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Original Issue

Inside The NBA

The 'I' in Clippers
Contract worries and their owner's stingy ways have L.A.'s
players thinking selfishly

As of Sunday the Clippers had surged to within 2 1/2 games of
their first playoff berth since 1996-97. Not bad for the
league's youngest, least expensive team. Still, center Michael
Olowokandi believes Los Angeles should be better. The problem?
Too many players--including him--are worrying about their next

"There are times when we're out there being selfish, and we've
all been guilty of it," says Olowokandi. Somebody is always
demanding more touches, Olowokandi adds, and after losses, too
much attention is paid to the individual lines on the stat
sheet. "Sean Rooks is definitely the backbone in terms of
getting the team in order when things are about to get really
ugly," Olowokandi says of his veteran backup. "But the
selfishness and everybody trying to prove himself can be
overwhelming because it's game after game after game."

According to Olowokandi, the me-first mentality is a direct
result of Clippers owner Donald Sterling's stewardship. L.A's
top 11 players are headed for free agency over the next three
summers, and all are aware of Sterling's celebrated
unwillingness to pay market value. The test case for their
futures starts on July 1, when Olowokandi becomes a restricted
free agent. Referring to his client as "the second-most
desirable center, after Shaq," agent Bill Duffy is planning to
seek the maximum for Olowokandi, which would mean a seven-year
contract starting at $10.6 million. Sterling has never paid a
player more than the $4.7 million Olowokandi earns now, a figure
stipulated by the rookie wage scale.

The other Clippers will be watching the negotiations closely.
"Mike's the centerpiece of the team," says swingman Quentin
Richardson (eligible for free agency in the summer of 2004).
"The way the team deals with him is going to tell the story of
how they're going to deal with the rest of us." The rest of us
also includes Elton Brand (a free agent in '03), Lamar Odom
('03), Darius Miles ('04), Corey Maggette ('04) and Keyon
Dooling ('04).

While the Clippers are dealing with Duffy this summer, they'll
also hear from agent David Falk, who will be asking L.A. for a
maximum extension for Brand. "The responsibility is theirs to
take care of a much-valued employee at the first opportunity,"
says Falk, adding that in another year or two the Clippers will
face the likelihood of "block negotiations" with his company,
SFX, which also represents Richardson, Miles and Maggette. Will
the 6'8" Brand, who didn't like guarding centers during his two
seasons with the Bulls, want to re-sign with Los Angeles if he
doesn't have the 7-foot, 270-pound Olowokandi alongside him?
"I'm definitely going to watch how they treat him, because I
want to play with him," says Brand.

The Clippers' front office is urging Sterling to retain
Olowokandi, who was the No. 1 pick, out of Pacific, in the 1998
draft. "He's vital to the future of the franchise," says general
manager Elgin Baylor. Adds coach Alvin Gentry, "We've got some
tough decisions that have to be made. Losing our center can't be
one of those decisions."

The 26-year-old Olowokandi was averaging 9.5 points and 8.8
rebounds. Noting that Olowokandi is just now finishing his
seventh season of organized basketball, Baylor says his
footwork, instincts and passion have improved immeasurably.
Gentry concedes that Olowokandi would become a bigger scorer if
he played for a team that featured him more than the
freewheeling Clippers do.

Olowokandi has three options this summer: 1) He can sign a
long-term contract with the Clippers; 2) he can negotiate a deal
with another team knowing that Los Angeles has the right to
match it. Lakers coach Phil Jackson believes Chicago, which
could be more than $5 million under the cap this summer, is
likely to make a play for Olowokandi because Bulls G.M. Jerry
Krause has liked him since his days at Pacific; or 3) he can
accept a one-year, $5.8 million qualifying offer from the
Clippers, play out next season and become an unrestricted free
agent in the summer of 2003, when the Heat, Magic, Nuggets,
Pacers, Spurs, Wizards and others could be under the cap.
"Olowokandi would be a pretty good consolation prize to the
teams that will be going after Tim Duncan," says an Eastern
Conference general manager of the Spurs' star, who can become a
free agent after 2002-03 as well.

L.A. executive vice president Andy Roeser says the team will
tender Olowokandi a one-year offer then try to hammer out a
multiyear deal. "Our desire is to sign Michael over the long
term," Roeser says. "If he receives an offer sheet from someone
else we would match it."

Sterling, who declined to speak to SI, is clearly enjoying the
cult success of his young, exciting team, which is on the verge
of providing him with his second winning season in 21 years of
ownership. Roeser says the Clippers will be willing to embark on
a new, high-spending course because a club-record 17 sellouts at
the Staples Center have provided the franchise with more revenue
than it ever realized at the Sports Arena. Last June, Sterling
told the Los Angeles Times of his desire to keep his club
intact. "I'm not going to screw this up," he said.

Imagine how jaws would drop around the league in July if
Sterling quickly tied up his front line of Brand and Olowokandi.
Many NBA insiders would say there's a better chance of seeing
Santa Claus. As for Olowokandi, he's focusing on the benefits
that job security would bring him and his teammates. "I know
people say money isn't the answer to everything," he says, "but
in this situation I think it's quite the answer. People would
just play to win."

Yao Ming's NBA Plans
Eyes of Shanghai On the Lottery

When the NBA holds its draft lottery on May 19 in Secaucus,
N.J., some of the most interested observers will be in Shanghai.
That day the Shanghai Sharks will learn which teams are
positioned to choose their star center, 7'6" Yao Ming, who's
likely to go first or second. If the Sharks don't care for the
lottery's results, they may not let Yao out of his contract,
which they can renew indefinitely.

"The Sharks aren't going to let him go until the status of the
lottery is determined," says Erik Zhang, a distant relative of
Yao's who's serving as a liaison between the Yao family and the
Sharks. "Let's say that the Sharks believe they can't have a
trustworthy relationship with the team that's likely to draft
him, or it's not a desirable team. Either case may prevent him
from entering the NBA."

According to Zhang, the Sharks intend to claim a share of Yao's
income, both on and off the court. They also want to develop a
relationship with Yao's NBA team that would provide advice on
players, coaching and marketing to the Shanghai team. To
maximize Yao's commercial exposure and ease his transition to
the NBA, the Sharks would prefer that he play for a major-market
team based in a city with a large Chinese population, like New
York, Chicago or Golden State. (Each of those teams has sent a
scout to China.) A source close to the negotiations says that
the Sharks would like to keep Yao from the Cavaliers and the
Grizzlies, losing teams in small markets, but won't say whether
Cleveland's or Memphis's picking him would be a deal-breaker.

Because he turns 22 this year (on Sept. 12), Yao is eligible to
be drafted in June whether or not the Sharks allow him to submit
his name to the NBA. Still, teams may be unwilling to risk a
high pick on him if his availability is uncertain. At the moment
the person closest to the situation is the 27-year-old Zhang,
who's pursuing his MBA at Columbia. He says Yao won't hire an
American agent until the Sharks release him from his contract.

On Monday, Zhang met in New York with NBA officials, who pledged
to help develop players and coaches in China. Says Zhang, "I
will tell the Sharks that the NBA is extending an olive branch
to them and to Chinese basketball."

Play of the Week
T Service

The Rockets trailed 95-88 at Minnesota with 1:02 remaining when
Steve Francis drove for a basket and beefed to the refs that he
had been fouled. His complaints earned him a technical foul--and
gave Houston a lift. After the Timberwolves' Chauncey Billups
missed the technical free throw, the Rockets forced three
turnovers and blocked a Kevin Garnett shot on their way to a
96-95 victory. "That was the first time in my career a technical
foul motivated me to play harder," said Francis, whose free
throw sealed the win. Said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders of his
team's fifth straight loss, "We almost had to do everything
wrong for them to come back and win. Which we did."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH To re-sign Olowokandi, their most pricey player ever, the Clippers may have to double his salary.


around the Rim

Keith Van Horn sent a note of support last week to former Nets
teammate Jayson Williams, who has been charged with manslaughter
and obstructing the law in the Feb. 14 fatal shooting of
limousine driver Costas Christofi. "Jayson helped me through a
lot in my first year," says Van Horn, "and I want him to know
I'm thinking of him and praying for him and everyone involved."
... If 27-year-old American center Nate Huffman had doubts about
leaving Maccabi Tel Aviv for the NBA, they've been eradicated by
the rash of suicide bombings in Israel. "I feel sorry for the
people here who send their kids to school not knowing if they'll
ever return," says the 7-foot Huffman, the former Central
Michigan star and reigning European player of the year who was
averaging 19.3 points and 7.5 rebounds (in 40-minute games)
through Sunday. "You're scared to go to one of the little
streetside cafes in case some nutso comes in with a backpack.
I've seen enough of this place." The Grizzlies, Nuggets and
76ers have shown interest in Huffman.

scout's Take

On Grizzlies rookie Shane Battier, who through Sunday was
averaging 14.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.70 steals:

There were questions about his athleticism before the draft, but
not now. He's a 6'8" shooting guard who knows how to use pump
fakes and the threat of the three-point shot to create space
against quicker defenders, and he can post them up if necessary.
He came into the NBA not afraid to take the big shot, something
a lot of other guys won't do for years. He wants to play
defense, and he doesn't give up on a play. Here's how I look at
it: If you draft a high school kid, you may get one good season
out of his four-year rookie contract. With Battier you're going
to get four good years.