Inside The NBA

March 06, 2000

Life after Bobby
David Wesley and the Hornets have kept their bearings in
turbulent times

In the dream Bobby Phills is smiling, as if nothing has happened.
Hand outstretched, he approaches David Wesley, who thinks about
how good it is to have his best friend back. Sometimes, when
Wesley's dream lingers, the two head off to shoot baskets or play
golf. "Or sometimes," says Wesley, the Hornets' point guard,
"we're just talking. Just standing there together, talking."

But the dream ends, and Wesley is overtaken by a profound
sadness; he must face another day without his Charlotte
teammate, his traveling companion, his workout partner. His
waking nightmare never changes: He is driving down Tyvola Road
at about 11 a.m. on Jan. 12 after a shootaround at Charlotte
Coliseum, talking on his cell phone, watching Phills in his
rearview mirror. They are driving fast, too fast, each going
more than 100 mph in a 45-mph zone, Phills in his Porsche 994
Cabriolet, Wesley in his Porsche 996, when Phills suddenly loses
control and slams into an oncoming car. Wesley, his heart
pounding, pulls over and runs to the wreckage to see the 6'5"
Phills behind the wheel, his head tilted back, a small trickle
of blood running down his face. "I knew," says Wesley quietly,
"the minute I saw him."

Phills would be pronounced dead at the scene; two other drivers
suffered minor injuries. As shocked teammates and coaches
consoled one another, Wesley sat in his car alone, staring
straight ahead, waiting until the body of his friend, a
30-year-old husband and father of two, was extricated from the
wreckage, covered with a white sheet and taken away.

Death has touched many franchises, but few pro athletes have
witnessed the unthinkable firsthand. For some Hornets the image
of Phills's death is so vivid and disturbing that they avoid
Tyvola Road when going home from the arena. Yet at week's end
Charlotte was 30-24 and vying with the 76ers for the No. 4 seed
in the Eastern Conference. Since Phills's death the Hornets were
12-8, with Wesley averaging 11.9 points and 5.8 assists during
that stretch. "I never expected us to come out of it so quickly,"
says Charlotte coach Paul Silas. "We were all devastated. But I
made clear to these guys from the beginning: If we don't win,
don't use Bobby as an excuse. He never would have wanted that."

Ask the Hornets how they've endured, and they point to Silas.
"It's nice to have a coach who you can talk to about something
besides basketball," says forward Derrick Coleman. Silas's
ability to keep the team together was tested yet again last
Saturday, when forward Anthony Mason was charged with
third-degree assault after a 4 a.m. fight outside a Harlem bar.
That night Mason played 28 minutes in a 104-93 loss to the Nets.

All-Star shooting guard Eddie Jones remains the team's rock, but
Coleman, who has slimmed down by 30 pounds to 270 this season,
had averaged 21.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.15 blocks in his
last 20 games through Sunday. "He can do things no other power
forward can ever imagine doing," says Pistons coach Alvin
Gentry, who voted for Coleman on his All-Star ballot. "Karl
Malone can't step out and make three-pointers. He can't take it
out on the wing and drive it to the basket, between his legs and
behind his back."

Silas's decision to move Mason to point forward has opened up
space for Coleman and center Elden Campbell underneath, enabled
Jones to come off screens and kept the often pouty Mason happy.
Yet the key to Charlotte's playoff fortunes is Wesley, 29, who
will be called on to steady the backcourt and stretch defenses
with his jumper. Over seven seasons he had carved out a
reputation for reliability and hard work. Now he's more
recognizable, but for all the wrong reasons.

"Before, only the hard-core fans noticed me," Wesley says. "We
went to Philly a few weeks ago, and these two teenage girls saw
me and said, 'There's David Wesley.' I remember thinking, 'That's
odd, odd, odd.' Now it happens all the time. It makes me feel
awful."

Wesley has been charged with misdemeanor speed competition and
reckless driving, and a court date has been set for March 6. "At
first I felt tremendous guilt," he says. "I was mad at myself for
ever being in that situation. But what upsets me is how the media
keep saying we were drag racing. That isn't true. We were driving
fast, but there was no destination, no race."

Wesley admits that his concentration wavers on the court.
Opposing players, coaches and even referees either offer
condolences or stand apart and stare at him sympathetically,
unsure what to say. "People are afraid to talk to me," says
Wesley. "Even [general manager] Bob [Bass] shies away from me.
There were these rumors that I'd be traded, that I would be
better off somewhere else, with a fresh start. I didn't want to
leave."

Bass says he never had any intention of trading Wesley, even when
the Raptors offered guard Doug Christie last week. "Our plan was
to keep this group together," says Bass, who, according to league
sources, will re-sign Jones for the maximum when he becomes a
free agent this summer. "I certainly wasn't avoiding David. Right
when [the accident] happened, I asked him if he'd like us to
arrange counseling, and he said no."

The Hornets signed Chucky Brown to fill the void left by Phills
at small forward, yet his presence in the locker room has been
impossible to replace. "Bobby had a way of knowing what to say at
the right time," say Silas. "We miss that."

After every home game, Wesley fastens his seatbelt and drives
down Tyvola Road, past the spot where he lost his friend. He
relives his waking nightmare for one reason: "I'm hoping if I
keep driving down that street, someday it won't be so hard."

Revisiting the Rules Changes
Back to Basketbrawl?

Count Suns coach Scott Skiles among the many in the NBA wondering
what happened to the league's ballyhooed effort to curtail
physical play and return the game to a more free-flowing style.
"Guys are grabbing each other, banging into each other down low,
carrying the ball, all the things that were supposed to be called
this season," Skiles says. "I think the league needs to send out
another videotape."

Before the season the NBA announced several rules changes
designed to reverse the trend toward declining scores and
body-slamming in the paint. The league had even sent out an
instructional tape to show players, coaches and officials what
sorts of bumping and grinding would not be allowed. Contact above
the foul line was supposed to be eliminated, and officials were
instructed to crack down on the mauling in the post. For the
first month or so the refs followed the new guidelines. Now, says
Hornets forward Chucky Brown, "They're still calling the hand
check on the perimeter. But down low it's the same as always.
Guys are killing each other."

The most glaring oversights are in off-the-ball violations, such
as moving screens and the bumping of players cutting through the
lane. It's in those gray areas that many successful teams find an
edge, especially at home. Perhaps that's why rugged half-court
teams, such as the Heat, the Jazz, the Knicks and the Pacers, are
so much tougher to beat in their own buildings.

The number of fouls called has decreased every month--and not
because the players have gradually adjusted to the new
guidelines and eased up on contact. But don't expect refs to
revert to their early-season form; at week's end teams were
still averaging six more points (97.5) than they were a year ago
and were scoring at the highest rate since 1995-96, so the
league is unlikely to intervene. Besides, many players prefer
the reduction in whistle-blowing. "If they called everything,"
Nets forward Kendall Gill says, "the games would last 3 1/2
hours." --Marty Burns

Malaise in Milwaukee
Taking a Star Downturn

With all the heady developments recently in Milwaukee--shooting
guard Ray Allen was chosen as a member of the U.S. Olympic team,
and both Allen and forward Glenn Robinson earned their first
All-Star selections--the Bucks should have started the second half
of the season with a bang. Instead, at week's end Milwaukee had
dropped eight of 10 games, including seven of eight at the
Bradley Center, and was hearing a steady stream of boos from
frustrated fans. Allen and Robinson traded glares in a 97-83 home
loss to the Sixers last Friday, prompting coach George Karl to
note that his players were angrier at each other than at their
opponents. "To be honest, I don't think we handled the All-Star
Game or the trading deadline very well," says Karl. "Everyone
seems to have been a little off."

The Bucks offered forwards Robert (Tractor) Traylor and J.R. Reid
for Warriors forward Jason Caffey, who upon hearing of the
proposed swap declared, "I hate Milwaukee." That deal didn't come
to pass. With no help on the way, Robinson and Allen must resume
playing like All-Stars for the Bucks to remain in the playoff
picture. At week's end Milwaukee held a 2 1/2 game lead over the
Magic for the last spot. "The first time you make [the All-Star
team], there's awe, relaxation, complacency," says Karl. "There's
also a bunch of players ready to go right at you."

After an embarrassing home loss to the Grizzlies on Feb. 19, a
frustrated Karl likened his Big Three, which includes point
guard Sam Cassell, to "sieves" and said that he should bench
them but that he didn't have the depth. A far calmer Karl said
last Friday that he was trying to challenge his top players to
exhibit leadership. That sort of maturity, he admits, is "a two-
or three-year work in progress that can only be confirmed by
playoff success."

One other factor in Milwaukee's recent swoon: Frontcourt players
Scott Williams and Ervin Johnson, who have been overachieving for
more than two months, have finally begun to backslide. Williams
was benched in favor of Traylor in the Bucks' 102-95 win over
Orlando on Sunday. Because the East is wide open, Karl refuses to
panic, and he remains confident his group can advance in the
postseason if it gets the right matchups.

"We're not a great team, but we're a dangerous team," says Karl.
"Seventy-five percent of the time we're dangerous to the other
team. Twenty-five percent of the time we're dangerous to
ourselves."

Line of the Week
Mighty Fine

Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire, Feb. 24, versus the Magic:
38 minutes, 13-of-18 FG, 0-of-0 FT, 30 points, 3 assists, 4
rebounds, 3 steals, 0 turnovers. Mighty Mouse recently told the
Blazers he could juice up his scoring anytime--"Just let me
know." On a night when Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith struggled,
Portland called on Stoudamire in a 111-92 win.

For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Though haunted by Phills's death and fallout from the accident, Wesley has kept his head up. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (MALONE) COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA PHOTOS (BRAND) COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Taylor was eager to jump to a new team, but the Clippers refused to ship him out.

Around The Rim

Heat coach Pat Riley, who needs a perimeter shooter but failed
to pry Isaiah Rider away from the Hawks before the trading
deadline, says he explored deals for Ron Mercer and Toni Kukoc
earlier this season but has been wary of trading for impending
free agents ever since he pulled the trigger on an Ike Austin
for Brent Barry swap in 1998 and then watched Barry spurn
Miami's offer and sign with the Bulls....

The NBA, which uses all its marketing muscle to promote the
WNBA, has to be thrilled that Rockets rookie sensation Steve
Francis and Washington Mystics star forward Chamique Holdsclaw
are dating. Now that's a two-ball pairing worth watching....

No doubt Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal sympathizes with Spurs
counterpart Tim Duncan, who will play the rest of the season
with a strained abdominal muscle. In October 1997, Shaq strained
his abdominal muscle, and the injury developed into a tear. It
took almost two years to heal and hindered his play, especially
on defense. "I couldn't extend to block shots like I wanted to,"
says O'Neal. "The only cure for it was rest and a program to
strengthen it, and those things took time."...

David Falk predicts that his client Glen Rice will re-sign with
the Lakers, adding, "We never said he wanted the max." Even so,
it doesn't sound as if Rice will fit in Los Angeles's budget.
Lakers general manager Jerry West vows, "We won't be paying a
[luxury] tax--period." Stay tuned.

Give unto Others

Facing adversity all season, the Hornets have supported one
another on the court as well as off it. With a lineup that
includes three playmakers--David Wesley (6.2 assists per game at
week's end), Eddie Jones (4.5) and Anthony Mason
(4.1)--Charlotte has displayed the best ball movement in the
league, with more than 70% of its field goals coming off
assists. Atlanta, on the other hand, has opted for the
one-on-one approach: The Hawks have barely scored more than half
their baskets unassisted. --David Sabino

FIELD ASSISTS PER
ASSISTS GOALS FIELD GOAL

League Average 1,225 2,029 .604

BEST
Hornets 1,357 1,923 .706
Timberwolves 1,467 2,144 .684
Jazz 1,326 1,944 .682
Suns 1,397 2,071 .675
Raptors 1,305 1,997 .653

WORST
Hawks 996 1,987 .501
Clippers 998 1,981 .504
Magic 1,186 2,196 .540
Nets 1,080 1,952 .553
Knicks 1,058 1,901 .557

PICK SIX

In a matchup of the league's oldest and youngest starters, youth
would not be served. True, the kids could run and gun, but the
graybeards would pick (and roll) them to pieces in the half-court.

Oldest Starters

SF Mario Elie (Spurs, 11/26/63)
PF Karl Malone (Jazz, 7/24/63, above)
C Patrick Ewing (Knicks, 8/5/62)
SG Jeff Hornacek (Jazz, 5/3/63)
PG John Stockton (Jazz, 3/26/62)
6th Hakeem Olajuwon (Rockets, 1/21/63)

Youngest Starters

Lamar Odom (Clippers, 11/6/79)
Elton Brand (Bulls, 3/11/79, above)
Radoslav Nesterovic (T-wolves, 5/30/76)
Ron Artest (Bulls, 11/13/79)
Mike Bibby (Grizzlies, 5/13/78)
Tracy McGrady (Raptors, 5/24/79)

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)