THE NBA

January 21, 1991

PINING AWAY

Moses Malone's place in NBA history is secure. He will go down as one of the game's tireless warriors, a blue-collar steamroller of a center who by dint of muscle and moxie was, in his prime, one of the game's most consistent scorers and perhaps its greatest offensive rebounder.

In addition, Malone will be remembered as a complaining ball hog whose image grew increasingly tarnished as his career wore on. And he has become more and more of a liability to the Hawks (his seventh team in a 17-year pro career that has also included stints with Utah and St. Louis of the ABA and the old Buffalo Braves, Rockets, 76ers and Bullets of the NBA) since his skills started to deteriorate last season.

Mike Fratello, the coach of the Hawks in '89-90, wanted to bench him, but upper management told Fratello that the team was not paying Malone $2.5 million to sit on the pine. Hawk general manager Pete Babcock tried to deal Malone and his painful-to-even-think-about salary last summer but couldn't find any takers. Cutting him and eating the $2.5 million was considered by Babcock but vetoed by his superiors.

However, circumstances changed going into this season. Fratello, a lame-duck coach with limited clout, was gone, and Malone, who will turn 36 in March, was entering the final year of that contract. Knowing that Moses desperately wanted to hang on with some NBA team for a couple of seasons more, Babcock and Hawk president Stan Kasten took Malone aside and warned him with words to this effect: If you cause trouble, complain and turn the locker room against the coaches and management, you'll be waived outright. No one will want you. But accept a lesser role on this team and maybe, just maybe, your value around the league will not evaporate.

After starting Malone for the first 13 games of the season, during which Atlanta went 4-9, new coach Bob Weiss put him on the bench for the first time in years. The Hawks immediately started to improve and at week's end sported a respectable 19-15 record. Malone, meanwhile, has not created a public stir, and the coaches say he has been cooperative and in good spirits.

Still, the Hawks are sitting on a powder keg; superstars do not generally go quietly. The Spurs faced a similar situation with George Gervin after the '84-85 season, when general manager Bob Bass and Cotton Fitzsimmons, then the Spurs coach, asked the Iceman to accept a limited role that would allow more playing time for emerging star Alvin Robertson. Gervin said no and asked to be traded. And though it pained Bass to do so, he sent Gervin on his way, hoping to help both the player and the team. (Gervin lasted one ineffective season with the Bulls before retiring.)

The Hawks are not so lucky. "Moses is making $2.5 million, and he's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year," said Sonics president Bob Whitsitt. "So how can you trade for the guy?" No one will. But at the end of the season, as one team exec puts it, "Moses's price will be down, and his personal expectations will be down. He still might be able to help someone." Until then, the Hawks' strategy is this: Continue to use him in a limited capacity; hope that he stays reasonably happy; and, if he doesn't, hope that his teammates turn a deaf ear to his whining.

ISIAH'S STAYING

Things have returned to normal in Piston-land, where at week's end the two-time defending champions had won nine in a row. But that wasn't the case early in the season when the Pistons struggled and trade rumors swirled around captain Isiah Thomas. Through last week's games, Thomas had committed an NBA-high 142 turnovers. He was not among the top 20 players in steals. He was shooting only .448 from the floor. And on occasion he had played selfishly and unwisely.

Does that mean Piston general manager Jack McCloskey will trade him?

No way. Not this season, anyway.

It was only seven months ago, after all, that Thomas was the MVP in the playoffs. Sure, McCloskey is not afraid to pull the trigger on a big deal—witness his midseason exile of Adrian Dantley, one of the general manager's personal favorites, to Dallas for Mark Aguirre in February 1989. But this situation is entirely different. The Piston veterans have been to the mountaintop with Thomas, and none of them, particularly center Bill Laimbeer, would feel comfortable making the trip with anyone else at the point.

"Most of the trade reports are ridiculous," says Mike Schuler, the coach of the Clippers, the team that has been most often mentioned in the Thomas rumors. "Personally, I think Isiah will finish his career in Detroit."

Ah, now that's a different story. If Detroit should fail in its quest for a third straight title, it's a good bet that McCloskey will shake things up, perhaps by moving Thomas. But it won't happen until Isiah gets one more chance to repeat the heroics he achieved in the last three NBA Finals. June, not January, is Thomas's time to shine.

CHAIN GANG

One of those silly chain letters, the kind that warns of ancient curses sure to befall those who break the chain, made the rounds of the NBA recently. The interesting thing, though, was the rich and famous hands the letter passed through before it arrived in the mailboxes of some ordinary NBA folk such as Orlando Magic assistant coach Brian Hill.

The list of those who received the letter includes, among many others, Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes; ABC-News correspondent Pierre Salinger; syndicated columnists Art Buchwald, Ellen Goodman and William Safire; Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown; and Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. Hill says that he is not on speaking terms with any of the above, though he has on occasion perused Cosmo when all the sports magazines were gone from the airline reading rack.

So, how did the letter enter the NBA?

The answer, as one might expect, can be traced to Tinseltown. The Laker part of Tinseltown, not the Clipper part. Pierre, see, sent it to Art, who sent it to Helen, who sent it to novelist Judith Krantz, who sent it to Laker general manager Jerry West as well as to novelist Jackie (Hollywood Wives) Collins. Krantz, a Laker fan like many other residents of ritzy Bel Air, is not a close friend of West's, but they are acquainted, and she graciously enclosed a cover letter to West when she continued the chain. In her missive, she rued the move of swingman Michael Cooper to Rome and forward Orlando Woolridge to Denver. "Everyone has opinions," said West, who has not read Krantz's best-selling novel I'll Take Manhattan, but who assiduously scans the NBA waiver wire, "and we're glad to hear them."

SACRAMENTO SACKED

Did that chain letter bring good luck to its recipients? Not in every case. For example, Jerry Reynolds got a copy of the letter and dutifully passed it along, but he is still director of player personnel for the lowly Kings, who last Thursday evening lost a game at Charlotte by the improbable score of 101-59.

How is it possible to score so few points, particularly against one of the NBA's softer defensive teams?

"I didn't think it was," said Reynolds. "I figured you could run downcourt every time and shoot wild hook shots from the corner and get more than 59.

"What happened, really, was that I told [Kings coach] Dick Motta to practice the four-corner offense when he got to Carolina, in honor of Dean Smith," added Reynolds. "We want to be ready when they get rid of the shot clock."

One King, reserve frontcourtman Antoine Carr, actually had a good offensive game, hitting 10 of his 21 shots for 21 points. But no one else could throw it in the ocean. The Kings' four first-round draft picks (Lionel Simmons, Travis Mays, Duane Causwell and Anthony Bonner) played like rookies, shooting a combined 7 of 34. Wayman Tisdale, the Kings' best player, left the game early in the first period with a torn tendon in his right foot. (He will be out four weeks.) Sacramento turned the ball over 22 limes. And so on. The rest is history. Well, almost. The Kings' total was the second-lowest score in the NBA since the shot clock was instituted in 1954.

After the game a frustrated Motta told his players that he was considering resigning. He later backed off, and on Saturday night the Kings played well, beating Seattle at home 101-85.

"This is one of those things that we'll look back on 10 years from now and have a good laugh about," said Reynolds. He sighed and added, "And I do think it'll take the full 10."

BIRD IS BRACED

During the Celtics' practice at Hellenic College on Dec. 22, Larry Bird bent to pick up a ball and fell to the floor in pain. He hauled himself to his feet after a few minutes, but his teammates had gotten a vivid reminder that Bird walks a daily tightrope with his aching back.

The Celtics star didn't miss any games as a result of that incident, but on Jan. 7, Bird began having spasms of pain that were atypically severe. After consultation with the Celtics' medical staff and his personal physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, Bird agreed to accept a more aggressive treatment. He was given anti-inflammatory medication for the swelling in a nerve root in his right lower back, the source of his pain, and was put in a flexion brace to support his back. As of Sunday he had missed four straight games, three of them Celtics victories.

In the past the Celtics have been evasive about Bird's injuries, but now Dave Gavitt, the team's senior executive vice-president says, "We have no timetable for his return." Bird certainly won't be talking much to the press; he has always done a Howard Hughes when injured. The best guess is that he might return for the trying week that begins on Jan. 21, a seven-day stretch during which Boston plays the Pistons home and away, the 76ers on the road and the Lakers at home.

FURTHER REVIEW?

Here's a chilling scene: Three NBA referees are clustered around the scorer's table, gazing at a small television screen, when one of them says, "Now, when Jordan took off and went into his 360, the question is whether Rodman had already established defensive position here in the lane. Hmmm...."

Yes, the NBA Competition Committee is going to discuss the subject of instant replay when it meets during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, N.C., next month.

Say it ain't so, commissioner David Stern. "Look, my view is that our game should not have instant replay," said Stern last week in his New York office. "We believe the referees, like the players, are human beings, and anything that takes away from that clement is bad.

"But there has been a lot written this season about 'egregious mistakes' that have cost a few teams some games, so we decided to begin collecting data only—and let me emphasize only—on the narrow issues of the expiration of the shot clock and the three-point line in the last two minutes of the game."

Honest? No running to the screen to rule if a block was really a charge or if a blocked shot was really a hack?

"Absolutely not," said Stern. "I emphasize that there has been no ground swell of support for instant replay from within the league, at least not for anything but the limited area we'll be studying."

Still, it's surprising that anyone in the NBA wants to discuss any aspect of instant replay. The fast pace of the NBA game is a primary attraction for the fan. Nevertheless, here are some other opinions from around the league:

Laker coach Mike Dunleavy: "It could help with some last-second shots or three-pointers at the end of a quarter, but nothing controversial during the course of a game."

Sonics coach K.C. Jones: "I like that idea. It's working in football, isn't it?" It is?

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: "It would be a good thing. It would give everybody a fair chance."

McCloskey, while calling the NFL's system "ludicrous," allowed that perhaps instant replay has some merit on a last-second play that ends the game. "Then it wouldn't stop the flow," said McCloskey.

On balance, though, more coaches and team execs seemed frightened by the specter of instant replay, even the limited version that the NBA will be studying. That view was expressed by Motta: "I think it would open up a can of worms. If we got it at the end, then everybody would want it to detect blocks and charges next. The games already last forever. They have three officials—if they can't do their jobs, then they should change officials."

The feeling here is that Stern shares Motta's opinion, but the commissioner is willing to hear arguments. After this initial inquiry, the subject of instant replay in the NBA deserves...no further review.

NO GREATER HONOR

Some kids wear Air Jordans to be like Michael. Others wear Laker jackets to be like Magic. Some favor old-fashioned black shoes so they can look like Larry.

But Washington Bullet rookie Greg Foster? As a freshman at Skyline High School in Oakland, he went out and got himself a tattoo on his left biceps that reads: BOWIE.

Sam Bowie?

Although Foster respects Bowie, the injury-plagued pivotman for the Nets, he says that the tattoo doesn't mean Bowie is his idol. Rather, Foster got the tattoo because a friend told him that he looked like Bowie.

"No knock on Sam, but why not Kareem or Wilt?" Bullet coach Wes Unseld said to The Washington Post last month. "The kid didn't think ahead. If he'd gone with WES, his minutes might be better."

CENTERS OF ATTENTION

Whom would you rather have: the Cavs' Brad Daugherty or the Trail Blazers' Kevin Duckworth? The subjects of this week's poll are two young centers with, well, generous derrieres. Both are products of the 1986 draft. When Daugherty's name was announced as the No. 1 pick, the crowd in New York's Felt Forum jeered, "Soft, soft, soft," in reference to his reputation as an overly finesse-oriented player. When Duckworth's name was announced as the 33rd pick, the crowd burst into a cacophony of duck noises, ridiculing his name. As it turns out, Daugherty is anything but soft, and Duckworth is anything but a joke.

I figured Daugherty would win the poll because of his all-around game and his passing ability, but I also thought that Duck's solid scoring over the last three seasons (16.7 point average), coupled with Portland's trip to the NBA Finals, would earn him some votes. I was wrong. Twenty-four of the 25 coaches and general managers polled voted for Daugherty. (The votes of Trail Blazer coach Rick Adelman and Cavalier coach Lenny Wilkens did not count.) Strange. Some considered the choice a no-brainer, but others, who initially seemed to favor Duckworth, in the end cast their votes for Daugherty. The holdout, an Eastern Conference coach, said, simply, "Duckworth plays harder."

Another Eastern Conference coach had this assessment: "I would go for the more skilled player by a slight edge, and that's Daugherty. But though you might look better with Daugherty, you might win more with Duckworth." Adds another: "Duck's made some progress, and right now he might be a slightly better player. But Brad has more consistency, and I'll take him for that reason."

So be it. But at least nobody quacks when Duckworth's name is mentioned anymore.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANThomas isn't passing quite as fancy as last season. PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSNowadays Malone (left, with Spud Webb) often views the action from the Hawks' bench. PHOTOMANNY MILLANAs coaches and G.M.'s see it, Daugherty has the right stuff.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)