Inside The NBA

April 02, 2000

LENNY BRUISED
The Hawks are a mess, and the cleanup may begin with the firing
of coach Lenny Wilkens

When Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens boarded the team bus for practice
in New York City last Thursday afternoon, he sat across from
vice president and general manager Pete Babcock, grinning.
"What?" Babcock asked. "Am I fired? Are you fired? Are we both
gone?"

"No," Wilkens answered. "Didn't you hear? I'm getting a
settlement from the team."

"And did you hear," Babcock replied, "I'm being replaced as G.M.
by Dominique Wilkins?"

The two men laughed heartily, enjoying the gallows humor. What
choice do they have? As the Hawks limp toward the conclusion of
a disastrous season--they were 25-44 at week's end--rumors swirl
about the futures of Wilkens and Babcock. The one about
Babcock's successor, started by none other than Wilkins himself
during a radio interview, is preposterous. An offer to buy out
the last two years and $10 million of Wilkens's contract is
plausible, though none was ever made. "There's been no deal
offered to anybody," says the perturbed team president, Stan
Kasten, the one member of the Hawks who surely will retain his
job.

So will Wilkens be Atlanta's coach next season? "We need to get
through the year first," Kasten says. "Have I thought about
[Wilkens's status]? I think about it every day. But I haven't
made any firm decision."

That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the winningest coach in
NBA history, who has earned a reputation for impeccable
integrity. "It's certainly not flattering, but I'm not as
emotional as other coaches," the 62-year-old Wilkens says. "I'm
a secure person. I'm not a pompous ass, but I'm not going to get
aflutter over this."

The amount of damage swingman Isaiah Rider inflicted on the
Hawks before he was finally waived on March 17 can't be
overstated. Rider's negative outlook and self-centered play were
bad enough, but his blatant disregard of team rules--he was
facing his third suspension in three months when he asked for
his release--left Babcock and Wilkens at odds over how to
respond. Babcock favored cutting Rider loose eight weeks
earlier, while Wilkens gave him chance after chance. "I played
him because I thought I could get to him," Wilkens says. "I
wanted him to be successful because I thought if he tasted a
little bit of that success, he'd come back for more."

The blame for the Rider debacle starts with Kasten, who pushed
for the trade last summer that sent guards Steve Smith and Ed
Gray to the Trail Blazers for Rider and guard Jimmy Jackson. But
it was Babcock who pulled the trigger, despite dire warnings
from his brother Rob, who as a Timberwolves' scout and director
of player personnel saw Rider's corrosive behavior up close for
three years. Wilkens, for his part, must accept responsibility
for not reining in a player who was sucking the life out of the
Hawks' locker room.

"I saw evidence of trouble early," Wilkens says. "Guys would
stop running because they didn't think they were going to get
the ball. Hell, I'm a coach. I know the signs."

In spite of what Rider did to his team, Wilkens wouldn't be
surprised if Heat coach Pat Riley signs the player next season.
"I'd believe I could make it work too, if I had [Tim] Hardaway
and [Alonzo] Mourning on my team," Wilkens says. "You've got to
have some strong leaders with him."

Atlanta doesn't. It once had a leader in reserve forward Grant
Long, who played hard every day and demanded the same from his
teammates, but he signed with the Grizzlies as a free agent last
summer. Wilkens hoped his lone All-Star, center Dikembe Mutombo,
would take over after Long left; instead, when Rider began
wreaking havoc, Mutombo's stock response was, "I did not bring
him here."

"I talked to Dikembe about that," Wilkens says. "I told him,
'You can't absolve yourself. This is your team. You have to
communicate.' Dikembe is a great guy, but he's not a leader."

While Mutombo clearly supports Wilkens--"You must not blame
Lenny for this [mess]," he said last week. "You must look much
higher [in the organization]"--he has not issued any
he-stays-or-I-go ultimatums. Not that it would it make a
difference. Kasten has to do what he can to reawaken Hawks fans.
Through Sunday's games Atlanta ranked 23rd in the league in
attendance, drawing just 14,736 per game to the sparkling new
20,000-seat Phillips Arena. This June the Hawks will have their
highest draft pick in 20 years to add to a roster of promising
young players such as Dion Glover, Jason Terry and Lorenzen
Wright. By 2001-02 the team should have significant room under
the salary cap. The team is ripe for a change, particularly
since Wilkens has been in Atlanta for seven years, an eternity
for an NBA coach.

Then there's that persistent whisper: Lenny is too easy on the
guys. While Wilkens accepts his share of blame for the Hawks'
underachievement, he doesn't think one bad year should earn him
a pink slip. "I got this team to 50 wins three times, and now
you're going to get rid of me?" he says. "Tell me how that makes
sense. I feel I'll be back next year. But if I'm not, I'll be
coaching somewhere."

Prized Minnesota Rookie
Wally's Brave New World

The Rookie of the Year race rages on, with the Clippers'
versatile forward Lamar Odom, the Rockets' explosive point guard
Steve Francis and the Bulls' superbly steady forward Elton Brand
each sure to garner strong support. The shame of it is that
hardly any of the 122 members of the media who vote on the award
will cast their ballots for the rookie who has been most vital
to his team's success: Timberwolves forward Wally Szczerbiak.

His numbers may not be as gaudy as the aforementioned trio's,
but since returning to the starting lineup on Feb. 20, after a
knee injury, Szczerbiak had averaged 14.6 points through Sunday
and helped Minnesota go 15-4, lifting the T-wolves from the
eighth to the sixth spot in the Western Conference playoff race.
"I don't care what anyone says--over the last month Wally has
been the best rookie in the league," says his coach, Flip
Saunders.

Szczerbiak has proved that he can put it on the floor, that he's
deadly from outside (at week's end he was shooting 49.8% from
the field) and that he's a better defender than was expected,
using his strength and quickness to hold his own against some of
the league's top scorers. The sixth pick in the '99 draft,
Szczerbiak arrived in Minnesota with much fanfare, hell-bent on
proving he was worthy of it. "I had no plans," he says, "of
sitting on the bench."

Yet like most rookies, Szczerbiak struggled initially. He forced
shots in Minnesota's complex offense and failed to grasp the
nuances of NBA defense, such as identifying traps and completing
rotations. His teammates publicly chided him for his lapses on
D. Then, on Dec. 30, he was placed on the injured list with
inflammation in his right knee. While sidelined for two weeks,
Szczerbiak saw his replacement, 36-year-old Sam Mitchell, steal
his starting job. "When Wally first got here, he was kind of a
ball chaser," Saunders says. "Then he got hurt, and he watched
Sam stay away from the ball and let the offense come to him. Sam
was scoring 16, 17 points a night that way."

Mitchell told Szczerbiak that the key was patience in his shot
selection. "He listened," Mitchell says. "He got it. What Wally
has done is amazing. He came to a team that had expectations.
Brand, Odom--no one expects anything from the Bulls or the
Clippers. Anyone can put up numbers on a bad team, but can you
score and be an integral part of a good team?"

Szczerbiak has proved he can.

The Return of Kevin Johnson
GOING FROM 10K TO 94 FEET

Kevin Johnson had never run six miles in his life. After 11
years in the NBA the Suns' star point guard retired in 1998 and
began training in order to keep in shape. He hiked Camelback
Mountain, joined a health club, did some occasional jogging. "I
was in the club one day," KJ recalls, "and this woman came up to
me. She said, 'Have you ever run a 10K?' I said, 'No, I
haven't.' So she challenged me to do it."

For the next three weeks Johnson ran with a friend who was
training for the Boston Marathon. Then, on March 19, he ran a
10K race in Phoenix and finished in less than 45 minutes.

Three days later, KJ was channel surfing in his Phoenix home
when he learned that Suns point guard Jason Kidd had broken his
ankle. Within a half hour Johnson's phone rang. Cotton
Fitzsimmons, the team's senior executive vice president, was on
the line, asking a favor: Would Johnson consider coming out of
retirement to play the final 16 games of the regular season?

Johnson was stunned. In the two years since he retired, nearly
every NBA team had inquired about his services; the Lakers and
the Pistons had been his most persistent suitors. He seriously
considered several offers, but he had played all but 52 games of
his career with Phoenix, and in the end none of the deals were
compelling enough to make him switch uniforms. Now Cotton was
asking him to unretire. "Can I sleep on it?" KJ asked.

By morning, after assurances that coach Scott Skiles was as
enthusiastic about his return as Fitzsimmons was, Johnson, 34,
agreed to his role as rent-a-guard. Unlike Isaiah Rider or John
Starks, unsigned players who were waived by their former teams
after the March 1 cutoff date, Johnson is eligible for the
playoffs because he has not been on anyone's active roster this
season. KJ has no idea how much he can contribute, but he's
approaching this as a one-shot assignment, with no promises
about the future attached. "I have to treat it that way," he
says. "The challenge is so daunting as it is. I'm in great
shape, but I'm not in any kind of basketball shape."

Johnson practiced with the Suns last Thursday, then put himself
through two-a-day workouts in Phoenix while the team went on the
road. He was expected to suit up as early as Tuesday, in Miami.
"Looking back, I've been training really hard the past three
months for no particular reason," KJ says. "I'm so glad. If that
lady hadn't asked me to run that 10K, it might all be different.
I wouldn't have been physically able to do it. When the Suns
called, I would have had to say no."

Line of the Week
SAM THE HAM

Bucks point guard Sam Cassell, March 23 at Indiana: 38 minutes,
11-16 FG, 8-8 FT, 30 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds. Cassell had
said he needed the ball more; in this surprising 105-84
Milwaukee victory, he got it and helped crush the Pacers at
Conseco Fieldhouse, where they had been 31-3.

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

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS Rider's selfish play disrupted the Hawks, and his refusal to obey rules divided management. COLOR PHOTO: TONY TOMSIC

Around The Rim

While everyone harps on how critical Sean Elliott's outside
shooting will be to the Spurs in the playoffs, San Antonio
players are more excited about what he'll do for them on the
other end of the floor. "Sean was our best perimeter defender
last season," says guard Steve Kerr....

The Jazz is quietly getting its playoff house in order. Through
Feb. 15 Utah was 6-8 in games decided by five points or less.
Since then, through Sunday, the Jazz was 7-1 in games decided by
that margin....

Though Larry Bird is coaching his final season for the Pacers,
Indiana's owners continue to offer him a position in the front
office. Bird says that if he were to coach again, it would be as
an assistant for two or three years. "I'm still raw," he says.
"It's the first time I've done something when I felt like I
didn't have total control." Asked about the odds of his taking
an assistant's job with another team, he admitted, "Not
good."...

Nuggets point guard Nick Van Exel is shooting free throws three
or four steps behind the line, sometimes as far back as the top
of the key. It's working: Van Exel, a career 79.7% foul shooter
before this season, was hitting 82.3% at week's end. Too bad he
can't solve all his woes quite so easily. In last Thursday's
loss to the Wizards, Denver's 10th defeat in 11 games, he threw
a fit when assistant John Lucas (filling in for the ejected Dan
Issel) yanked him in the third quarter. "There's a lot of
frustration in this locker room," Van Exel said. As well there
might be: The Nuggets' once-slim playoff chances have vanished.

Hoosiers' Who

Only three former Indiana University players are on active NBA
rosters: Celtics swingman Calbert Cheaney, Hawks forward Alan
Henderson and Timberwolves center Dean Garrett. Still, perhaps
no school offers better preparation for a league coaching job or
front-office position. Here's a list of NBA brass with ties to
Bloomington--including six members of the 1979-80 Big Ten champs.

GAMES IN
COACH/EXEC INDIANA CAREER THE NBA CURRENT JOB

Butch Carter Guard, 1976-77 to '79-80 361 Raptors coach
Mike Woodson Forward, 1976-77 to '79-80 786 Cavaliers assistant
Glen Grunwald Forward 1977-78 to '80-81 0 Raptors VP, G.M.
Isiah Thomas Guard, 1979-80 to '80-81 939 CEO of the CBA
Jim Thomas Guard, 1979-80 to '82-83 161 Raptors assistant
Randy Wittman Guard, 1979-80 to '82-83 543 Cavaliers coach
(above)
Lawrence Frank Student manager, 1988-89 0 Grizzlies assistant
to '91-92

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)