Scottie Pippen, Isaac Austin and Brent Barry are bonded by a
simple daydream: to sign with the Suns when they become free
agents this summer. Tom Gugliotta can opt out of his
Timberwolves contract on July 1, and while Minnesota can offer
him more money than any other team, the one that beckons is--who
In recent years the Suns have snagged Rex Chapman, Cliff
Robinson and Hot Rod Williams even though they all received more
lucrative offers elsewhere. They will be free agents this
summer, and Phoenix will try to keep them for less again.
Chapman has already said that he'll stay. "I don't think anybody
says, I hate Phoenix, I'm not going there," says Suns coach
Danny Ainge, who signed with the team as a free agent in 1992.
"When I played with the Celtics, we'd be on one of those awful
Western trips, but when we landed in Phoenix, we'd be saying,
'All right. Now we're talking.'"
With its glorious climate and abundant golf courses, Phoenix has
become the NBA's fantasyland. "It's a safer, cleaner
California," says agent Steve Kauffman. As a franchise the Suns
offer plenty of enticements too: a team with a chance to win it
all, state-of-the-art facilities, ardent fans and an energetic
coach who gives his players leeway.
Most important, the front office has credibility. In October
1995 Phoenix re-signed forward Danny Manning to a six-year, $42
million contract while he was rehabbing from a torn anterior
cruciate ligament in his left knee. He had suffered the injury
eight months earlier, in the midst of his one-year, $1 million
free-agent deal. Opposing teams seethed, sensing that Manning's
new contract must have been promised when he signed the one-year
deal, a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
Free-agents-to-be smiled, seeing an organization reward a star,
rather than dump him, when he was hurt. "Players weigh that
big," says Sonics forward Vin Baker.
Players also love point guards who pass first and shoot later,
which is why Jason Kidd should become a selling point on July 1.
Then there's Ainge's up-tempo style of play. "He puts 90 percent
of the responsibility in your hands," guard Steve Nash says of
his coach. "And he's not afraid to smile when we make mistakes."
Ainge has flourished despite a potentially devastating incident
in January 1997 in which forward Robert Horry angrily threw a
towel in his face after being taken out of a game. As replays of
the blow-up aired over and over, the Phoenix front office worked
to unload Horry (which it did, to the Lakers, four days later).
"In retrospect, Danny handled it perfectly: He played it down,"
says team president Jerry Colangelo.
With his Suns 39-21 through Sunday, Ainge's biggest worry has
been parceling out time in a crowded backcourt that includes
Chapman, Kidd, Nash and veteran Kevin Johnson. While most expect
KJ to retire this summer, Phoenix would consider bringing him
back--but only at about half his $8 million salary.
That's one of many decisions facing the Suns, who should be $16
million to $17 million under the cap this summer. League and
team sources say Phoenix has interest in Pippen, and while
Colangelo & Co. like Austin, they don't feel he's worth his
asking price of $8 million a season. If Nash, an Ainge favorite,
could bring a top-flight big man in a package deal, Phoenix
would likely pull the trigger. Forward Antonio McDyess is a
keeper, but for $80 million or so over seven years, not $100
million. Williams and Robinson? Depends on what they want and
how much money is left. "To try and figure it out at this point
is nonsense," says Ainge. "There are too many variables."
One thing is clear. The Suns have a leg up on signing some of
the league's best free agents, and with that edge comes the
pressure to add the lone element missing from their glistening
franchise: a championship.
Golden State's Limited Options
In planning their off-season moves recently, the Warriors began
by calculating how much below the salary cap they would be. At
no point did they allow for the possibility that Latrell
Sprewell's contract would be reinstated and that he would become
their property again on July 1. When arbitrator John Feerick
ruled last week that $17.3 million of Sprewell's salary was back
on Golden State's books ($8.3 million next season, $9 million in
1999-2000), team officials threw up their hands in disgust--and
This much is certain: Sprewell will never again wear a Warriors
uniform. Sources tell SI that Golden State will not consider
retaining its combustible guard, and that owner Chris Cohan, who
stood by coach P.J. Carlesimo throughout his ordeal, will retain
Carlesimo as coach for the 1998-99 season.
Trading Sprewell will be difficult. When he signed his current
contract, on July 22, 1996, his salary was more than 120% of his
original deal, making him a "base-year" player. That means if
the Warriors want to trade Sprewell before July 1, they can do
so only after the regular season has ended and only to a team
not in the playoffs. In addition, the team taking him, if it's
over the cap, can give in return only a player (or players) who
earns no more than $5.3 million, which is two thirds of
Sprewell's 1997-98 salary. Golden State could wait until July 22
to trade him (a more likely scenario), in which case the $5.3
million restriction would disappear because at that point the
third year of Sprewell's contract would kick in and the
base-year restriction would be eliminated.
So who might end up with Sprewell? The Spurs, who wanted him
badly, are way over the cap and thus likely out of luck. Miami
coach Pat Riley has said he'd be interested in Sprewell, but his
team is capped out as well. Besides, we've already learned
(through the Heat's flirtations with Mitch Richmond) that Alonzo
Mourning, Tim Hardaway and P.J. Brown are untouchable, and who
else would Golden State want? Houston, which also expressed
interest in Sprewell, could be as much as $14 million under the
cap this summer, but the Warriors want a bona fide point guard
in return, and the Rockets need one of those themselves. Could
Golden State persuade Phoenix, which has no interest in
Sprewell--but plenty of point guards and cap room--to engage in
a three-way swap? Stay tuned.
The Warriors might consider high draft picks for Sprewell, but
teams like Toronto and Denver, which have cap room and could end
up with a choice in the top three, are unlikely to mortgage
their future on him. Golden State thought it had one other
option: to waive Sprewell, eat the remainder of his contract and
move forward, providing the league would allow the Warriors to
expunge Sprewell's cap numbers from their books. But, in another
blow to this reeling franchise, commissioner David Stern said
last week that Golden State would receive no such cap relief.
2,500 Games For Schonely
If octogenarian Chick Hearn, the venerable voice of the Lakers,
is the Elvis of NBA broadcasters, the Trail Blazers' Bill
Schonely is the league's Carl Perkins, a contemporary of
comparable skill but far less flamboyance. Two months ago Hearn,
the alltime leader of the talk parade, called his 3,000th game.
Toiling in Portland--where radio play-by-play men don't do much
schmoozing with Hollywood stars, much less weigh offers to
portray themselves in sitcoms and movies--Schonely is scheduled
to call his 2,500th pro basketball game on March 17, when the
Blazers host Cleveland.
"To me, 2,500 games means I've seen a lot of turnovers and a lot
of missed free throws," says Schonely, 68. "But it also means
I've had a lot of fun."
Even though Schonely is little known east of the Cascades,
Blazers fans have been aurally fixated on his broadcasts since
the franchise's inception in 1970. An unapologetic homer who
rises from his courtside seat with pumped fists when his team
plays well, Schonz is as much a part of the local scene as
raindrops and flannel shirts. On average his broadcasts attract
120,000 listeners, and his hallmark call of "Riiiiiiiip City"
(unleashed when a Blazer sinks a clutch outside shot) has become
Portland's unofficial moniker.
Says Damon Stoudamire, the Blazers point guard, who grew up in
Portland, "I listened to Bill as a kid, and I remember that he'd
get so pumped that you couldn't help getting excited at home."
Schonely blends an economical, conservative style with an
avuncular voice--the ideal match for a team that surely leads
the league in silver-haired fans. Several of his pet phrases,
like "lickety brindle up the middle" (describing a player
driving through the paint unaccosted) and "bingo bango bongo" (a
series of quick passes on a fast break), are decidedly unhip. No
matter. At a time when many Oregonians are ambivalent about a
team that is sometimes referred to as the Jail Blazers, Schonely
is an endearing throwback.
Like Hearn, Schonely got his big break doing Armed Forces Radio
broadcasts in the 1940s. From there he worked at a Seattle
television station with an upstart named Keith Jackson and
eventually called Pilots baseball games. When the club relocated
to Milwaukee, Schonely stayed in the Pacific Northwest and
signed with the Blazers. "Back then we had to beg stations to
carry our games," he says.
Now the Blazers' radio network has 34 affiliates and a rabid
listenership. "It's been a great run," says Schonely. "But I
could go on behind the mike forever. If Chick can still do it,
why can't I?" --L. Jon Wertheim
Indiana's Guard Fights To Return
Pacers point guard Haywoode Workman should have retired. When he
tore the ACL in his left knee in November 1996, the injury was
so severe that it also ripped the cartilage away from the bone,
creating a hole so large--the size of a silver dollar--that the
usual procedures to correct a tear were not an option.
So Workman rehabbed from his ACL surgery and hoped the pain
around the lesion would dissipate. He tried to participate in
preseason training last October but wasn't healthy enough. Five
months ago Workman aggravated the knee in workouts. He was done,
Team physician Sanford Kunkel wanted to try one last surgical
option, a radical procedure that took cartilage from
non-weight-bearing parts of the knee and plugged it into the
lesion. Although Kunkel had performed the surgery a number of
times on weekend athletes, his research revealed that no NBA
player had ever undergone the operation. Workman, whose career
had spanned six gritty seasons with Atlanta, Washington and
Indiana, agreed to be the first. Says Kunkel, who performed the
surgery last November, "If Haywoode can play again, I'll be as
happy as him, or maybe even happier."
Workman spends his days training on a StairMaster and treadmill
and lifting weights. He attends Pacers home games but finds the
experience excruciating. "As much as the guys try to include me,
I'm not part of it," Workman says. "I won't be until I can sweat
and run up and down the floor with them."
Kunkel guesses that the odds of that ever happening are 50-50.
The Pacers, who have begun to realize that Mark Jackson's
backup, Travis Best, isn't a true point guard, would welcome
Workman's return for what they hope will be a solid playoff run.
"We could use him," says team president Donnie Walsh. "The kid
is an animal."
Indiana hoped that Workman would return by March 1. That date
has come and gone, but he remains optimistic that he can suit up
this season. For the first time in almost two years, he has no
pain, and he's doing light running and some shooting. If he can
play pro basketball again, he will make medical history.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Williamson's Career High
Kings forward Corliss Williamson, March 4 versus Detroit: 40
minutes, 16-23 field goals, 8-9 free throws, 40 points, 5
rebounds, 5 assists. In leading Sacramento to a 109-89 victory,
Williamson bolstered his candidacy for most improved player--not
to mention his chances for landing a big contract when he
becomes a free agent this summer.
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Shaq's Grudge Match
Shaquille O'Neal wasn't about to let the painful infection in
his left big toe stop him from leading the Lakers to a 91-84 win
over the Spurs last Friday. The reason: his burning desire to
show up San Antonio center David Robinson. In recounting how he
met Kobe Bryant in the Orlando locker room a few years ago, Shaq
reveals his disdain for the Admiral. "Kobe was a young kid, and
he was probably dreaming of meeting certain players," O'Neal
says. "I think he was a really big Penny Hardaway fan, and I
think Penny wasn't so good to him [when Bryant tried to say
hello]. But I talked to Kobe for a while. You have to be careful
about these things. I remember the same thing happened to me. I
used to love David Robinson. I was playing in high school in San
Antonio, and I went into the Spurs locker room to meet him, and
he blew me off. Now it's something in my head. Every time I play
David Robinson, I try to demolish him."
AROUND THE RIM
Marcus Camby on former Raptors teammate Damon Stoudamire, who
criticized Camby for not putting in enough time after practice
or in the weight room: "I work on my game. Maybe I would have
blossomed more if it wasn't a one-man show. We had other good
players besides [Stoudamire], but all the attention, on and off
the floor, went to one place."... As part of their 30th
anniversary celebration, the Bucks are asking fans to select the
team's alltime roster. Former coach and G.M. Mike Dunleavy, who
averaged 10.1 points and 4.6 assists with Milwaukee from 1983 to
'85, is not on the 74-man ballot. The Bucks deny that he was
left off because he's suing the team for a $2 million buyout he
claims it failed to pay him in '96. But consider these options
on the ballot: Jon Barry, Jeff Grayer and the immortal Marty
Conlon.... Sources say the Bulls looked into signing former
Celtic Dino Radja for the remainder of the season. But Radja,
who plays for Panathinaikos in Greece, did not receive
permission to be released from his contract.... The 76ers are so
happy with Derrick Coleman's play that they are leaning toward
paying him $13 million next season, instead of buying him out
for $5.6 million. Coach Larry Brown recently called him the best
player on the team, adding, "It's no contest."... Arbitrator
John Feerick may soon have a lighter caseload. In accordance
with the collective bargaining agreement, either side--the
league or the union--may terminate him on Sept. 1.
INDIANA AT NEW YORK
Madison Square Garden
Reggie Miller and the Pacers, still battling for the top spot in
the Eastern Conference, get a tough road test against Allan
Houston and the Knicks. With Miller and Houston trading shots,
the pivotal matchup could be in the pivot, where the
injury-depleted Knicks will try to put a group hug on 7'4"
Pacers center Rik Smits. Message to Rik: Beware the Ides of
March--as well as Charles Oakley's elbows.