April 06, 1997


When Larry Bird was an All-Star with the Boston Celtics, one
reason he was so dangerous was that you never knew what he would
do once he got the ball. He was a master of the no-look pass
that sent opponents scurrying one way while the ball went
another. Last week Bird showed the same deftness off the court
when he made a number of comments that left the NBA wondering
what his next move would be.

Ever since Bird retired as a player 4 1/2 years ago and took the
nebulous job of "special assistant" in the Celtics'
organization, it has generally been assumed that he would
someday play a more substantial role in Boston's front office.
But Bird stunned even some of his closest friends when he told
the Boston Globe he wanted to coach. "I probably would take any
coaching job in the league except the Boston Celtics'," Bird
told the newspaper, but he allowed that he might consider a top
front-office position.

Why he wouldn't coach the Celtics was unclear, but here's one
possible reason: They've never formally asked him. In fact, say
a number of people close to Bird, if Boston's brass had told him
he was its choice to coach next season and had presented him a
lucrative enough offer, Bird might have taken the job.

What the Celtics did instead, according to several sources, was
ask Bird to put together a short list of coaches he thought
would help bring Boston back to respectability. The names Bird
provided were Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and Indiana Pacers
coach Larry Brown. Bird then made indirect contact with Pitino
to try to gauge his interest and asked the Pacers for permission
to speak to Brown.

Although Brown has a year left on his contract with struggling
Indiana, he has contemplated moving on. Sources in Los Angeles
say that Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who hired Brown to
coach the team for a season and a half beginning in '91-92,
remains infatuated with him, even though current Clippers coach
Bill Fitch has done a commendable job of resurrecting the

As Bird was inquiring about Brown, sources said Indiana's
ownership began inquiring about Bird. The Pacers have made
overtures to him in the past about serving in various
capacities, including as coach, but the timing was never right.
Now it is. Bird is bored with retirement and is looking for a
challenge. Indiana is where he grew up, and Melvin and Herb
Simon, the brothers who own the Pacers, want to win but refrain
from meddling. Bird has also publicly expressed his admiration
for Pacers president Donnie Walsh.

Adding to the intrigue was Bird's presence last weekend in
Indianapolis, where he was scouting the Final Four for the
Celts. Whether the Pacers found time to "bump into" him while he
was in town remains a mystery for now; through Monday Bird
didn't return calls from SI seeking comment.

What does Bird really want? Money, power or both? He knows
better than anyone else that his departure for another franchise
would be a public-relations blow for the already punch-drunk
Celtics. Is he using the threat of going elsewhere as leverage
to get Boston to bring him in as coach or general manager? Or is
he using his stated desire to coach as an indirect way to
extricate himself from the only franchise he has ever been
associated with, a team that has clearly hit rock bottom and one
that, especially recently, has upset him by ignoring his
suggestions? Bird has been blunt in assessing a Celtics
front-office hierarchy that allows too many voices to have input
in player-personnel decisions.

Bird's Globe comments sent shock waves through the Celts'
Merrimac Street offices, particularly his declaration that if he
did take over as general manager in Boston, he would not
hesitate to clean house. He told the paper that he would be his
own man, adding, "I don't always agree with [executive vice
president and coach] M.L. [Carr], and I hardly ever agree with
[team president] Red [Auerbach]."

The message was clear: If I run this team, I'll do it my way.
Former Boston senior executive vice president Dave Gavitt tried
to rebuild the Celtics without input from Auerbach (who still
has clout), and it cost Gavitt his job. Bird, who remains close
to Gavitt, wants to avoid the same fate. Although Bird's comment
about Auerbach was made lightheartedly, team sources say
Auerbach was not amused.

Neither are the fans. They have been running on fumes of hope
for months, dreaming of Wake Forest senior Tim Duncan as the
team's next star, Pitino as the next coach and Bird as the next
front-office genius. Watching Bird put his expertise to work
elsewhere would be excruciating.

Pitino's asking price to coach the Celtics would likely be close
to $5 million a year, and Boston has not paid its coaches
anything close to that. But would the Celts give Bird that kind
of money to coach and run the front office? Would they give him
a piece of the team, and if not, would the Pacers?

There's only one person who could coach Boston next season and
make the masses forget about Pitino: Bird. Only he knows if
that's what he wants.


Isaac Austin craved burgers. "Double cheese, double meat, double
everything," he says.

The term big man took on new meaning for Austin back in 1994.
The 6'10" center ballooned to as much as 340 pounds when he was
not re-signed by Philadelphia following his third NBA season.
Austin, who had spent two spotty years with Utah before going to
the Sixers, was relegated to posting up second-level talent in
France and Turkey, where he played through '95-96.

So last summer Austin hired a personal trainer, dropped to 295
pounds and went to Miami hoping coach Pat Riley would give him a
chance. Riley went further--he gave him a job as a backup to
Alonzo Mourning. Austin responded by reducing his body fat from
17% (his measurement when he weighed 295) to 8%, paring his
weight to 265 and trimming his double-burger intake from two a
day to two a month. "I eat fish now," he says.

Not only has Austin developed into a reliable backup, but he has
also averaged 15.0 points and 8.2 rebounds in the 14 games he
recently started in place of the injured Mourning, who returned
to the starting lineup last week. That makes Austin SI's
hands-down choice as the NBA's Most Improved Player, with
honorable mentions to Heat guard Voshon Lenard, Pistons guard
Lindsey Hunter and Grizzlies center Bryant (Big Country) Reeves.

If not for Austin, Lenard would stand as Riley's most remarkable
feat of transformation. In 30 games as a backup for the Heat
last season, Lenard averaged 5.9 points and shot 35% from beyond
the three-point line. This season, mostly as a starter, Lenard
was averaging 12.1 points and was making 41% (147-359) of his
treys through Sunday. In Detroit, Hunter has helped fill the
vacuum created by the loss of shooting guard Allan Houston to
the Knicks. Hunter's numbers have jumped from 8.5 points per
game in '95-96 to 14.5 points per game this season. Moreover, at
the prodding of coach Doug Collins, he has played considerably
tighter defense.

Reeves, who struggled at times as a rookie last season, has
firmly established himself in the middle for Vancouver,
averaging 15.7 points and 8.0 rebounds through Sunday. Although
the 7-foot 275-pounder remains suspect defensively because of
his lack of mobility, one general manager, looking to the
summer of '98, when Reeves can become a free agent, declares,
"He's making strides. I might consider throwing some money at
Big Country."

Should Austin also get the official Most Improved Player award
from the NBA, he would be the first bench player to do so. He
says he would be thrilled to receive the honor--even after being
informed that many of the award's winners have had
disappointing, injury-plagued careers thereafter (chart).

"I don't want to hear it," Austin says. "I've got a summer ahead
of me to get in condition where I can go for 36 minutes instead
of 20. No more going backward. I'm going forward."


Nets ownership was disturbed when coach John Calipari called
Newark Star-Ledger reporter Dan Garcia "a f------ Mexican idiot"
last week, but it was further distressed to learn that Calipari
did not apologize to the reporter face-to-face. Instead, he left
a message on Garcia's answering machine.

Calipari insisted he was joking when he made the remark, but any
hopes he had of minimizing the incident were dashed when
commissioner David Stern slapped him with a $25,000 fine, a blow
to Calipari's bank account and to his image.

The Nets, despite intense local media pressure, never considered
firing their rookie coach, especially since they are on the hook
for the remainder of his five-year, $15 million contract. But
clearly Boy Wonder has become Boy Blunder. No one denies that he
has made some effective moves, including the midseason,
nine-player deal with the Mavericks. However, Calipari has been
the Nets' biggest selling point, and as one rival general
manager says, "They may want to rethink that strategy."


Rockets guard Eddie Johnson, March 27 against the Cavaliers: 29
minutes, 10-15 FG, 4-4 FT, 27 points, 10 rebounds. The
37-year-old Johnson's double double was his first since Feb. 24,
1994, when he had 23 points and 10 rebounds as a Hornet.


Philadelphia has reached the 50-loss mark for the fifth straight
season, and sources say disgusted Sixers president Pat Croce
wants a complete overhaul of his team and will use guard Jerry
Stackhouse and forwards Derrick Coleman and Clarence
Weatherspoon as trade bait this summer.... Since only one of the
top five picks of the '96 draft--Timberwolves guard Stephon
Marbury--appears to be playoff bound, Suns coach Danny Ainge
says that he would take this year's top five minimum-salary
players in a game against the top five rookies (the 76ers' Allen
Iverson, the Raptors' Marcus Camby, the Grizzlies' Shareef
Abdur-Rahim, Marbury and the Bucks' Ray Allen). "Match the
rookies up against [the Raptors'] Walt Williams and Oliver
Miller, [the Spurs'] Dominique Wilkins, [the Suns'] Rex Chapman
and [the Lakers'] Jerome Kersey, and who wins the game?" Ainge
asked. "Down the line might be a different story, but in their
first season, rookies aren't going to win you anything."

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER A frustrated Bird says he would forsake the stands for the sidelines, but not in Boston. [Larry Bird] COLOR PHOTO: SAM FORENCICH/NBA PHOTOS [Isaac Austin in game] COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Stackhouse could be among the players sent packing if the Sixers clean house. [Jerry Stackhouse in game]


If the Heat's Isaac Austin (above), our choice for Most Improved
Player, wins the award, maybe he should consider rejecting it,
based on the lamentable histories of the last six recipients.
(1996-97 statistics are through March 30.)


'90-91 Scott Skiles 17.2 PPG
G/Magic 8.4 APG
Suffered ankle, knee and back injuries; retired in 1996 at age
31 after averaging 6.3 ppg in 10 games for the 76ers; now
coaching in Greece

'91-92 Pervis Ellison 20.0 PPG
C/Bullets 11.2 RPG
Injuries galore; this season, suffered fractured right big toe
and played in only six games for the Celtics, averaging 2.5 ppg

'92-93 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 19.2 PPG
G/Nuggets 4.2 APG
Embroiled in '96 flap when he failed to stand for the national
anthem; averaging 13.8 ppg for the Kings this season

'93-94 Don MacLean 18.2 PPG
F/Bullets 6.2 RPG
Missed 42 games the next season because of a fractured right
thumb and sore knees; averaging 10.9 ppg for the 76ers this season

'94-95 Dana Barros 20.6 PPG
G/76ers 7.5 APG
Signed six-year, $21 million contract in '95 with the Celtics
but this season had surgery on his left ankle and averaged only
12.5 ppg

'95-96 Gheorghe Muresan 14.5 PPG, 9.6 RPG,
C/Bullets 2.26 BPG
Hampered this season by strained hip flexor; numbers have
dropped to 10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.31 bpg

ppg: points per game - apg: assists per game - rpg: rebounds per
game - bpg: blocks per game Source: Elias Sports Bureau