They have no enemies left to confront except one another. Among the four of them, they have committed every transgression imaginable. They have inflamed opposing fans on the road, insulted their own supporters at home, tripped some opponents and taunted others, exasperated their coaches, clashed with their teammates, been tossed by referees and vilified by the media. They are four of the toughest, most combative guards in the league, and if you also want to call them four of the dirtiest, go right ahead. In a few weeks, you will have to call one of them a champion.
It is no coincidence that each of the four teams still alive in the NBA playoffs has at least one player in its backcourt who should be marked DANGER: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE. Butting heads—perhaps quite literally before they're through—in the Eastern Conference finals are the New York Knicks' John Starks and the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller. Starks and Miller are two of the league's looser cannons, and their rivalry already has a bitter history. In the Western Conference finals, which opened on Monday night with a 100-88 Houston victory over Utah in the Summit, unpredictable Vernon Maxwell of the Rockets and the increasingly volatile John Stockton of the Jazz are getting to know each other much better.
Once, conventional NBA wisdom held that a poised, clearheaded backcourt was a key to winning a championship. But that was before the playoffs turned into snarling, mean-spirited tournaments in which the body slam is as much a part of the action as the slam dunk. It seems now that heat is preferable to cool, that having a guard who can ignite his team, even if he steps over the line and loses control from time to time, is at least as important as having one who can calm his club down. Even Stockton, the most levelheaded of this bunch, has been in the middle of his share of dustups during the postseason.
All four guards are as important to their teams emotionally as they are strategically. Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon is the NBA's best player and the main reason the Rockets entered the conference finals favored to emerge as the champions, but without Maxwell to rev them up and keep defenses honest with his jump shot, the burden becomes too heavy for even the broad-shouldered Olajuwon to bear. In a 91-81 Game 7 win over scrappy Denver in the Western Conference semifinals, Utah forward Karl Malone was as brilliant (31 points, 14 rebounds) as he has been throughout the playoffs, but without Stockton the Jazz would have only half a heart. For New York, center Patrick Ewing is the franchise, but Starks, who hurriedly returned from surgery on his left knee in time for the playoffs, breathes life into the Knicks when he is on the floor. And 7'4" Indiana center Rik Smits's inside scoring is crucial to the Pacers, but Smits gets turned on—and gets more room to maneuver—when Miller's outside shooting energizes the team.
"It's all about intensity," says Doc Rivers, the Knicks' injured point guard. "If you lose it, even just for a while, in the playoffs, you're in trouble. You need guys who somehow transfer their energy to the rest of the team. Starks is one of the guys who does that for us. Sometimes he gets out of control, but if he loses it five or six times a year out of 82 games, we'll take it."
Starks lost it at least that many times in the Knicks' wearying Eastern semifinal series against the Chicago Bulls, which New York finally cinched on Sunday with an inspired 87-77 win in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. "You know Wild Thing, that guy [played by Charlie Sheen] in the movie Major League?" asks Knick guard Rolando Blackman. "That's John." During the Chicago series Starks tripped Bull forward Scottie Pippen twice and kicked at guard B.J. Armstrong but didn't make contact. There will be players in next month's World Cup who won't use their feet as well as Starks did against the Bulls. "He's a smaller Dennis Rodman," says Chicago guard Pete Myers, referring to the San Antonio Spur forward who is the NBA's reigning bad boy.
But Starks considers his actions to be within the bounds of normal competitiveness. "Yeah, I intentionally tripped Scottie to stop a fast break," he says. "I saved two points by doing it. I wasn't trying to hurt anyone. I was trying to win, and I'll do whatever it takes. When you're in a war, you don't cry that the other side isn't playing fair."
Sometimes Starks aggravates even his own side. When he risked a technical foul in Game 6 against the Bulls by leaving the bench to run onto the court and congratulate backcourtmate and fellow provocateur Greg Anthony after Anthony hit a three-pointer and was fouled, the look on coach Pat Riley's face as he chased Starks back to the bench was a mix of rage and disbelief. And during the series it wasn't unusual to see Starks in heated on-court discussions with Anthony and forward Charles Oakley. But the Knicks realize that Starks's unpredictability comes from a desire to succeed that sometimes overwhelms him, and they do their best to help him lighten up. When Starks sat morosely in the locker room after being held to one point in the first half of Game 7 against the Bulls, guard Derek Harper took an empty bottle of Evian water and threw it at him. "Smile," Harper said. Starks loosened up enough to hit two key three-pointers and three free throws in the second half to help the Knicks end the Bulls' valiant run at a fourth consecutive championship.
That cleared the way for a rematch with Indiana's Miller, upon whom Starks bestowed an often-replayed head butt in a first-round playoff series last year. One of the few film clips trotted out nearly as often as that one is the image of Miller bowing deeply to the crowd at Chicago Stadium after hitting a critical jumper against the Bulls this season. Acts like that have made Miller a favorite target of fans' wrath on the road, which, as something of a hot dog, he relishes. It was no surprise that Knick fans, having seen their team vanquish the Bulls, warmed up for the next round by chanting "Reggie sucks!" as they departed the Garden on Sunday.
Miller is also a major trash-talker (then again, in today's NBA, who isn't?). But he can walk the walk: In the first two rounds of the playoffs, against the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged a team-leading 22.0 points per game, with 22 three-pointers in nine games. And he was conspicuously the best behaved of the four bad-guy guards who have made it into the conference finals. The closest Miller has come to providing bulletin-board material was when he said he would rather play the Knicks than the Bulls in the next round. "He wanted us, he's got us," says Starks. "Glad we could give him his wish." But look for New York to pay as much attention to point guard Haywoode Workman, a playoff rookie, as they do to Miller. The Knicks love to turn their defense loose on inexperienced point guards, and if they can rattle Workman, they will have gone a long way toward neutralizing Miller and Smits.
It might seem like a stretch to lump Stockton, Utah's stoic floor leader, with such recognized hotheads as Starks, Miller and Maxwell, and to be sure, he has nothing approaching their rowdy images. But he was stamped with a dubious seal of approval by Rodman during Utah's first-round series against San Antonio. "Stockton's as mean as they come," the Worm said admiringly. "Everybody might think he's a choirboy, but he'll slip you an elbow when the refs aren't looking, or he'll talk some junk. I like that in a guy."
Not everyone puts such a positive spin on Stockton's style. "To me, he's one of the dirtiest players in the league," former journeyman center Scott Hastings, now a Denver broadcaster, told the Rocky Mountain News during Utah's series against the Nuggets. "He's Danny Ainge"—the Phoenix Suns' belligerent guard—"without the [bad] reputation."
To that, Stockton replies, "That's ridiculous. I hope I'm an irritating player. But dirty? Not even close." Prickly is probably a better way to describe him. There is a toughness in Stockton's game that one might expect from a tavern owner's son. Look closely at that stone-faced expression, and it begins to resemble a scowl. "He's got a lot of street in him," says teammate Malone. Indeed, in Game 1 of the San Antonio series Stockton drove the lane, lowered a shoulder into Spur center David Robinson and sent him flying out of bounds, conveying the message that the Jazz would not be intimidated inside. And in Game 2 he got into a trash-talking exchange with Rodman after the San Antonio forward kneed him in the thigh.
But Stockton, who this season averaged 15.1 points and 12.6 assists and was voted to the All-NBA first team for the first time, steered the Jazz into the Western Conference finals not with his talking but with his ball handling and passing (he led the league in assists for the seventh year in a row). His style is beautiful in its simplicity, and he is a model of consistency, which could be a key factor against the Rockets' unpredictable backcourt. He also has the perfect partner in off-guard Jeff Hornacek, who came to the Jazz in a Feb. 24 trade with the Philadelphia 76ers for guard Jeff Malone. With Stockton in foul trouble and struggling with his shooting in Game 7 against Denver, Hornacek shifted to the point and ran the offense smoothly, finishing with 18 points, seven assists and only one turnover in Utah's win. Indeed, the only drawback to the Hornacek acquisition is that coach Jerry Sloan and his staff still confuse Stockton and Hornacek—both pale and dark-haired—when they examine game films.
The Houston coaches have no problem mistaking Maxwell for anyone else. They just look for the fellow with the shaved head and the flapping mouth. Maxwell has been known as Mad Max since high school in Gainesville, Fla., but lately the nickname has begun to grate on him, and he wasn't pleased to see the "Mad Max" T-shirts that dotted the Summit for last Saturday's Game 7 of the Western semifinal series against Phoenix. "I don't want to be Mad Max anymore," he says. "I'd rather have people call me anything but that. It was good in the beginning because it gave me an identity, but over the course of time, it's something that messes you up. You get caught up in that image, and it starts to take over. Call me Vernon."
It was Mad Max who labeled Rocket fans "the worst" when they failed to fill the Summit to capacity in the opening game against Phoenix, the first of two home losses. It was Vernon who helped lead the Rockets back to take the series. He scored 34 points as the Rockets revived to win Game 3 in Phoenix 118-102. And on defense he was instrumental in making Sun guard Dan Majerle miserable in the final four games. Majerle averaged a mere four points in that stretch and hit only six of 34 shots.
Mad Max emerged again in Game 6, a 103-89 Sun victory, when he drew a technical foul for elbowing Ainge and was ejected in the fourth quarter after being hit with his second T. His kindred spirit, equally feisty backup guard Sam Cassell, tangled with Ainge in the Rockets' 104-94 Game 7 clincher, when Cassell and Ainge were slapped with a double technical for a first-quarter tussle. Cassell is as brash as Maxwell or any of the other guards left in the playoffs. "I'm an important part of this team," Cassell said before Game 7. "I'm like a coach on the floor." Bold talk for a rookie, but he backed it up with 22 points and seven assists.
Cassell has some work to do before he can match Maxwell in ejections, however. After his heave-ho from Game 6, Mad Max got into an altercation with a television cameraman and had to be restrained from pursuing the matter further as he made his way to the locker room. He earned the thumb again late in Game 7, this time for going nose-to-nose with Phoenix forward Charles Barkley after Sir Charles had committed a hard foul on Olajuwon with 7.4 seconds left and the outcome decided.
Mad Max has been battling Vernon all season. It was the former who in March pleaded guilty to illegally carrying a gun after police found a .38-caliber pistol in his car following a traffic dispute. But it is the latter who seems to be winning the battle, in part because of two events that have helped him—maybe forced him—to mature. One was an irregular heartbeat that was detected in January, a condition now treated with medication. The other was the stillborn baby girl delivered by his wife, Shell, last October. Before he takes the court for games, Maxwell often writes his daughter's name, Amber, on the back of his shoes. "It's something I do to keep her in my thoughts," he says. "It reminds me that I want to do things that would have made her proud."
Perhaps that's why, even though he still has his wild moments on the court, Maxwell has been solid when the Rockets have needed him most. "Max is tremendously underrated," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He's right there with Hakeem as one of the main reasons we've had such a great season, and it's like nobody outside of our team notices it." That's not true anymore. It has become common knowledge that the brilliant Olajuwon is the Rockets' constant, and the mercurial Maxwell, who averaged 13.6 points this season, is their key variable. When Vernon is on his game, stretching the defense with his outside shooting and making a nuisance of himself as a defender, the Rockets are a team in perfect balance. On the other hand, when Mad Max is yakking at the referees and opposing players, and hoisting up ill-advised jumpers, Houston is exceedingly vulnerable.
But then, everyone in this foursome is vulnerable, which is why so much depends on the backcourt quartet and the heat they generate. A championship ring will slide onto the finger of the guard who maintains a hot hand—and avoids a hot head.