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A Happy Warrior After seven seasons of so-so play, Golden State center Erick Dampier is finally making the most of his minutes

Warriors center Erick Dampier was driving around Oakland last
week, a mix CD of 50 Cent songs blasting from the stereo as he
rattled off his needs. "Minutes," he said. "I need minutes to be
productive: 30, 35 a night. And touches--I need to know I am
going to be involved in the offense. And I need teammates who are
willing passers."

Dampier, 29, has all of the above for the first time in his
eight-year career, and he's meeting Golden State's needs in turn.
At week's end he was averaging 12.3 points and 14.0 rebounds a
game (including a league-high 5.9 offensive boards)--substantial
increases over his career marks of 8.4 and 6.7, respectively.
Last Saturday against the Spurs, Dampier had his 13th double
double in 15 games, lifting the Warriors to a 91-89 win that gave
them an 8-7 record, their best start since 1994-95. "Other than
Shaq," says Warriors coach Eric Musselman, "there's not a better
center in the league right now."

Dampier was at his home in Jackson, Miss., this summer when the
groundwork for his improvement was laid. After free-agent point
guard Gilbert Arenas signed with the Wizards, the Warriors traded
Antawn Jamison to the Mavericks for Nick Van Exel. That meant the
team's top two scorers from last season were gone. Speedy Claxton
and Calbert Cheaney then signed with Golden State as free agents,
and the Warriors dealt for Clifford Robinson. Though many
believed that the team had sacrificed talent for future
salary-cap space, Dampier lauded each move.

"There were problems on the team [last year]," the 6'11",
265-pound Dampier says. "Players didn't like playing with each
other; the chemistry wasn't there. It was almost like we were
trying to make something work that wasn't meant to work. By
letting Gilbert go and moving Antawn, it only made this team

Dampier's desire for more minutes (he was averaging 34.8 through
Sunday, 10.7 more than last season) was satisfied when backup
Adonal Foyle suffered a left knee injury; he won't return until
January at the earliest. "That takes a lot of the stress off me,"
Dampier says. "I can just go out and rebound and defend."

Last February, after a tough loss at Minnesota, Dampier referred
to his coach as Musclehead and withdrew from his teammates. Last
week he invited a group of Warriors--including Musselman--to his
house in Alameda, where they feasted on catfish that Dampier's
mother, Mary, had shipped from Mississippi. Says Musselman, "He's
opened up a lot more to all of us."

After the season Dampier can opt out of the seven-year, $48
million contract he signed in 1999. A center at the top of his
game--one whom Grizzlies G.M. Jerry West tried to acquire last
summer--might fetch more than the $17 million Dampier's due. For
now, though, he just wants to enjoy what may be his first season
as an All-Star. "I've got to keep it going," he says. "But I am
as happy as I have ever been."

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES In addition to averaging a double double, Dampier is rejecting1.6 shots per game.