The NBA

February 04, 1991

ISIAH ISGROUNDED

When Chicagofailed last week to add veteran swingman Walter Davis to its roster, at leastone Bull—a fellow by the name of Michael Jordan—was somewhat disturbed. More onthat later. But even without Davis, Chicago has emerged with a clearer path tothe best record in the East, and thus the home-court advantage throughout theconference playoffs. That's because the Bulls' nemesis, two-time defendingchampion Detroit, will be playing for the next three months—and perhaps theremainder of the season—without its captain, Isiah Thomas, who was scheduled toundergo surgery on Tuesday to repair ligament damage in his right wrist.

Let's see. In aconference that was not overly strong to begin with, the Celtics have beenplaying without Larry Bird (out with a lower back injury for an undeterminedamount of time), the 76ers have been playing without Charles Barkley (who isexpected back this week after missing seven games with a badly sprained leftankle), and now the Pistons will be playing without Thomas until at least thefirst round of the playoffs. At week's end the Bulls were only a game behindthe Celtics (and tied with the Pistons) for the best record in the East, andBoston still has two West Coast swings. If the Bulls stay healthy, they shouldget those decisive postseason games in their raucous playground, ChicagoStadium.

The Pistons haveadopted a dig-in-and-grit-your-teeth posture to deal with Thomas's injury. Withtheir options being severely limited by the salary cap, they don't have muchchoice. Now, unless the Pistons free a salary slot by trading or waivingsomeone, all they can do is sign a player at the NBA minimum of $120,000. ThePistons did that last Friday when they signed veteran guard John Long, aperennial Piston stopgap who had been out of basketball since last season, to a10-day contract. In all probability, Long will be signed for the rest of theseason.

Of course, traderumors have been swirling around Piston frontcourtman John Salley for more thana year. Detroit doesn't want to deal him, realizing his value as a halfcourtdefender in the postseason. But Salley will be a restricted free agent afterthis season, and Piston general manager Jack McCloskey-is almost certain thatsome team will make him an outlandish offer. McCloskey will have to match it orcut Salley adrift for nothing.

In short, thefeeling around Pistonland right now is to keep the team intact and hope thatits toughness and experience hold up until Thomas returns.

SEEING CAROLINABLUE

No one wassurprised that the Denver Nuggets parted company with Davis or that the TrailBlazers let go of disenchanted 12th man Drazen Petrovic or that the Nets saidgoodbye to Greg (Cadillac) Anderson just a few days after they had acquired himfrom the Bucks. However, almost everyone was surprised that in last week'sthree-way deal involving those clubs Davis landed in Portland. If the Blazershave had a problem in the midst of their superlative season (they were 36-7through Sunday's games), it has been finding court time for all their skilledand versatile players. Does Davis go in at small forward, taking minutes fromJerome Kersey and Cliff Robinson? Does he play shooting guard and cut in onDanny Ainge's playing time? And the Davis acquisition seems even moreunnecessary because Ainge, Kersey, Robinson, Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter areall two-position players.

At any rate, backin Chicago the Davis trade left Jordan disgusted. He had been on a crusade toget Davis to the Windy City, and the failure of the Bulls' management to do soonly widened the, uh, congeniality gap between him and general manager JerryKrause. "I'm concerned with now," said Jordan when asked about thetrade last week. "The G.M. can be concerned with the future. If I were theG.M., we'd have a better team." Privately, Jordan's words for Krause wereeven harsher, though that is nothing new.

The Bulls didexpress some interest in Davis this season but couldn't work anything out withthe Nuggets. Krause and the Chicago coaches were of one mind about Davis—theyconsidered him a possible asset, but not at too steep a price. Jordan, one mustunderstand, has no weakness as a player, but he has a major weakness as anevaluator of talent. As a North Carolina product, he tends to love all formerTar Heels, of whom Davis is one. Were, say, 58-year-old Lennie Rosenbluth inreasonable shape, Jordan would probably want to see him in Chicago's black andred, too.

OVER TO YOU,DK

Six months fromnow what one-two punch is likely to be the hottest in the NBA? Karl Malone andJohn Stockton? Drexler and Porter? Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers? Nah, trythis one: Benoit Benjamin and Don King.

Benjamin will bean unrestricted free agent by then, and King—or DK as BB refers to him—will becalling the negotiating shots as his agent. That's enough to give the averagegeneral manager pause: Benjamin, the 7-foot center for the Clippers whoseconsiderable talents have never overridden his enigmatic inconsistencies, inconcert with King, the master showman and manipulator whose controversialshadow looms over boxing.

Will BB get anibble? "Are you kidding?" says one general manager. "They'll bebeating down his doors." Even though one Western Conference coachdisagrees, saying, "I wouldn't take Benjamin if he were dangledforever," most observers agree with the G.M.

Beyond the factthat 7-footers always get a lot of attention, Benjamin's play in recent weekshas been nothing short of sensational. At week's end, Benjamin was averaging19.2 points, 3.1 blocked shots and a remarkable 17.5 rebounds in the Clippers'last 11 games. Seattle coach K.C. Jones calls these "wow numbers."

"Whatever thereason, I hope the streak continues," says Clipper coach Mike Schuler."There is no question that Ben has the talent to do this every single nightof the season."

He also has thetalent to drive coaches, teammates and G.M.'s to distraction with his weightproblems, susceptibility to minor injuries and sometimes passive play. Thenthere's the matter of BB's outrageous contract demand last season, when hestayed out of preseason camp and missed seven regular season games while tryingto pry a reported $3 million out of the Clips. In November 1989 the Clippersgave him an incentive-laden one-year deal (with an option year) worth between$1.6 and $2 million per year; it expires at the end of this season.

DK became BB'sagent shortly after Benjamin signed that contract and has since maintained alow profile around the NBA. But the expectation is that DK will make a lot ofnoise this summer in an effort to get Benjamin in the neighborhood of $4million per year. The teams most likely to be interested are ones that have aveteran core to keep BB in line. The Lakers, in particular, have shown a lot ofinterest in the crosstown enigma. King going one-on-one with Laker generalmanager Jerry West—now there's a hair-raising prospect.

WHAT'S IN ANAME?

By the time MagicJohnson got a load of Henry James on Jan. 11, the word was out. "Ah, therehe is," said Magic as James, the Cavaliers' 6'9", 220-pound smallforward, entered the game. "The jump-shooter." A week earlier, twoother big names had greeted James less familiarly.

"Who areyou?" asked Joe Dumars of the Pistons after James made a jumper over him atRichfield Coliseum on Jan. 4.

"Where didyou come from?" said Jordan as James was scoring 25 points against theBulls the following night at Chicago Stadium.

Here are theanswers:

James is a formerdoughboy—he weighed as much as 272 pounds a few summers ago—whom Clevelandsigned for the remainder of the season on Jan. 18. He came from the WichitaFalls Texans of the CBA. Before that he played in Belgium and Spain. And beforethat at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

James sometimesworked out with the Spur players while at St. Mary's, which is where he caughtthe eye of Gary Fitzsimmons, then an assistant coach and the chief scout forthe Spurs and now the Cavs' director of player personnel. Fitzsimmons invitedJames to play for Cleveland in the Los Angeles Summer League, and though Jamesdidn't perform well enough to earn an invitation to preseason camp, Fitzsimmonstold him to shuck some weight and try the CBA. James took him seriously, and hewas ready for Fitzsimmons's call when injuries began to devastate the Cavs inDecember.

James's NBAnumbers are solid rather than astonishing—an 11.8 scoring average—but it'sstill hard to believe that in this day of sophisticated scouting, virtually noone outside the Cleveland and San Antonio organizations had heard of Jamesbefore he torched the Bulls for 25 points or the Jazz for 21 on Jan. 8."Not too many people heard of me a month ago," James says. "Butthey know me now."

Well, they willcertainly remember the name. Speaking of which, Henry, you don't happen to becarrying around a copy of The Turn of the Screw or Daisy Miller, do you?"Well, I've heard of Henry James," says Henry James. "When you'vegot a name like mine, somebody's always bringing it up. But, no, I've neverread his books."

THE PINE

January 14 wasmemorable for Scott Hastings and the other members of The Brotherhood,Hastings' name for the four Pistons—Lance Blanks, Mark Hughes, Tree Rollins andhimself—who rarely see action. On that night Detroit coach Chuck Daly rippedthe trousers of a $1,400 brown Cegna suit in full view of a capacity crowd atReunion Arena in Dallas. "The great thing was that Chuck didn't care,"says Hastings, who as of last weekend had seen action in only one of thePistons' last 13 games. "Tree and I figured it was our job to put up somekind of defense system during the timeouts, so we kind of planted ourselves infront of the TV cameras, but Chuck went on like nothing happened. And this wasa guy wearing, like, yellow bikini underwear."

The mostimportant task fell to Hughes, however. Daly instructed him to return to thehotel—located across the street from the arena—and fetch from Daly's room anextra pair of brown slacks. "You can't ask for much more out of an eveningthan that," says Hastings. "One night a few years ago I was on thebench in Atlanta [he played for the Hawks from '83 to '88] when Mike Mathis,the referee, split his pants. He ran around for a quarter or so before theHawks' trainer, Joe O'Toole, gave him a couple of safety pins. But this wasbetter."

NO. 9 VERSUS NO.1

Alabama coachWimp Sanderson always claimed that Derrick McKey, rather than Danny Manning,would have been the No. 1 pick in the 1988 draft had McKey remained with theTide for one more year instead of signing with an agent, therefore losing hiscollege eligibility. As it was, McKey became the ninth choice in the '87 draft.At this point in their young professional careers, it appears that McKey, whoplays for the Sonics, has passed the Clippers' Manning in the hierarchy of NBAforwards. Of the 22 teams (excluding Seattle. and the Clippers) that respondedto SI's poll, McKey got 15 votes to Manning's seven.

Even consideringManning's bum right knee, the results are somewhat surprising because ofMcKey's reputation for sporadic lackadaisical play, a complaint that has neverbeen leveled against the gritty Manning.

But theprevailing attitude is that McKey began to blossom after the Sonics tradedXavier McDaniel on Dec. 7. Said Laker coach Mike Dunleavy in casting a vote forMcKey, "He's expanding as a player every game."

Those who votedfor Manning praised his aggressiveness and versatility. Still, there are doubtsabout his talent. Said one Eastern Conference coach, "No way he has NumberOne—pick ability. We all overrated him."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERJordan's frustration grew last week when Davis became a Blazer instead of a Bull. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERBenjamin, here blocking a foe's shot, will have king (insert) in his corner in contract talks. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERMost voters think that McKey (31) has it all over Manning.

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)