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Original Issue

Inside The NBA

The shot blocking of Sixers center Theo Ratliff gets into
opponents' heads

When Hornets guard Eddie Jones scooped up his dribble, dipped
his shoulder and took a last long step into the key last Friday,
he was thinking about a rim-rattling dunk that would fire up his
teammates and put the hostile fans at Philadelphia's First Union
Center back in their seats. As Jones elevated, however, Sixers
center Theo Ratliff swooped toward him, spindly arms held high.
Ratliff met Jones at the rim and swatted away the ball. That
scintillating block, in the third quarter of Game 3 of the
Charlotte-Philadelphia series, was one of six rejections by
Ratliff in the 81-76 Sixers win, which gave them a 2-1 series
lead. It also gave the Hornets plenty to think about heading
into Game 4 on Monday night, in which they were closed out by
Philadelphia in a 105-99 Sixers win.

The legions of NBA stat geeks don't keep a tally for "shots
altered," but Ratliff's intimidating presence in this series was
almost as important as his blocks. Think of them as mental
blocks. "Theo probably won Game 3 for us," said point guard Eric

Such accolades from a teammate are a welcome change from a year
ago, when Ratliff was a last-minute scratch before the Sixers
took the floor against Indiana, down 3-0 in their second-round
playoff series. Ratliff had a strained left calf and could
barely walk, but that didn't stop some Sixers from questioning
his toughness. After the game, which the Sixers lost,
Philadelphia's veteran big man Rick Mahorn said, "I'm not sure
this kid understands what it takes to win."

"A couple of people said a few things last season," Ratliff says,
"but we got that straightened out, man to man. It never bothered
me, because I knew I would come back and do what I'm doing now."

Ratliff has made slow but steady progress since the day the
Pistons drafted him with the 18th pick in 1995 after his senior
season at Wyoming. A big man drafted that low is usually tagged
as a career backup, but Ratliff's raw skills were apparent to
everyone. So was his penchant for fading in and out mentally.
That lack of focus drove Detroit coach Doug Collins so batty that
he traded Ratliff, Aaron McKie and a first-round pick to
Philadelphia for guard Jerry Stackhouse and center Eric Montross.

Sixers coach Larry Brown has had his share of frustrations with
Ratliff, but the defensive-minded coach has always valued
Ratliff's ability as a stopper around the basket. "He's had a
great year defensively," says Brown, "and he keeps progressing. I
know people think it was a big deal to give up Stackhouse, since
he's become an All-Star, but the trade worked out great. Allen
Iverson has such deficiencies on the perimeter that we need a
presence behind him. Theo corrects so many mistakes for us."

Going into Game 4, Charlotte coach Paul Silas tried to correct a
few mistakes himself. He ordered his players to drive at Ratliff
but then dish off to the open man rather than challenge the
Sixers' big man. Such wariness cut down on the number of blocks
Ratliff made but did not diminish his impact on the proceedings.
"If they're thinking about what I'm doing," he says, "that's a
good thing, too."

Nets Center Not Retiring
Jayson Takes It To the Rim Shots

Who needs an alarm clock? Nets center Jayson Williams wakes up
each morning with his surgically repaired right leg singing the
same dull, aching tune. "I'm hooked on Advil," Williams says. "I
take six of them for breakfast. I take four at lunch. Then I take
four before I go to bed at night."

Last week's hot rumor was that Williams was having so many
problems with his leg, which he shattered more than a year ago,
that he was ready to retire. Williams is eager to shoot that one
down. He insists he's not giving up his career--or the six-year,
$90.9 million contract he signed two years ago. "I'm not
retiring," he says. "Look, I'm already the most overpaid
American. I'm not going to be the dumbest."

Williams attributes his recent rehab woes to the fact that he's
been putting too much weight on his right leg while recovering
from a broken bone in his left foot, the result of a freak
accident while practicing with the Nets in March. Williams worked
hard on his rehab during the season--maybe too hard--because he
hoped to save the job of New Jersey coach Don Casey, who was cut
loose last week. Williams says he phoned principal team owner
Lewis Katz the day before the final regular-season game to ask
him to give Casey a reprieve. "It didn't go well," Williams says.
"I knew I was in trouble when he said, 'Jayson Williams? I
haven't talked to you in two years.' I don't have a relationship
with Lewis Katz. His relationship is with Stephon Marbury. What I
had to say fell on deaf ears."

Williams believes he'd have saved Casey's job had he been
healthy, contributing on the court and in the locker room, where
players such as swingman Kendall Gill and forward Keith Van Horn
look to him for guidance. "I've heard people say, 'J thinks he
could have made a difference,'" Williams says. "'Who does he
think he is? Wilt Chamberlain?' No, but I am Sigmund Freud. I
know how to get inside those guys' heads. A lot of games this
season, we were one big rebound from winning. I would have been
putting pressure on the guys to get that rebound. I know I'm not
the best player in the world, but I am a leader."

Williams has his own ideas about who the next New Jersey coach
should be. "I wouldn't mind an experienced guy who has been
there--as long as he hires Case as his top assistant," Williams
says. "I like [current assistant] Eddie Jordan because he knows
the system and he knows the guys."

Williams is convinced he will be playing next season. He points
to that week of practice in March. "I felt great," he says. "I
was dominating. I'm 95 percent sure everything will work out. The
only way I'll run into trouble is if the new coach comes in and
wants to go five hours a day in practice to prove how tough he
is. I doubt my body could take that." No matter how much Advil
he's got.

Around The Rim

Mavericks coach and general manager Don Nelson, carefully
ministering to his bad back by applying liberal doses of
Hawaiian sunshine, says it's "unlikely" he'll return as coach
next season, even though new owner Mark Cuban now seems open to
the idea. "I think I'm done," Nelson says. "Mark and I haven't
even had a chance to talk about it yet." Cuban's interest in
bringing Nellie back probably has something to do with the fact
that the two coaches at the top of his shopping list--Scott
Skiles and Dave Cowens--recently signed contracts with the Suns
and the Warriors, respectively....

One of Cowens's first personnel moves as
Warriors coach was to shift Antawn Jamison from small forward
back to power forward, his position at North Carolina....

League sources say there are two reasons why Pacers coach Larry
Bird has not decided whether to take a front-office position
with the team: He wants to stay focused on the playoffs, and he
is part of a group that's trying to buy the Celtics....

Lakers coach Phil Jackson kept his championship rings in their
boxes all season but broke out his 1998 Bulls model before Game
1 against the Kings (as did Los Angeles guard Ron Harper) as a
bit of unspoken motivation for his team. Jackson, who was
runner-up to Orlando's Doc Rivers in the Coach of the Year
balloting by the national media, took time out from his jewelry
modeling to chide the members of the voting press for ignoring
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. Jackson said that for Sloan to have
received only two votes was "ludicrous."

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Anthony Mason and the other Hornets had their paths to the basket blocked by Ratliff.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A lengthy rehab has given Williams plenty of time to horse around with one of his prized toys.