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Inside The NBA

March 29, 1999
March 29, 1999

Table of Contents
March 29, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
1999 Baseball Preview

Inside The NBA

SHAQ'S HACKED
The oft-fouled Shaquille O'Neal says he's ready to hurt somebody

This is an article from the March 29, 1999 issue Original Layout

When the first nine players chosen for the 1999 U.S. Men's
Senior National team (the group presumed to form the core of the
2000 Olympic team) were announced on March 10, there was one
glaring omission: Shaquille O'Neal. This was not an oversight,
nor was it a slight. USA Basketball--whose president happens to
be Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner of the NBA--felt O'Neal
could be excused from the long grind of playing in the
qualifying rounds leading up to the Olympics. The unspoken
message: Enjoy your summer, Shaq, and we'll save a spot for you
on our Dream Team.

That is no longer necessary. O'Neal, frustrated by what he says
is a lack of respect from the NBA's front office, told SI last
Thursday that he will not play in the 2000 Sydney Games. "I
probably shouldn't say this, but I'm not going," said O'Neal.
"They can find someone else. The NBA doesn't give me any
respect. They say all the right things, but I won't believe them
until they show me the same respect they show Karl Malone and
Charles Barkley. Those guys can say whatever they want, and
nothing happens to them. I say anything, and the league hits me
with a fine.

"If they think they're going to stop me from voicing my opinion
by fining me, they're mistaken. I'm not a materialistic person.
You can't shut me up with the threat of taking my money."

The opinion O'Neal voices most vociferously is that he's getting
hacked to death while refs look the other way. O'Neal, who is
listed at 7'1" and 315 pounds, knows that all big men get abused
on the blocks; he just wants a level playing field. "If they
gave me every call I'm supposed to get, I'd average 60 points a
night," O'Neal said. "I guess the NBA doesn't want me to average
60. I'm the only so-called superstar who gets absolutely no
calls at home. One day someone is going to foul me, and I'm
going to go crazy. It's going to happen--soon--because my
[chronically injured] stomach muscles can't take much more."

O'Neal said several doctors have told him the strained abdominal
and groin muscles are injuries he'll have to battle for the rest
of his career, largely because of the stress he puts on those
areas of his body when he goes up strong with two or three
defenders along for the ride. Last season, after missing 21
games with an abdominal strain, he sought the opinion of three
specialists. Two recommended surgery, and the third recommended
physical therapist Alex McKechnie, who now works with O'Neal
periodically throughout the season.

Granik has heard O'Neal's no-respect lament many times, yet he
says it is disconcerting to hear the big fella is so upset that
he's balking at making the trip to Australia next summer. "The
last time I talked to Shaq about the Olympics was a year ago,
and he indicated he was anxious to play," says Granik. "If he
has changed his mind about playing, I can only hope he'll change
his mind again before next summer."

O'Neal would be a huge asset to the U.S. team. Amid this chaotic
Lakers season, he has been the one constant. He was averaging
27.2 points and 11.3 rebounds a game through Sunday and had
exhibited the kind of leadership many of his doubters said he
could never provide.

Among the issues O'Neal discussed in a wide-ranging interview
was the Lakers' relationship with Dennis Rodman, who returned to
the team on Sunday for a nationally televised game against
Orlando. "I said from the beginning I wasn't going to be a
babysitter," O'Neal said. "The first day Dennis didn't show up
for practice, we were told he had personal problems. I left it
at that. Then we hear he's here, he's there, he's in Las Vegas.
So my job becomes keeping my guys focused on dealing with what
we've got.

"I will say this about Dennis: He's a hard worker. I might not
agree with what he does off the court, but our front office says
give him space because he's got personal problems--whatever that
means."

On coach Kurt Rambis: "I used to hate him when I watched the
Lakers. I thought he was dirty. But that was his role. He told
me, 'Pat Riley said if I ever shot the ball, I'd never play
again.' When Kurt took over, he let everybody know there'd be no
nonsense and that we were going to run our asses off for two
hours in practice. Before, it was practice 20 minutes, talk 30
minutes. [Former coach] Del Harris should have known better. In
this era you can't give guys that kind of time to mess around.
You gotta keep them busy."

On executive vice president Jerry West: "I'm worried about him.
I wish he could relax, take it easy. I know he's not happy.
Jerry is like me. He likes people to act professionally. If
Jerry West says he's tired, that he can't take it anymore and
he's leaving, I'll accept that and stay. But if I feel he was
forced out, or made to feel unwanted in any way, I am going to
be very, very upset."

On the Spurs' David Robinson: "I don't dislike him. David and I
have gotten into it, but if I ever saw him off the court, in
front of his family, I wouldn't have a bad thing to say. I'd
show him respect. On the court, though, I've got to do what I
have to do. Hey, this is the NBA. We're all actors. It's the
World Wrestling Federation."

On the Knicks' Patrick Ewing: "He's somebody I really don't
like, especially since the lockout. Let me tell you this:
Patrick and his Georgetown boys messed up the lockout.
Georgetown is supposed to be a five-star university? Yeah,
right. That's why he and 'Zo [Alonzo Mourning] were trying to
play lawyer, trying to intimidate billionaires like [Portland
owner] Paul Allen. Please."

On his image: "So I like rap, and I do some movies. What does
that mean? I'm not trying to be anything I'm not. I don't have a
huge vocabulary. I barely passed the SATs. I'm not from a rich
neighborhood. But I set my own kind of good example, because I
have siblings, and I have a two-year-old daughter, and I'm not
going to let them down."

On his team: "We don't have any excuses now. We have the deadly
shooter, the big man, the rebounder. I'm tired of hearing,
'They're so young.' I'm tired of hearing, 'Kobe is only 20 years
old.' Let's show some heart. Let's just shut up and win."

Nowitzki Watch
IS DALLAS AT WITZ' END?

Mavericks rookie Dirk Nowitzki is tired. His German pro team,
Wurzburg, started its season last September, and he played for
it until the NBA lockout was settled. After hastily packing his
bags and flying to Dallas in January, he found one more piece of
heavy baggage waiting for him: G.M. and coach Don Nelson had
loudly and proudly predicted that Nowitzki would be Rookie of
the Year.

That's pretty hard to do when you don't get off the bench. After
starting and playing generous minutes in the first month, the
7-foot Nowitzki fell out of the regular rotation in
mid-February. He only started getting significant minutes again
after forward Cedric Ceballos fractured both wrists on Feb. 25
and was lost for the season.

This season has been a humbling one for the 20-year-old, whose
performance against American players in a high school all-star
game last year had the entire league buzzing about his mobility,
range and soft touch. "We expected him to struggle some
defensively," Nelson says. "What we didn't expect was for him
not to be able to shoot the ball. It's hard to keep him on the
floor when both of those things are going on."

Teammates say Nowitzki's talent is evident in practice, but he
still hasn't grasped the nuances of the game and looks as though
he has tired legs.

Nowitzki, who can't blame his rocky transition on a language
barrier--he speaks nearly flawless English--says his original
plan was to remain with Wurzburg for at least one more season
before jumping to the NBA. That's what he told Celtics president
and coach Rick Pitino, who was drooling over the young German
after putting him through a private workout at a gym in Rome
last summer. Nelson swung a draft-day deal for Nowitzki anyway,
then persuaded him to visit Dallas, where he roped him in with
the prospect of NBA grandeur.

Did Nowitzki make the right decision? Would he have been better
off playing a second year in Germany's pro league? Nelson
insists that another year in Europe would only have fostered bad
habits, but this baptism by fire has not done much for
Nowitzki's confidence. "It has been tough," says Nowitzki, who
played center once in Nelson's small lineup but is better suited
to one of the forward slots. "I'm a bit too slow for the outside
guys, and I'm a bit too weak for the inside guys. But I am
young. I will get bigger and faster."

NBA experts agree. In spite of his struggles, few--if any--are
proclaiming Nowitzki a bust. "He should be judged no differently
than any of the high school kids who made the jump," Nets
general manager John Nash says. "Dirk is a terrific talent. He
has size. He's going to be a factor. He'll get the attention of
a lot of teams if Dallas ever wants to trade him."

Nelson thinks Nowitzki most needs a minor attitude adjustment.
"Dirk needs more of a sense of urgency," says Nelson. "It's not
O.K. for him not to play well. It's not O.K. for him to wait a
year or two."

The reason the Mavericks cannot wait: They're coming off eight
straight miserable seasons and already dealt away their 1999
first-round pick to acquire point guard Steve Nash from Phoenix.
Nelson gambled that his team would be good enough this season to
render the '99 pick only marginally useful, but Nash has been a
disappointment, having shot only 35.9% from the floor while
averaging 5.1 assists and just two turnovers through Sunday. "I
never thought Steve would tighten up or press, but he has,"
Nelson says. "He wanted so much to run his own team, but now
that he is, he's trying too hard."

Nowitzki has tried to guard against making the same mistake. "I
am learning every day," Nowitzki says, "and Coach Nelson comes
up with something new for me all the time. We played Golden
State, and he had me guard Muggsy Bogues. Muggsy only blew by me
once. He's not so good a shooter, so I backed off him."

So far the NBA has done the same to Nowitzki. And Nelson isn't
saying who will get his vote for Rookie of the Year.

Breakthrough Pacer?
ROSE ALMOST GETS THE POINT

In a recent game against Washington, Indiana's versatile, 6'8"
Jalen Rose bird-dogged point guard Rod Strickland from end to
end on one possession, stuck a hand in the face of shooting
guard Calbert Cheaney on another, and spent a good portion of
the fourth quarter guarding 6'9" forward Juwan Howard on the
blocks. "He's a can-do-everything athlete," Pacers president
Donnie Walsh says, "Jalen is on the verge of being a topflight
player."

But what Rose would really like to be is a topflight point
guard. That has been his goal since he entered the league with
Denver in 1994. After struggling at the point and resisting a
change of position, Rose was a study in untapped potential
before breaking out last season for the Pacers...at small forward.

After an encouraging talk with coach Larry Bird at the end of
last season about making the transition to full-time team
quarterback, Rose spent much of his summer (and the entire
lockout) prepping himself. The plan was to use Rose at the point
when veteran Mark Jackson needed a breather and move last year's
backup point, Travis Best, to the shooting guard spot alongside
Rose. Bird implemented that strategy in the first week of the
season, but both Rose and Best struggled in their new roles, and
Bird, realizing that practice time was limited in this shortened
season, scrapped the experiment and went back to his old
rotation. "I think he just figured we didn't really need any big
changes right now," says Rose. "As a competitor, I'm
disappointed. I know I can do it. But I can't really worry too
much about it."

Rose is not hard up for minutes. He plays small forward, gets
significant time at shooting guard and does spot duty at the
point, where he has played well over the last month. "I'm not
afraid to put him out there," Bird says. "We'll make sure he
gets his minutes running the team. Jalen is a better player when
he's interested. It's always better when Jalen has to guard a
guy he thinks is a great player. When he thinks he's better than
the player he's on, it sometimes makes for a long night."

Therein lies Rose's biggest flaw: lack of focus. "That's the
only thing holding him back," says Walsh.

The Nuggets also felt that Rose lacked maturity. "When Jalen
came into the league, he thought he was the second coming of
Magic Johnson," says Dan Issel, president and general manager of
the Nuggets, the team that drafted Rose with the 13th pick. "So
there was no way he was going to consider playing any position
but point guard."

Last season, with Bird allowing him more freedom on the floor
than any of his previous coaches had, Rose provided the kind of
energy and moxie that has made him indispensable to the Indiana
rotation this season.

Now all the Pacers have to do is keep him under contract. Citing
a change in the collective bargaining agreement that negates a
restricted free agency clause in his contract, Rose believes he
should be a free agent next summer; the Pacers think otherwise
but have petitioned the league to allow them to redo Rose's
contract. The matter is headed for arbitration, but Rose says he
doesn't want to leave, and the Pacers want to keep him, so Walsh
is optimistic about the outcome.

"We want Jalen settled and happy," says Walsh.

The Fine Line
ALLEN IVERSON, SIXERS

In a matchup of the NBA's two top scorers last Friday, league
leader Allen Iverson outscored Shaquille O'Neal 41 to 23, had 10
assists to O'Neal's two and had three turnovers to O'Neal's
five. Although 13 inches shorter and 150 pounds lighter than
O'Neal, Iverson also outrebounded the Lakers center five to
four. The Sixers won 105-90.

For the latest scores and stats, plus Marty Burns's exclusive NBA
team rankings, check out www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH O'Neal (here scoring on Seattle) is so angry at the league that he may spurn the Olympic Games.

Around The Rim

Phoenix coach Danny Ainge finally did what almost any other
coach would have done a month ago: benched struggling Rex
Chapman (who was shooting 34.1% at week's end) and replaced him
with athletic rookie Toby Bailey. Bailey, however, did nothing
as a starter, so Chapman, who has battled hamstring and calf
injuries all season, was back in the starting lineup after four
games....

Here's one reason Minnesota signed Dennis Scott to a 10-day
contract when Anthony Peeler went down: The team is last in the
league in three-point shooting (24.4% through Sunday)....

The Lakers' trade for Glen Rice may work out for them
eventually, but with Rice starting at small forward, Kobe Bryant
moves to shooting guard, where he has been lit up by some of the
league's top twos. (That's why recently fired L.A. coach Del
Harris resisted playing him there.) There's another drawback to
the move. Bryant, who had several double doubles in the first
month of the season, doesn't rebound nearly as well from the
backcourt, which means the Lakers have significantly downgraded
their defense and rebounding at two spots....

Whispers out of Boston are that point guard Kenny Anderson, who
was initially rejuvenated by his move to the Celtics, is the
latest veteran to grow disenchanted with president and coach
Rick Pitino's my-way-or-the-highway control over the team.

Brick of the Week

Despite having spent six weeks on the injured list, Timberwolves
rookie center Trevor Winter showed that he was in game shape
when he racked up five fouls in five minutes trying to cover
Shaquille O'Neal. "Might as well start out against the best,"
Winter said of his first NBA game. "They'll all get easier from
here." He went back on the injured list the next night with a
bruised back.