The MVP race between Michael Jordan and Karl Malone has gone
down to the wire, with the Malone train gathering steam in the
final weeks. The Portland Oregonian surveyed 63 G.M.'s, coaches
and player-personnel types, who gave Jordan the advantage, 37
1/2 to Malone's 23 1/2. But it's the media who cast the ballots,
and in a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll of 30 of the 115 voters,
the Mailman outscored His Airness 21-9. Malone is enjoying
perhaps the best season in his 12 years in the NBA, but Jordan
remains the game's finest player, and he carried the Bulls to 69
wins despite the team's numerous injuries and the lengthy
suspension of Dennis Rodman. Are voters simply tired of
penciling in Jordan's name every year? We'll find out when the
winner is announced before the Finals start....

Suns guard Rex Chapman, who earned the minimum $247,500 this
season and will be a free agent this summer, says he wants to
play in Phoenix again next year. But if Kevin Johnson decides to
return, the team won't have room under the salary cap to meet
Chapman's demands. One solution: Chapman signs for less money
than he wants next year, with the expectation that he'll be
rewarded with a bigger contract later....

The Hawks sold out 17 regular-season home games, the team's most
since 1987-88. But empty seats at the Omni aren't yet a thing of
the past. At week's end Atlanta had thousands of tickets
available for the playoffs....

After averaging just 47 games over the previous four seasons
because of injuries, Warriors forward Chris Mullin appeared in
79 games this year, finishing with a career-high .553 shooting
percentage, best in the league for players other than centers
and power forwards. He'll be a welcome newcomer to some club in
'97-98; Mullin, who has been with the Warriors his entire
12-year career, has expressed his desire to play for a
contender, and Golden State owner Chris Cohan says he'll
accommodate the veteran....

Who would have guessed John Starks would so fully embrace his
role off the Knicks bench? The temperamental guard averaged 13.8
points in 26.5 minutes and is the front-runner for the league's
Sixth Man Award....

Brent Barry, who had an up-and-down sophomore season as a
Clippers reserve guard, recently dominated in a pickup game with
the cast from the sitcom Boston Common. Joked Barry, "Maybe this
will help me with my confidence."...

Sixers center Michael Cage is awaiting delivery of a $500,000,
45-foot custom-made bus with an extra-high ceiling, a marble
floor, leather chairs, eight TVs and a satellite tracking system
so passengers can watch their favorite TV shows while on the
road. He plans to use the bus to travel the country with his
family....

Sonics forward Detlef Schrempf missed three games recently with
"testicular trauma" after taking a knee to the groin from Kings
guard Mitch Richmond. The same week, Seattle Mariners reliever
Josias Manzanillo suffered the identical injury when he was hit
by a batted ball....

Top playoff seeds Chicago and Utah were one-two in the league in
assists. They eschew the stand-around offense of many NBA teams
in favor of a more wide-open, unselfish style. "The Bulls play
smart, always moving the ball and finding the open man," says
Malone. "Our team is the same way." A Bulls-Jazz Finals would be
a fitting way to culminate the NBA's 50th anniversary season.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Are voters simply too jaded by Jordan's exploits to award him his fifth MVP? [Michael Jordan and Hersey Hawkins in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Danny Ainge] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Golf ball on golf green]

PERSONAL FILE

Sixteen teams begin postseason play this week, while the other
13 head for early tee times. For his NBA colleagues who aren't
otherwise occupied this spring, Suns coach and avid golfer Danny
Ainge, a seven handicapper, offers his five favorite courses
among the more than 100 he has played.

1 Pine Valley Golf Club, Pine Valley, N.J.
2 Chaparral Pines, Payson, Ariz.
3 Eugene Country Club, Eugene, Ore.
4 The Olympic Club, San Francisco
5 Pebble Beach, Pebble Beach, Calif.

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)