Feeling The Heat
At 33, injury-plagued Tim Hardaway struggles to prove he can
lead Miami to a title
It is Feb. 17, and Heat point guard Tim Hardaway is leading the
three-on-two fast break against the Bulls. In the old days, when
he was healthy and a perennial All-Star, Hardaway would have
streaked past the defenders and laid the ball in. But on this
night there is no burst of speed. Hardaway's wing players, Jamal
Mashburn and Voshon Lenard, catch up to him. So does the Chicago
defense. There will be no basket, only further evidence that Tim
Hardaway is not right.
In December 1993 Hardaway had surgery to repair a torn ACL in
his left knee. Six months later he had a bone spur removed from
his right knee, which had no cartilage left after he had surgery
in college to remove a cyst. Last spring Hardaway averaged 36.4
minutes in the first round of the playoffs despite a cartilage
tear in the left knee, and he was ripped for shooting just 26.8%
against the Knicks, who eliminated the Heat in five games. This
season, through Sunday, Hardaway had missed seven weeks with a
jammed right knee that led to a pinched right hamstring.
For the 33-year-old Hardaway, who will be a free agent this
summer and has been hoping for a huge payday, there could hardly
be a worse time to have his health questioned. But Miami has
made a first-round exit from the playoffs each of the past two
years, and there are no rewards for that, not even for a guy who
four years ago signed a contract loaded with incentives instead
of guaranteed cash so the Heat could pursue free agents Juwan
Howard and P.J. Brown. Hardaway knows that unless Miami goes to
the Finals, the team could be dismantled, starting with him.
"I let them know after we lost [to New York], I wasn't making
any changes," says coach Pat Riley, "because I believe the pain
of losing can sometimes help a team rise to another level. If
this team wins a championship, I'm going to pay everybody. But
if we lose or don't go deep into the playoffs, I am going to
reevaluate the whole team."
The Heat's recent play has been dismal. Miami lost to lowly
Chicago in that Feb. 17 game. The next night, the Heat fell to
the Nets after Kendall Gill flicked the ball from Hardaway and
dunked with 50 seconds left. Afterward Gill said Hardaway was a
shadow of his former self.
The same conclusion is drawn by Clippers point guard Eric
Murdock, who is a good friend of Hardaway's. "Tim's struggling,"
Murdock says. "Two years ago I saw him destroy [Knicks guards]
Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, but last year he couldn't even
make a move on them."
Murdock says he talked to Hardaway at the All-Star break, and
Hardaway insisted he was fine. "But that's just his pride
talking," says Murdock. "I know he's hurting. I hope he gets it
back. I miss the old Tim."
Riley acknowledged last week that he might have to use Hardaway
more as a playmaker than as a go-to scorer. As the Feb. 24
trading deadline approached, league observers wondered if Riley
would acquire another point guard. "When a player totally
commits to me, I commit to him," Riley says. "I know which guys
I'd want to jump into a foxhole with, and Tim is one of those
guys. It's a difficult situation. He's got the contract, the
injury and this [win-now scenario] hanging over his head. It
makes it very tough."
At week's end, in the 14 games since his return, Hardaway was
averaging 11.9 points on 39.6% shooting, with 7.0 assists. His
timing and mobility are subpar, yet teammates say that even on
unsound legs he is the heart of the Heat. "We need his energy,
leadership and experience," says Brown. "When he's not there, we
can get a little lost."
The last time Hardaway was a free agent, in 1996, interest was
tepid. This time, much will depend on his knees--and his asking
price. "I want a nice deal," he says. "I look at what Terrell
Brandon [six years, $58.3 million from the Timberwolves] and
Nick Van Exel [seven years for up to $77 million from the
Nuggets] got, and I feel I'm above those guys."
The Heat could sign Hardaway, who faces the added stress of
Olympic service this September, to a one-year extension in the
$8 million range, then make the move to rebuild in the summer of
2001. If Miami decides to start over without Hardaway, Riley
risks being viewed as a cold-hearted businessman who wouldn't
take care of a veteran who played hurt for him. As Hardaway
tries to defy the odds and lead the Heat to the Finals, just how
much playoff pounding can he take? "Whatever I need to," he says.
Magic's Battle-scarred Guard
CHUCKY'S IN LUCK
There are a lot of reasons why rookie Chucky Atkins loves his
job as backup point guard for the Magic, but here's the best
one: He doesn't have to duck when he walks on court. Last season
in Zagreb, Croatia, Atkins had to dodge coins, batteries,
cigarette lighters and whatever else opposing fans chose to hurl
at his Cibona team. "I got hit in the head with a coin," Atkins
says. "We were playing our big rival, Zadar, and we were in the
huddle when they got me. We're about to start a game, and my
head is bleeding."
Atkins's escape from Croatia's Domestic League has become the
inspirational story of the year for other NBA wannabes toiling
in Europe. The 5'11" point guard has proved to be a capable
backup to Orlando's Darrell Armstrong, having led (or co-led)
the team in assists 14 times this season. In the first five
games of February, Atkins averaged 12.6 points and 7.6 assists
in 21 minutes. During that stretch, his assist-to-turnover ratio
was 13 to 1. He tied his career high with 22 points in a win
over the Knicks on Feb. 1 and had 17 points and seven assists in
a victory over the Pacers just before the All-Star break.
Atkins, a Florida native, played at South Florida from 1992 to
1996. He went undrafted, tried to hook on with Vancouver, then
played in the CBA for a season. Each spring since '97, Atkins
worked out with Orlando's potential draft picks, serving as a
warm body against which the young prospects could be measured.
Two years in a row Atkins received only a thank you for his
efforts and took the next plane to Zagreb. His spot on the
Cibona team was arranged by Aleksandar Petrovic, the brother of
Drazen Petrovic, the former Nets star who was killed in a car
accident in 1993. Petrovic, who is an unofficial conduit to
Croatian basketball, spotted Atkins in the Los Angeles summer
league and steered him to a job for $350,000 a season.
"I'd never heard of Croatia," Atkins says. "People told me it
had this terrible war, so I was expecting a burned-out place. It
wasn't. It was nice."
Last spring, after Cibona won the second of its back-to-back
titles, Atkins reported as always to the Magic's predraft
workouts. This time he sensed a difference. "[Coach] Doc
[Rivers] said, 'Don't think you're out here for no reason,'"
says Atkins. "I was shocked. I said, 'You mean you're actually
Orlando general manager John Gabriel liked the way Atkins, who
is more of a true point guard than Armstrong, directed the
offense. "Our mind-set after each of his visits, and [after
evaluating] the point guards we employed, was that Chucky is
better than what we'd seen," Gabriel says.
Atkins may not have been high-profile enough to earn a spot in
the All-Star rookie game, but the Magic has fielded trade
inquiries about him. Atkins doesn't want to go. "But I would,"
he says. "Anywhere. Are you kidding? After where I've been?"
Sealy in the Act
ROLE OF A LIFETIME
As an actor, Malik Sealy has been confined to small roles--a
cameo on the television drama Diagnosis Murder, a few lines in
the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Eddie and, in his biggest stretch, a
guest spot as Malik Sloman, a basketball player whose team
fights its way to freedom after being kidnapped by militiamen in
an episode of the UPN series The Sentinel. His most memorable
line: "Cuz, I don't like you."
Like any good actor, though, Sealy can work wonders with a minor
role, which he has also done on the court this season. The
Timberwolves' record was 9-13 when coach Flip Saunders inserted
Sealy regularly into the starting lineup in place of shooting
guard Anthony Peeler; their record since then: 19-10 (through
Sunday). Forward Kevin Garnett is Minnesota's leading man, but
no NBA player is more compelling in a supporting role than the
spindly 6'8" Sealy.
"Being on a team is like being part of the cast in a movie," he
says. "You have to understand who the main character is, and
everybody else fills in around him. It makes him better and, in
turn, it makes you better."
Sealy, who was averaging 12.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in 31.8
minutes as a starter, has also played the hero. On Dec. 27 he
put in an offensive rebound at the buzzer to beat the Magic
107-105, and on Jan. 17 banked in a three-point prayer, again in
the last second, to edge the Pacers 101-100.
But most of his contributions have been more subtle, such as
using his height advantage to harass most other shooting guards
and providing an outlet for Garnett or point guard Terrell
Brandon to pass to when they are double-teamed. "The reason he's
scoring," says Saunders, "is that when people trap KG or Terrell
it leaves somebody open, usually in the opposite corner. A lot
of the time that guy has been Malik, and he's knocked down the
shots. He's had a major, major impact."
Sealy's contract expires at the end of the season, but after
playing for four teams in eight seasons he wants to stay in
Minnesota. That's understandable. Sometimes an actor finds a
role he was born to play. --Phil Taylor
Line of the Week
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, Feb. 18, versus the Magic:
15-of-22 FG, 9-of-13 FT, 39 points, 16 rebounds, 3 blocks. Shaq
snatched a Ron Mercer inbounds pass in the final seconds, then
roared in for a jam to force overtime--in which he scored seven
points, beating his old team 107-99.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
Around The Rim
Suns rookie forward Shawn Marion is back after missing 31 games
with a torn meniscus in his left knee, and he has given Phoenix
what it needs most: athleticism. "Shawn is so quick, he can go
for a ball fake, recover and still get a piece of the ball," says
Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo. "He changes our look
dramatically." Through Sunday, in four games since his return,
Marion averaged 9.5 points and 7.3 rebounds and shot 59.3%....
Team sources say talks between the Pacers and the Celtics on
Antoine Walker collapsed when Boston tried to make the deal a
five- or six-player swap, asking Indiana to take a number of its
undesirables (including Pervis Ellison and Greg Minor) so the
Celtics could clear some cap room....
Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo on his team's chances in the second
half of the season: "If we play well in our first game back and
send a strong message, we have a chance. If not, we better start
thinking about next year." Two days later, Mutombo had his first
triple double as a Hawk (21 points, 13 rebounds, 11 blocks) in a
103-86 win over the Nets. Atlanta sources say that while teams
had inquired about Mutombo, the Hawks won't give him up unless
they get a top center in return....
The Cavaliers tried to unload Shawn Kemp, but, contrary to
reports, the Lakers weren't interested. If L.A. owner Jerry Buss
had the bucks for Kemp's megasalary, he would have committed to
re-signing free-agent-to-be Glen Rice.