Inside The NBA

April 18, 1999

A BLUE STREAK
Charles Barkley tears into Allen Iverson and Clyde Drexler and...

Sir Charles would like to add a real title to his name. Although
he's 36 years old and at least five inches shorter than many of
the men he battles under the boards each night, Charles Barkley
wants to win the NBA rebounding title. "Who is the oldest guy
ever to lead the league in rebounding?" says Barkley. "Maybe it
can be me."

Dennis Rodman holds that distinction, having led the league in
rebounding last year at 35, but that is beside the point. What
matters is that Barkley is so juiced about this season that he's
talking seriously about overtaking league-leading, 6'10",
26-year-old Sacramento power forward Chris Webber, who, through
Sunday, held the slimmest of leads over Barkley on the boards,
averaging 12.9 per game to 12.6.

Last year such a goal would have been unthinkable for Barkley.
He missed 15 games battling an array of injuries, including a
torn right triceps, and although he averaged 15.2 points and
11.7 rebounds per game, he was no longer a dominant player, as
he is the first to admit. At times he looked overmatched against
young players such as Webber and Antonio McDyess, and he
threatened numerous times to retire. Some of his friends
privately hoped he would, but Barkley says they weren't taking
all factors into consideration. "What they didn't understand was
I was never healthy," Barkley says. "And the attitude here [in
Houston] didn't help. It was a nightmare last season."

Barkley says that Clyde Drexler and Mario Elie were so consumed
with locking up new contracts that they destroyed team chemistry
on and off the floor. "What it came down to was money," Barkley
says. "Everyone said Clyde and I didn't get along, but it was
about guys bent on getting their contracts redone, and when that
didn't happen, those guys decided, 'I'm going to make it
miserable around here.'" Houston finished 41-41 and was bounced
in the first round of the playoffs by Utah.

Drexler retired after last season to coach at the University of
Houston. Elie became a free agent and signed with San Antonio.
Both dispute Barkley's version of last season's events. "My
response to Charles is 'Grow up,'" says Drexler. "He was the one
who was 28 pounds overweight last year. Not me."

Says Elie, "I played hurt, and I played sick for those guys. We
expected a lot from Charles. He should have gone out and done
it, not talked about it. We did just fine without him before he
got to Houston. We won two championships."

Elie's unspoken barb is that Barkley has not won any NBA titles.
That's the black mark on a resume that includes 11 All-Star
selections and a 1993 MVP trophy. Michael Jordan joked at his
retirement press conference that he never worried about Barkley
challenging him for a championship because Barkley wasn't
willing to work hard enough. That doesn't seem to be true this
year. Barkley hired trainer Tim Grover, who oversaw Jordan's
conditioning and has worked with Scottie Pippen. "I think
[Jordan] struck a nerve in Charles," Grover says. "The day I got
off the plane in Houston in February, he told me, 'I've been
waiting for you.'"

Barkley began working the weights at nine o'clock every morning
with Pippen. By March, Hakeem Olajuwon had joined them. "It's
working," Barkley says. "I feel 75 percent stronger than when I
started."

The one thing Grover can't do for the Rockets is play guard,
which is where the team is weakest. The Rockets start an
all-rookie backcourt of Cuttino Mobley at the point and Michael
Dickerson at shooting guard, and with Brent Price sidelined for
at least three weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on April 7
on his right knee, the first guard off the bench is rookie Bryce
Drew. "Bryce Drew will end up being the best of them in the long
run," Barkley predicts. "He knows the game. The other guys, we've
got to bring them along."

Barkley has also schooled the Houston youngsters on respecting
their elders. He laments that the league is "loaded with bad
basketball and bad players and young guys whose memories are too
short. Take [Allen] Iverson. I can't stand that guy. He has to
show up for practice every day. He has a responsibility to cut
the crap and not have some drama with the coach every week. He's
showing no respect to anyone, least of all the game."

Sir Charles has become a Stephon Marbury fan and gleefully
charts the progress of Toronto rookie Vince Carter, his choice
for rookie of the year. Barkley's MVP vote goes to Miami center
Alonzo Mourning "because he's been the best player on that team,
and he's got the least to work with of all the good teams."
Barkley admits that Portland's explosiveness and depth terrify
him, which is why he gives Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy the nod
as coach of the year. "I don't want to see Portland anytime soon
in the playoffs," he says.

Barkley insists that Houston can win it all this year, yet there
are signs that suggest otherwise. Pippen often remains a
frustrated observer in an offense that revolves around Olajuwon.
In a loss to San Antonio last week, Pippen scored four points and
was shaking his head as he walked off the court. The Rockets also
have not fared well against playoff-bound teams; as of Sunday,
Houston's record against the top eight clubs in the West was
4-10.

Even if he doesn't win the championship--or the rebounding
title--Barkley has no regrets about his decision to re-up with
the Rockets for the $1 million veteran's exemption. "It ain't
about the money anymore," he says. "We've got great guys on this
team. We've got guys who pull for each other. As long as we've
got that, I'll always believe we have a chance."

Vindication for P.J.
NO MORE SHOOTING SPRES

After all he'd been through, Golden State coach P.J. Carlesimo
should have known better. "I said in preseason that if we really
focused, we could make the playoffs," Carlesimo says. "Everyone
laughed at me."

Well, at least people were laughing instead of urging him to
call the police. It was no joking matter last season when
Latrell Sprewell grabbed Carlesimo and administered the choke
heard round the world. Sprewell was suspended for the season,
and Carlesimo became a national figure for all the wrong
reasons. Making the worst of a bad situation, Carlesimo's team
collapsed, never recovering from the loss of its best player or
the controversy that dogged its coach.

The healing began when Sprewell was traded to New York this
preseason for veterans John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry
Cummings. A new Golden State team--a mix of those tough
veterans, who have played in a total of 222 postseason games,
and some young legs--is just a few games out of the eighth and
final playoff spot in the Western Conference. That's a stunning
turnaround for a team that won only 19 games last season. "What
everyone forgot is that Spre didn't play last year," Carlesimo
says. "So, in essence, when we traded him for all those guys, we
were really losing nothing."

Once Starks recovered from the shock of being dealt by his
beloved Knicks, he assumed the role of Warriors leader and
emotional spark, which is precisely what general manager Garry
St. Jean was counting on when he pulled the trigger on the
trade. There have been other bonuses, such as a career year from
point guard Bimbo Coles, and late-developing story lines, such
as the emergence of rookie forward Antawn Jamison. The Warriors
took some early hits for taking Jamison instead of Vince Carter
or Boston swingman Paul Pierce, who both got off to quick starts
while Jamison sputtered in limited minutes backing up Mills. "It
was a tough learning experience for him," Carlesimo says. "When
it got to the middle of the year, and people started rating the
rookies, no one was giving Antawn much credit, but our people
knew he'd be fine."

Jamison became a starter on March 24, and since then he had
averaged 12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 51.4% through Sunday,
vindicating his coach's faith in him.

While Sprewell is still in the papers, mucking up the already
muddy waters in New York, Carlesimo has faded from the
headlines. He couldn't be happier. "My only hope this season was
to get back to coaching, to just talk about wins and losses
again," Carlesimo says. He got his wish, and that may be the
most remarkable Golden State success story of all.

Bench Marked
DOMINIQUE NO LONGER UNIQUE

A general manager who would like to remain anonymous recently
told this story. When one of his young stars began raving about
Vince Carter's athletic moves, the G.M. said Carter resembled a
young Dominique Wilkins. The player stared blankly for a moment,
then said, "You mean that old guy in Orlando?"

Only 12 NBA players have scored 25,000 or more points. Wilkins
is one of only three active players on that list (Hakeem
Olajuwon and Karl Malone are the others), and he needs only 54
points in Orlando's final 12 games to pass Oscar Robertson and
move to seventh on the alltime scoring list with 26,711 points.
In the old days 'Nique could have put up 54 in one game. These
days it could take him three weeks. The 39-year-old Wilkins is a
bench warmer for the Magic, who led the Eastern Conference at
week's end. He was averaging 5.3 points and 10.1 minutes a
night. For anyone who saw Wilkins in his prime, his farewell
tour has been painful to watch. They wonder why this surefire
Hall of Famer hangs on and suffers the indignity of mop-up time.
Teammate Penny Hardaway recently confessed, "It's sad. I hope I
retire before it gets like that."

Wilkins vehemently denies that he continues to play because he
needs the money. "It's because I still love the game," he says.
"The scary thing is, I'm still better at my position than 70
percent of the guys in the league." That may be overstating the
case, but he can occasionally light it up. Against New Jersey on
March 30, Wilkins hoisted up 13 shots in 13 minutes and scored
17 points.

Wilkins says he rarely looks back, although the turning point in
his career may have been signing with Boston in 1994 instead of
taking less money to play for a contender. Had he done the
latter, more of today's young stars might know how great he was.
Even so, Wilkins remains optimistic and confident. He says that
if the Magic gets to the Finals, it will need his instant
offense. "Maybe," he says, chuckling, "the team is saving me."

A Fine Line
LATRELL SPREWELL, KNICKS

Brushing aside criticism that his play has contributed to the
Knicks' slide this season, Sprewell asserted that he has been a
positive influence on his teammates: "I've played on losing
teams before, and I know what it takes."

Send your NBA questions to Phil Taylor at www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A verbal jab by Jordan when he retired inspired Barkley to get in the best shape of his career. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Ex-Knicks Starks (on floor) and Mills have mixed well with young Warriors like Jason Caffey (21). COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS

Around The Rim

Don't be fooled by John Stockton's numbers (10.7 points, 7.3
assists and 28.1 minutes through Sunday). The only reason his
stats are down is that Jazz coach Jerry Sloan finally has enough
confidence in backup point Howard Eisley to give him meaningful
minutes. Two seasons ago Sloan challenged Eisley to improve his
range; at week's end Eisley had hit 48.4% of his threes this
season. Last summer Sloan challenged Eisley to be more
assertive; this season he's running the pick-and-roll like a
Stockton clone. Look for the old--and well-rested--Stockton in
the playoffs....

UConn sophomore guard Khalid El-Amin was talked out of declaring
himself eligible for the NBA draft by his coaches, who persuaded
him that if he hooked up with a personal trainer and dropped 20
pounds, he could be a lottery pick in the 2000 draft....

Former Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff should have started
updating his resume in February when executive vice president
and general manager Wes Unseld insisted the team's center spot
(Terry Davis, Otis Thorpe and Ben Wallace) was solid. One factor
that led to Bickerstaff's firing was his quote in local papers
after a loss to Miami on April 4 that Washington's talent didn't
measure up. Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be right....

The firings of Bickerstaff, John Calipari and Del Harris and the
resignation of Dave Cowens have moved Chicago coach Tim Floyd up
to 25th on the NBA coaches' seniority list. Says Floyd, "I
didn't even get to meet a couple of those guys."

Call Them All Off

This week the league's shooting guards fall under the scrutiny
of the SI Player Rating Formula.* Despite a thigh injury and an
extremely public misunderstanding with coach Larry Brown, Sixers
former point guard Allen Iverson (right) has taken very nicely
to his new duties at off-guard, leading the league in scoring
and pitching in with 4.9 assists per game through Sunday. The
No. 2 two is Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, the best rebounding two
guard in the NBA.

Now to the off part. Note that only seven of our top 20 shooting
guards rank among the top 50 players in the league. Missed games
due to injuries hurt the ratings of Atlanta's Steve Smith and
Phoenix's Rex Chapman. Then there's the absence of that Jordan
guy. His replacement in Chicago, Brent Barry, ranks 18th on the
list of shooting guards and doesn't even crack the list of the
top 100 players in the league.

RANK AMONG
SI RATING ALL PLAYERS

1. Allen Iverson, 76ers 49.5 12
2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers 44.6 16
3. Michael Finley, Mavericks 39.9 26
4. Mitch Richmond, Wizards 36.7 37
5. Ray Allen, Bucks 35.3 41
6. Eddie Jones, Lakers-Hornets 35.2 42
7. Reggie Miller, Pacers 33.0 50
8. Doug Christie, Raptors 32.1 53
9. Allan Houston, Knicks 30.7 57
10. Jeff Hornacek, Jazz 28.9 70
11. Ron Mercer, Celtics 28.6 72
12. John Starks, Warriors 28.3 76
13. Nick Anderson, Magic 27.3 82
14. Isaiah Rider, Trail Blazers 26.8 87
15. Steve Smith, Hawks 26.0 92
16. Kerry Kittles, Nets 25.6 95
17. Hersey Hawkins, SuperSonics 24.9 103
18. Brent Barry, Bulls 24.3 107
19. Bobby Phills, Hornets 23.7 112
20. Jerry Stackhouse, Pistons 22.8 118

*SI Player Rating Formula: [2 x (3-Pts. Made + Assists + Blocks)
+ 1.5 x (OR + Steals) + Total Points + DR + FTM - (TOs x 2) -
(Missed FTs + Missed FGs)] [divided by] Games Team Has Played.

Torch SONGS

KNICKS AT PISTONS
Friday, April 16

Ever since bolting from Detroit in July '96 for a seven-year,
$56 million deal with New York, Knicks guard Allan Houston has
had a hard time putting the ball in the basket against his
former team. In nine meetings with the Pistons, Houston, usually
matched up against Joe Dumars or Jerry Stackhouse, has averaged
just 9.0 points on dismal 29.6% shooting. "I'd be lying if I
said I didn't want to play well against them," Houston says.
Apparently the hard feelings are mutual.

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)