring would signal the
departure of Grant Hill, a free-agent-to-be. Do you really think
the Pistons would not consult Hill before ramming an outsized
personality like Laimbeer's down their superstar's throat?

Hill, who has refused to comment on Laimbeer for fear of
undermining interim coach George Irvine--even though Irvine has
made it clear that he doesn't want the job permanently--told SI
last Friday, "Definitely, Bill Laimbeer would be a strong
possibility. He knows the game and, more important, knows Detroit
and the Pistons' situation. He also has a strong relationship
with [owner] Mr. [Bill] Davidson."

Laimbeer, a Pistons season-ticket holder since he retired in
1994, expressed interest in the position two years ago before
Gentry's interim status was upgraded. Team sources said then that
Laimbeer, 42, who has never coached at any level, was
disappointed when he didn't receive so much as a courtesy call
from Davidson. Reached by SI last Friday, Laimbeer was brief: "I
have absolutely nothing to say."

Laimbeer and Hill are not close--though they did collaborate on a
hilarious commercial for Fila shoes three years ago--and Laimbeer
has not hesitated to critique Hill's play. "I've talked to him a
fair amount over the years, although not a whole lot this
season," says Hill. "He clearly knows this league, and he's
someone who is smart enough and competitive enough that if he
didn't know something, he'd surround himself with the right
people, whether it's a veteran coach, a defensive coach,

Hill says he's "amused" by reports that his mother, Janet, is
telling NBA people her son will not return to Detroit next
season. "My mom and dad are very private people," he says. "They
are also very smart people. Even if I had made up my mind about
what I'm going to do--which I haven't--they'd never reveal my
intentions. Besides, when the time comes, I'll make up my own
mind, just like when I was choosing colleges. My mom wanted me to
go to Georgetown, and my father wanted me to go to North
Carolina." Hill, as everyone knows, chose Duke.

The Spurs' Struggles

San Antonio point guard Avery Johnson trained himself to conceal
disappointment, contain anger, defuse controversy. Three seasons
ago, when Raptors guard Damon Stoudamire asked to be traded, he
rhapsodized about playing in San Antonio, saying the Spurs "need
help at point guard." The 5'11" Johnson merely smiled at the
obvious slight, then answered cheerfully, "Tell Damon I wish him
the best of luck--wherever he ends up."

In other words: Keep looking, pal. There's no vacancy here. The
Spurs were his team, critics be damned. Johnson had overcome
doubters who disparaged his size and questioned his ability to
hit from the outside. The same criticisms had plagued him in
college, at Southern, where he led the NCAA in assists as a
junior and senior yet was not drafted. Johnson played for four
other NBA teams before carving out a niche with the Spurs under
coach Gregg Popovich.

When San Antonio won the championship last June, Johnson proved
to be as indispensable as Tim Duncan and David Robinson. He was
the quarterback of the best starting five in basketball. "Not the
most talented, not the most athletic--just the best," Johnson
says. "Because we were like clockwork. Because we knew what the
other guy was doing before he did it."

As the Spurs prepare for the stretch run this season, they are
seeking that same precision, but the search has been hard without
small forward Sean Elliott, who underwent a kidney transplant
last summer and was scheduled to return on Tuesday. Injuries to
Duncan (abdominal strain), forward Malik Rose (sprained right
ankle) and guard Terry Porter (sprained left knee) haven't
helped. Popovich must also balance the playing time of the
complementary players who got him his first ring (like Johnson
and swingman Mario Elie) and those who could win him the next one
(Porter and guard Antonio Daniels), knowing that Duncan, a free
agent this summer, will look hard at San Antonio's long-term
prospects before committing to stay.

San Antonio was 15th in the league in turnovers at week's end
(15.4 per game). That ranking is a reflection of the team's mix
of old and new players who don't know one another's tendencies.
The Spurs' frustrations erupted after a Feb. 15 loss to the
Cavaliers, when Johnson and Rose engaged in a heated argument,
forcing half-clad teammates to separate them. While such
incidents occur frequently in the NBA, they rarely occurred on
the Spurs last season. Johnson, 34, endured a flurry of trade
rumors before the deadline and was left to chew on one cold fact:
If Clippers owner Donald Sterling had been willing to part with
guard Derek Anderson, Johnson would be wearing an L.A. uniform
right now.

Johnson believes Elliott will be healthy enough to solidify the
rotation and get San Antonio, which was 40-23 through Sunday,
back to the Finals. If so, he will do so without home court
advantage. "By the time we get it together," says Popovich, "we
could be the sixth, seventh or eighth seed [in the West]. Do we
have enough time? I don't honestly know."

Count on this: Johnson will be the one getting Duncan the ball
where he likes it, the one Robinson will trust when the game is
on the line. After all, it's still Johnson's team.

John Starks's Odyssey

If there is one thing that has defined guard John Starks's
11-year career, it's that no matter how grim things look, you can
count on him to keep shooting...and shooting...and shooting.
Perhaps that's why many of his peers were surprised when Starks,
rather than jack it up for the Bulls, who acquired him from the
Warriors on Feb. 16, took his ball and went home to Tulsa on
March 6 to await an arbitrator's decision on his future in the
NBA. True, Starks's wife is about to deliver their third child,
and yes, Starks is suffering from tendinitis in both knees, but
the gunner has admitted that if he were playing for a
championship-contending team, he'd be suiting up every night.

Starks is seeking to void the remainder of his three-year, $4
million contract (worth roughly $900,000) so that he can join a
contender for what's left of the season. He also wants the
arbitrator to declare him eligible for the playoffs, even though
players obtained after March 1 cannot play in the postseason. The
league is adamant that Starks should not be eligible, even if he
goes to another team.

When Starks asked Golden State to trade him, he was hoping to
hook up with the Heat or the Spurs, teams in the thick of the
title hunt that need perimeter help. Instead he was shipped to
Chicago as part of the three-way swap that moved Larry Hughes and
Billy Owens to the Warriors and Toni Kukoc to the 76ers. Chicago
admits the first-round draft pick that accompanied Starks from
Golden State was the key to the trade, yet the Bulls desperately
need the kind of leadership that Starks used to offer. "He should
be a leader and honor his job until he's moved," says Chicago
guard Randy Brown. "I wish he'd reconsider and come out and help

As soon as the trade was announced, Starks, who was vilified in
the Windy City when he played with the Knicks from 1990-91 to
'97-98, asked Bulls general manager Jerry Krause to trade him
again. Krause, who is saving up cap space and could use Starks's
$4 million this summer, declined. Starks later offered to forfeit
the rest of his salary for his freedom.

Why should the 34-year-old Starks receive special treatment? He
was a malcontent on the Warriors when they, too, could have used
a little guidance, and he's neither the first nor the last aging
player to be acquired strictly for cap purposes. Maybe Starks
would generate more sympathy if he were a long-suffering veteran
who never had gotten a sniff at a title--Mitch Richmond comes to
mind--but Starks had his shot (after shot after shot) with the
Knicks in the 1994 Finals, in which they lost to the Rockets in
Game 7 largely because Starks couldn't bury any of his 11 threes.

Among the few who seem to care about Starks's fate is Rookie of
the Year candidate Elton Brand, who is the cornerstone of
Chicago's rebuilding project, for better or worse, and who was
particularly offended, say teammates, by Starks's words and
actions. But most of the Bulls aren't pining over him. "It's not
like we're discussing John Starks in the locker room, or even on
the bus," says veteran Hersey Hawkins. "I think most guys feel,
Hey, we can't do anything about it, so why the heck are we going
to waste our energy trying to figure out what he's going to do?"

Last time we checked, stashing a healthy player on the injured
list, as Chicago has done with Starks, was a blatant violation of
the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, but the league
has no plans to investigate. "We're not going to look into it,"
deputy commissioner Russ Granik said late last week, "unless some
other team cares. If it did, then we'd pursue it."

Line of the Week

Mavericks guard Eric Strickland, March 11 versus the Suns: 43
minutes, 11-19 FG, 13-17 FT, 36 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals.
Strickland's career high in points helped get Dallas back on the
post-Rodman winning track with a 104-99 victory.

For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to

COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER The most heavy-handed of the Bad Boys, Laimbeer has stayed close to his former team.



COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Johnson still believes the champion Spurs will deliver down the stretch.

Sub Classification

Though Tracy McGrady was recently elevated to Toronto's starting
backcourt, he's still eligible for the league's Sixth Man Award,
which goes to the best player who has started fewer than half the
games he has played. According to the SI Player Rating Formula*,
however, McGrady must take a backseat to quietly productive
Dallas forward Cedric Ceballos, who was scoring 18.1 points and
grabbing 7.3 rebounds in 32.4 minutes per game at week's end.
--David Sabino

Cedric Ceballos, F, Mavericks 58 24 37.2 43
Tracy McGrady, G-F, Raptors 59 14 35.4 50
Rodney Rogers, F, Suns 62 7 32.2 69
Andre Miller, G, Cavaliers 62 16 31.4 74
Jerome Williams, F, Pistons 61 1 30.4 80
Cuttino Mobley, G, Rockets 61 5 29.0 86
Chris Gatling, F, Magic-Nuggets 65 0 27.6 95
Keon Clark, C, Nuggets 61 9 26.9 102
Jamie Feick, F-C, Nets 62 13 26.5 106
Austin Croshere, F, Pacers 62 4 26.3 108

*{[2x (FGs + 3-pters. + Assists + Blocks + Off. reb.)]+ [1.5 x
(Def. reb. + Steals)] + Total points + FTs - (2 x TOs) - (Missed
FTs + Missed FGs + Missed 3-pters.)} / Games team has played


Which would you rather see, a game between the Bulls and the
Warriors or one between natives of greater Chicago and those of
the Bay Area? The Bay backcourt is terrific, but Chi has a huge
edge in go-to guys.

Chicagoland San Francisco Bay Area

Antoine Walker (above, Celtics) SF Isaiah Rider (above, Hawks)
Juwan Howard (Wizards) PF Greg Foster (Sonics)
Nazr Mohammed (Sixers) C Antonio Davis (Raptors)
Michael Finley (Mavericks) SG Gary Payton (Sonics)
Tim Hardaway (Heat) PG Jason Kidd (Suns)
Kendall Gill (Nets) 6th Lamond Murray (Cavaliers)

Around The Rim

Wizards rookie guard Richard Hamilton has wowed new coach Darrell
Walker with his offensive skills, but Hamilton's playing time
will be limited until he improves on D. "He has to be tougher,"
says Walker. "I've told him, 'You can't be soft defensively,
because I need you out there to score.'" Walker has prescribed
some serious weight work for the 6'6", 185-pound Hamilton, but as
teammate Rod Strickland says, "He may have one of those
bodies--some guys lift and lift, and it never makes any

60 Minutes recently did a piece on the crusade by Hawks center
Dikembe Mutombo to build a 300-bed hospital in his native Congo,
a project to which Mutombo has donated $3 million. The broadcast
prompted more than 80 E-mails to the Hawks' offices offering

As the search for explanations for the Trail Blazers' slump
continues--the team had lost four of seven at week's end--keep
this in mind: Portland is banged up. Brian Grant has plantar
fasciitis in his right foot, Damon Stoudamire had fluid drained
from his left knee last week, Detlef Schrempf has a pinched
nerve in his neck and Greg Anthony is playing with bone spurs in
both ankles that will require surgery after the season....

The tally for Dennis Rodman's 12-game stint in Dallas:
three wins, nine losses, 14.3 rebounds per game, six technical
fouls, two ejections and one unforgettable TV reference: "It's
like that show Lost in Space," Rodman said of the Mavericks.
"We're up there, but what the hell are we doing up there?"