Brent Barry wasn't the first talented player with hot-dog
tendencies to have a conflict with his coach, and Bill Fitch
wasn't the first old-school coach to butt heads with a flashy
young star. To most observers of the Clippers, that's exactly
what was happening between Barry and Fitch last season, but as
Los Angeles tries to (warning: The following is a phrase not
often used in stories about the Clippers) return to the
playoffs, Fitch and Barry are trying to get off to a good start
by insisting not only that they are getting along famously but
also that no conflict existed last season. "I think it got to a
point where the media was searching for something to jump on,
and they started writing about Coach and me having this big
fight," Barry says. "I think we had a lot of fun with it. Both
of us laughed it off."

After a promising rookie season in which he started 44 games and
won the slam dunk contest during All-Star weekend, Barry, a 6'6"
shooting guard, didn't start a game last year. Fitch reduced his
playing time from 24.0 minutes to 18.5 per game, and Barry's
scoring average fell from 10.1 points to 7.5. "People who were
outside the team were upset that I wasn't playing," he says.
Some of those people were at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena last
March for a game against the Trail Blazers. When the Clippers
fell behind by 25 points, many of the fans began chanting for
Fitch to put Barry in the game, but Fitch ignored them, walking
past Barry to insert Rodney Rogers and Lamond Murray instead. To
hear Barry tell it, that kind of move didn't upset him at all.
"This year, after summer league was over, Coach and I sat down
and had a real long meeting," he says. "We're both on the same
page."

Why was a long meeting necessary if they never had any problems
with each other? Fitch has a succinct answer. "Don't start
that," he says. "I never had any problems with Barry."

Maybe Fitch and Barry are just in a forgiving mood. After all,
the Clippers did reach the playoffs last season for only the
third time in their 13 years in Los Angeles, losing to the Jazz
in the first round, and this season Barry is set to be L.A.'s
starting shooting guard. The Clippers didn't re-sign Malik
Sealy, who started 79 games at the position last year. Barry's
expanded playing time should at least make Clippers fans happy.
Though power forward Loy Vaught has had one first-rate season
after another, Barry, with his gallery of highlight-film dunks
and passes, is clearly the crowd favorite.

Barry will get help in the backcourt from point guard Darrick
Martin and free-agent addition James Robinson, a good defender
who can play both guard spots. Up front, forwards Vaught and
Rogers are solid, but the Clippers will miss forward Bo Outlaw,
a hard-nosed defender and rebounder who signed with the Magic as
a free agent. Fitch hopes that first-round draft choice Maurice
Taylor, a forward from Michigan, will help compensate for
Outlaw's absence, but the biggest question mark for L.A. is at
center. Stojko Vrankovic, a 7'2" bust with the Timberwolves last
year, came to the Clippers in a trade for Stanley Roberts. He
will compete with 7'3" Keith Closs, whom Los Angeles for some
reason felt compelled to sign to a five-year deal that will pay
him $8.5 million even though he wasn't drafted and he played
with the Norwich Neptunes of the Atlantic Basketball Association
last season. If Vrankovic or Closs can handle things at center,
second-year forward Lorenzen Wright will be free to spend more
time at his natural position, power forward.

The Clippers' 1997-98 record should be close to last year's
36-46, but that probably won't be good enough to get them the
eighth and final playoff spot in the West as it did last season,
not with the Spurs, injury riddled in '96-97, back at full
strength. But maybe Barry, who will be a free agent after this
year, will stay with L.A. even if it becomes a lottery team
again. After all, he and Fitch have always had a close personal
relationship. --P.T.

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER BARRY SHOULD GET TO THE RIM MORE OFTEN NOW THAT HE AND FITCH SAY THEY SEE EYE TO EYE [Brent Barry and opposing player in game] COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [Loy Vaught]
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)