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THE HORNETS' NEST

The Hornets' season had just been rendered toast by the Bulls,
and Charlotte forward Anthony Mason was chatting on a cell phone
in the visitors' locker room in Chicago wearing only a pair of
garish striped boxer shorts. Mason was in no mood to spar, even
with the reporters gathered around his cubicle after Game 5 of
the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 13. In fact, he hadn't
been in much of a fighting mood since the fourth quarter of Game
3, when Hornets coach Dave Cowens, fed up with two years of
Mason's grousing, benched and berated him after Mason glared his
way. After that 103-89 loss, in a deathly silent Hornets locker
room, Cowens got into Mase's face and growled, "You want some of
me?"

Mason was, for once, speechless. Now maybe the rest of the
restless Charlotte players will follow suit. They performed
fluidly in 1997-98, winning 15 of 16 games in one midseason
stretch, earning the No. 4 seed in the East and dominating the
Hawks, who many believed would easily eliminate Charlotte, in
the first round. But off the court they were hardly as cohesive.
"No question," Cowens says. "We're dysfunctional."

Yet salvageable, Cowens quickly adds. While All-Star forward
Glen Rice publicly questioned Cowens's strategies during the
playoffs, afterward he preferred to talk about his desire to
keep the Hornets' nucleus intact. Left unclear is whether he'll
be part of it. His agent, David Falk, has made it clear that
Rice's contract, which has two years and $12.4 million to go,
must be renegotiated by Charlotte, or Rice will demand a trade.
Asked to comment on his clashes with Cowens, Rice said, "I don't
know what you mean. I don't have spats with people."

Center Matt Geiger, a free agent this summer, concedes that he
does have spats. After Game 1 against Atlanta, Cowens complained
to reporters that Geiger had repaired to a Charlotte Coliseum
eatery for a drink at halftime instead of joining the other
Hornets in the locker room. After the next game Cowens expressed
his disappointment in Geiger's refusal to play with a strained
right hamstring. "I told Coach, 'If you got a problem with me,
tell me face-to-face. Don't go to the press with it,'" Geiger
says. "That's what upset me." Still, Geiger claims he's not so
upset that he has ruled out Charlotte as a permanent address.

"These players have an inherent love and regard for the game,"
Cowens says. "They play hard. Mase plays hard. He plays hurt. He
practices hurt. I like those things about him. But all this
other crap gets in there." Can he and Mason forget their
differences? "Nah," Cowens says. "We're like women. We forgive,
but we never forget."

Team sources say it's likely that Charlotte will try to trade
Mason, who has three years left on his contract at $14.6
million. That would please Hornets who have grown tired of his
act, among them Geiger, point guard David Wesley and center
Vlade Divac, a free-agent-to-be who is open to remaining in
Charlotte. "What happened here isn't normal--or healthy," Divac
says. "We didn't have togetherness or trust here. It's sad if we
can't work it all out, because you can see how much talent we
have."

As for Cowens, even though he never threw a punch, his challenge
to Mason to put up or shut up was viewed as a TKO. Until then
Charlotte's players and management had seen him as too soft in
his handling of Mason. "I don't know why this is such a big
deal," Cowens says. "This kind of stuff happened all the time
when I played for the Celtics."

The Richmond-Webber Deal
BOTH PLAYERS HAD TO GO

In retrospect, it was an obvious trade. The Wizards needed to
swap one of their problem children for a talented and dependable
player with no rap sheet. The Kings needed to peddle their
unhappy superstar but had to get a charismatic drawing card who
was contractually locked up in return. The solution: Washington
shipped 25-year-old power forward Chris Webber to Sacramento for
two guard Mitch Richmond, who turns 33 next month, and power
forward Otis Thorpe, 35.

Although the Wizards broke two NBA rules of thumb--they traded
big for small and young for old--Richmond markedly improves the
team's image. Washington would have preferred to trade forward
Juwan Howard, but teams were far more interested in Webber, who
not only is more talented than Howard but also makes about one
third less ($9.8 million a year over the next four seasons).

Having landed Webber, Sacramento suddenly has a much more
promising future--as long as Webber commits himself to a market
that is far sleepier than the nation's capital. The Kings hope
to sign star European forward Pedrag Stojakovic by the end of
the month; if they can re-up center Michael Stewart and forward
Corliss Williamson and use the No. 7 draft pick well, they could
soon be respectable.

The curious postscript to Richmond's seven-year stay in
Sacramento is that he was hoping to sign an extension to his
contract with the Kings, which still had a year to run, but
wanted around $9 million a season. The Kings weren't willing to
lay out that kind of cash, not when they could acquire an
All-Star-caliber power forward eight years his junior.

So Richmond will pull on his Wizards jersey for $2.5 million
next year, the biggest bargain in the NBA. Washington is so far
over the cap that it can't do anything for Richmond until his
contract runs out, when he will be pushing 34. He may finally
have wound up on a winner, but he may never receive the big
payoff he has been waiting for.

AROUND THE RIM

Dismiss all that talk of Sonics coach George Karl's taking the
Nuggets job. Sources close to Karl say he's not interested, and
word out of Denver is that general manager Dan Issel is leaning
toward adding the coach's title next season....

The Warriors and the Magic are discussing a swap, with Latrell
Sprewell and Penny Hardaway as the principals....

Open your wallets: A WNBA Barbie doll is due in stores this
fall. No word on who her male counterpart will be; the only
player in the NBA who answers to Ken is Ken Norman, and he
hasn't had game for two seasons....

After his team fell to the Knicks in the opening round of the
playoffs, Heat coach Pat Riley handed his players a list of
teams that had lost in the first round but gone on to achieve
greatness....

Would you like Knicks point guard Chris Childs, who has four
years at $4.5 million per remaining on his contract? New York is
entertaining offers....

Add the Pistons to the growing list of teams that will make a
run at free-agent forward Tom Gugliotta....

Reason number 950 why there probably will be a lockout this
summer: Owners want to be able to sign rookies for six years
rather than three, with the final three years nonguaranteed....

Longtime Bulls assistant Tex Winter is telling friends that he
won't stay on in Chicago to help a new coach and that he won't
accompany Phil Jackson if Jackson takes a head coaching job
elsewhere. Winter is considering working as a consultant to NBA
clubs.

For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
www.cnnsi.com.

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