Ready To Roll The Houston Rockets, retrofitted with a new alltime great, began their scramble for the title as the abridged NBA season opened

February 15, 1999

They had to scramble a little, but the Houston Rockets did
gather their usual troika of Top 50 talent by tip-off. Hakeem
Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and now, in place of the retired Clyde
Drexler, Scottie Pippen. You've got to hand it to the Rockets:
When it comes to restocking, they go big-ticket. For that
matter, when it comes to superstars, they go redundant. How many
of the NBA's greatest players does a team need, anyway?

Based on the early returns, either one more or one fewer. After
losing its opener to the Lakers in Los Angeles and then escaping
with a road win over the Golden State Warriors, Houston looked a
little confused, as if there might not be room for everybody.
Maybe after just two weeks of preparation for this
lockout-shortened season, everybody was out of whack. But what's
the sense of putting three surefire Hall of Famers together if
the game is going to fall into the hands of Cuttino Mobley?

Mobley hasn't even been in the NBA long enough to be called
Moms, and the best thing Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich can say
about him is that "he's the most-talked-about second-round pick
we've ever had in camp." Yet it was Mobley, a rookie guard out
of Rhode Island making his NBA debut last Saturday night, who
saved Houston from the most expensive 0-2 start in league
history. With two of the three Top 50 guys disappearing into the
floorboards, Mobley took a pass from Barkley down low to hit a
25-footer with 19.1 seconds left that ended up beating the
Warriors 86-84. "Mobley?" said Barkley after the game. "I didn't
know it was Mobley I was passing to. I'd have kept the ball if
I'd known that."

Barkley was kidding, sort of, but you have to wonder how the
Rockets can let the outcome of any of their games depend on a
second-round draft pick. Given that one immortal has been swapped
out for an improved model, about all that would be acceptable in
Houston is total domination. And not by Moms Mobley.

"This league isn't so easy," says Tomjanovich, "that you can
just throw guys together and, after two weeks, beat everybody
up." Still, what was the point of bringing Pippen into this fold
if he wasn't going to at least outplay teammates like Michael
Dickerson--a rookie guard from Arizona who scored 12 to Pippen's
10 in the 99-91 loss to the Lakers last Friday--and Mobley, who
got the clutch baskets on Saturday?

O.K., maybe Pippen had an off night or two, maybe it really
isn't that easy, after a decade of playing in the free-flowing
triangle offense with the Bulls, to come to a team with
established low-post stars like Olajuwon and Barkley and figure
out your role. Nobody's writing off Pippen, who helped Michael
Jordan to six NBA titles. Talent is always the way to go, and
Pippen has it in every dimension. As it is, his aims are modest:
"I bring some defensive character to this team--they already
have two Hall of Famers, remember--and maybe some energy." But
this isn't a season (How many games are in it? Fifty?) when
anybody's going to be patient, or settle for modesty.

To be even fairer, it wasn't just Pippen who vanished from the
lineup. Olajuwon had games of 11 and 12 points, the latter
coming against the Warriors' less-than-formidable Erick Dampier.
Remember, too, that Olajuwon's scoring average has dropped in
each of the last three seasons, hitting a career-low 16.4 points
per game in 1997-98, when he underwent surgery on his left knee
and missed 33 games. The combined noneffect of Pippen and
Olajuwon in the game against the Lakers--the two contributed 21
points--had everybody putting L.A.'s Kobe Bryant and Shaquille
O'Neal directly into the Hall of Fame. Bryant, who just passed
from teenhood last August, was the more impressive athlete in
his matchup with Pippen, blocking two of Pippen's shots and
generally bedeviling him. Shaq, who scored 30, made everybody
forget the Dream.

If it hadn't been for Barkley, who through Sunday had been
playing an even bigger game than he talks, the Rockets would have
had to go into crisis mode. Relatively slimmed down and with at
least one visible ab on him, Barkley played Houston's first two
games more like an exuberant rookie than the 35-year-old ball of
remorse he actually is. To see him drop 31 points on Shaq and Co.
and then, the next night, watch him score eight points in a 15-0
fourth-quarter run that finally got the Rockets the lead (he
finished with 18 points and 20 rebounds) is to marvel at his
competitive spirit.

Barkley's bluster starts to make sense after games like those.
His stabs at humility become more debatable. "Couldn't go three
games in three nights," he says, referring to splotches of
compressed scheduling ahead. "I don't think I can have sex three
days in a row. Not good sex, anyway." That's for some other
magazine to decide, but at this point it looks as if he can put
together as many good games as he wants.

As Pippen works to put a couple of his own together, it's worth
noting that even if his shots aren't dropping, he has already
been a huge influence on this team. His arrival galvanized a
largely discouraged Barkley, who was seriously considering
retirement in the off-season. "Last year's team wasn't fun,"
Barkley says, referring to locker room tension and injuries to
himself and others. "If Hakeem hadn't been hurt, I'd have had
surgery in December [for a hernia, rather than wait until last
June]." He admits he might never have come back.

Drexler's retirement eased the tension. He had a brittle
relationship with Barkley that helped to sink the Rockets'
morale. "It was a little tough at times," says 16-year veteran
swingman Eddie Johnson, "but I've been on teams that were worse."

There seems to be no question, though, that he's now on a team
that's better. Everybody agrees that it's happier. "Let's not use
the word happy," Tomjanovich says. "Let's use the word
chemistry."

Even with Drexler gone, Barkley wasn't coming back just for the
atmosphere. "If we don't sign a good free agent," Tomjanovich
says, "he's probably gone."

Pippen was everybody's favorite free agent, and, with Jordan
retired, he was looking to get out of Chicago on the next train.
Of course, even after the Rockets worked a sign-and-trade deal
with the Bulls for Pippen, parting with forward Roy Rogers and a
second-round draft choice, Barkley wasn't guaranteed to return.
It was one thing to persuade him to take a cut from $2.2 million
to $1 million for the year, creating $10.6 million under the cap
for Pippen. It was another to find him.

While everybody else was getting ready for camp, Barkley was
paired with Jordan in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in La
Quinta, Calif., his cell phone off. Despairing of usual means of
communication, the Rockets dispatched a messenger, and the day
camp opened Barkley signed his contract at the 10th tee of the
Tamarisk Country Club, Michael ribbing him all the while.

In Barkley's defense, golf or not, he had prepared for this
season like no other. Ripped by his friend Jordan for his
long-standing disdain for conditioning, Barkley spent a week in
December at a Los Angeles spiritual retreat, where he had an
apple for breakfast, hiked for 15 miles before lunch and then
came back to the spa for a bowl of soup. He did yoga, too, until
he began having visions. "Of Big Macs and fries," he says.

The upshot is that he lost 17 pounds and gained leg strength.
"I'm all muscle," he says. (The revelation, of course, is that
in all those previous seasons, he really had let himself go.)
But the big story can't possibly be that Barkley got away from
his routine of 20 Diet Cokes a day, found some kind of religion
and is kicking the NBA up one court and down the other. Unless
Pippen was a figment of Jordan's imagination all those years,
this will be the Year of Scottie. Assuming, that is, he finds
the flow in this outfit.

Points or not, last week he was already ecstatic about the
change. Talking to Houston reporters, he said, "This experience
has been beyond my wildest expectations. I feel so relaxed, so
comfortable, so wanted." Pippen was taking direct aim at the
Bulls, who refused to upgrade his relatively piddling contract,
which averaged $3.6 million a year, and didn't so much as wince
when he decided to leave. "Let's face it," he said, "the
organization up there stinks."

The one down south has made the 33-year-old Pippen so happy that
he has decided to make Houston his home, presumably for the rest
of his career. He will likely outlast the other immortals on the
Rockets, just as he outlasted the one in Chicago, and nobody's
betting that he won't outlast his two-game funk either. After
undergoing surgery last July to remove two herniated disks in
his back, he seems to be moving as well as ever, and streaks of
poor shooting (he was 9 for 29 from the floor in Houston's first
two games) weren't uncommon for him even when he was winning
titles in Chicago.

In the meantime Pippen has become the kind of generous teammate
that Barkley and Tomjanovich have long dreamed of. "I'd heard
only good things about Scottie," Tomjanovich says, "but he's
much better than I thought."

This season, though, the crowd's going to be a little tougher,
and the schedule's going to be crueler, especially on old legs.
To barely split a pair of games, Houston's Top 50 guys had to
slog for an average of 37.3 minutes. So if Pippen has any more
good deeds in mind, they had better be more along the line of
threes with a half-minute left than inspirational
behind-the-scenes gestures. Or else we're going to find out just
how good this Moms Mobley really is.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Ball of fire Barkley was on top of his game--and Dampier--in a win at Golden State. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Not-so-great Scottie The Lakers' Bryant easily maneuvered around Pippen, who failed to achieve liftoff in his Rockets debut. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Less round mound The slimmer Barkley showed he can still feast on rebounds, pulling down 35 in two games. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Bad dream Olajuwon, whose scoring average has been declining for three seasons, was constantly on his heels against O'Neal.

"It isn't that easy, that you can throw guys together and, after
two weeks, beat everybody up."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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