The Toni Reward
The 76ers are a snappier act since the arrival of battle-tested
Toni Kukoc

The ball movement improved immediately. The big men began
sprinting to the blocks, and the guards ran their curl patterns
with conviction. All forward Toni Kukoc had to do was don his new
jersey on Feb. 18 and he instantly became the most popular guy on
the 76ers. "His teammates love him," says Philadelphia coach
Larry Brown. "He's so unselfish, they just know he's going to
give them the ball."

It's a gratifying time for the 6'11" Kukoc, who was acquired from
the Bulls in a three-way trade with the Warriors for Larry
Hughes. Kukoc wasn't always beloved by teammates in his 6 1/2
seasons in Chicago, where he was perceived as the pet of general
manager Jerry Krause, who fawned over him in public and paid him
more than he paid Scottie Pippen. Other Bulls questioned Kukoc's
toughness and defense. He was the whipping boy of coach Phil
Jackson, who periodically wanted to trade him.

Yet when the Bulls decided to deal Kukoc, among his most ardent
pursuers was Jackson, who's now in charge of the Lakers. "I
always had respect for Phil as a very good coach who understands
the game," Kukoc, 31, says. "At the same time I thought, He's
lucky to have such a good team. He treated players very
differently. I think he saw me and said, Here's another European
guy. Let me shut him down as quickly as possible before he
becomes a pain in the rear.

"I talked to him about that. I told him, 'Instead of yelling at
me all the time during the game, you could show me before
practice or after practice what I should be working on. The way
you are treating me, it's dragging me down.' One day I realized
that every time he needed a bucket or something to happen, he
called my name. All he wanted was for me to play at the same
level and intensity every night."

Philadelphia management figured that a proven winner such as
Kukoc would have a settling influence on the team, and he has: At
week's end the 76ers had gone 17-9 since his arrival, and Kukoc
was averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Sixers
management also hoped that Kukoc's spread-the-wealth approach
would rub off on scoring machine Allen Iverson, who says, "You
better have your hands up and ready with Toni, or you'll get a
ball in the face and you'll be off to the sideline with a bloody
nose."

Still, when he penetrates, Iverson forces shots against multiple
defenders instead of kicking the ball back to a wide-open Kukoc.
"I think it's a matter of trust," Kukoc says. "Allen's still not
a mature NBA player. He's great--every day he amazes me with the
amount of talent he's got--but he doesn't yet have the total
understanding of NBA basketball. When the game gets tight, he
says, 'I'm not going to look for anyone else, because I trust
myself more than anyone else.' There's only one guy in the
league, Shaquille O'Neal, who should say that. There used to be
another guy, but he's gone."

Michael Jordan, too, was brutally tough on Kukoc during Kukoc's
early years in Chicago. The relentless criticism from a certified
icon was devastating at first, then merely tiresome. Now, how
could anything bother him? When Brown told Kukoc last week that
small forward George Lynch, who was returning from a sprained
right knee ligament, deserved to have his starting job back,
Kukoc shrugged off the demotion. "I'm better prepared now to
handle such things," Kukoc says. Whether in the long run he can
flourish alongside Iverson, whose indifference to team rules and
to Brown's exhortations in the huddle remains a gnawing problem,
is another story.

Kukoc will be a free agent this summer, and he says he would
prefer to re-sign with Philadelphia, which has players--and a
coach--who appreciate his skills. But what if Jackson came
calling? What if Jackson said he was sorry for all the rough
treatment in Chicago? "In the first place, he would never
apologize," Kukoc says. "He would just give me one of those
smiles and say, 'You know who I am, and I know who you are, so
let's not pretend.'

"I would think about it," Kukoc says. "The Lakers are going to
win a championship in the next couple of years. That's a
definite. I won three championships with [Jackson]. Each year he
showed more and more trust in me. It would be easy for me to go
to L.A., where I know the system so well." Kukoc pauses, grinning
at the prospect of Jackson's asking him to play on his team. "I
guess," Kukoc says, "that would mean he would actually have to
give me the satisfaction of being needed."

Vin Baker's New Leaf
The Word Is Defense

First rule of thumb for the new Vin Baker: Turn off the car
radio--or at least keep it tuned exclusively to FM stations. It's
gotten ugly for the SuperSonics' power forward on the AM dial,
where talk-radio callers shred him for his defensive lapses, his
excess weight, his miserable season. Every day someone questions
whether Baker is worthy of his spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic
team. Some guys get used to this kind of abuse. Every time Baker
hears it, he feels as if someone has stuck a knife in his gut.

His numbers this season are respectable--16.8 points and 7.8
rebounds per game through Sunday--but misleading. A four-time
All-Star, Baker hasn't approached that status in the past two
seasons. His detractors find it all the more outrageous that he's
in the second year of a seven-year, $87 million contract. As the
postseason nears, the Sonics have told Baker to forget about
scoring and be a defender and a rebounder. "He's a key for us--we
don't make a secret of that," says general manager Wally Walker.
"We're not trying to put undue pressure on him, but we need him
to be active on the boards and on defense. When he is, we're an
effective team."

No one needs to tell Baker how far he has fallen. "I'm trying to
give myself a crash course in getting back to the old 20 [points]
and 10 [rebounds] Vin Baker," he says. "I stay late. I do extra
work. People think I should be back to it overnight, but it's
almost been like starting over."

Baker, 28, shocked the basketball world after the lockout in
January 1999 when he reported to camp 25 pounds overweight. "When
Vin got out of shape last year, he started taking shortcuts,"
Seattle coach Paul Westphal says. "He saved steps. He didn't have
the same quickness, so he started pushing more."

As the criticism mounted, so did Baker's resolve to make it go
away. He pressed, which led to foul trouble, which led to more
frustration. He still needs to trim a few pounds off his 6'11"
frame. Sonics point guard Gary Payton has chastised him publicly
this season for letting down the team, which at week's end had
tumbled to the eighth position in the Western Conference.

"Gary is one of my best friends," Baker says. "He says some tough
things sometimes, but they're usually accurate. So you take it
one of two ways. You say, 'This is ridiculous. I want out of
here; there's no camaraderie.' Or you say, 'I'm going to fight
through this.' I plan to stay and fight, and believe me, so does
Gary. I've never heard him say anything in passing--or even in
joking--about getting out of here."

Three weeks ago, just after Payton and Vernon Maxwell had their
well-publicized locker room tussle, which led to rumors that
Payton would ask for a trade, Westphal warned that if some
players did not improve on defense there would be "major changes"
in the lineup. Westphal mentioned no names, but it was obvious
whom he was talking about. "When Coach said that, I didn't look
around the locker room," says Baker. "I looked at myself."

Since then, reports Westphal, Baker has been extremely active on
D, blocking shots and worrying more about his opponents' point
total than about his own. "Like I told Vin," Westphal says, "it's
not too late to fix this."

The Coaching Carousel
Got a Job to Fill? Call Lonnie

As the crocuses bloom and the birds begin to chirp, the regular
season winds down--and heads begin to roll. For agent Lonnie
Cooper, who represents nine coaches, several former coaches and a
slew of assistants, this means a mad scramble to save jobs and,
if not, make sure his clients fill the openings.

As many as 10 teams may make coaching changes this spring, and
the 45-year-old Cooper will have a client somehow involved. He's
been there before. In 1993 he helped Lenny Wilkens hop from the
Cavaliers to the Hawks, Bob Weiss go from the Hawks to the
Clippers and Mike Fratello move from Turner Sports' broadcast
booth to the Cavaliers--all in 48 hours.

Cooper has represented the four head coaches the Magic has
employed. He represented the three Heat coaches before Pat Riley.
He represented Pistons coach Chuck Daly; who was succeeded by
Cooper client Ron Rothstein; who was succeeded by Cooper client
Don Chaney; who was replaced by--gasp!--a non-Cooper client, Doug
Collins; who was replaced by Cooper client Alvin Gentry. "Teams
never ask my opinion about firing my guys," the Atlanta-based
agent says. "I can't stop it, but I can turn it into an
opportunity for another client."

How does one fired coach feel about Cooper's hammering out the
deal for his successor? Isn't there a conflict of interest?
"Lonnie's integrity is above reproach," Wilkens says.

That's not to say that Cooper's job doesn't get complicated. When
Chris Ford was fired by the Clippers on Feb. 3 and assistant Jim
Todd was about to take over, Ford hooked his replacement up with
Cooper, who negotiated Todd's deal. The Clippers say Todd will
not be in charge next season, but candidates for the position
include Clippers assistants Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dennis
Johnson, both Cooper clients, as well as Fratello.

According to league sources the Pacers have already interviewed
their top assistant, Rick Carlisle, as well as Kings assistant
Byron Scott--neither of whom is a Cooper client--about replacing
Larry Bird, but Isiah Thomas, who signed with Cooper last spring,
is in the mix as well (though he may have to sell his interest in
the CBA). Thomas is also in line to succeed Don Nelson with the
Mavericks.

Will the Warriors make a coaching switch? Garry St. Jean is
leaning toward limiting his duties to the front office, which
should open the door for assistant Dave Cowens. (He's not a
Cooper client, but St. Jean is.) Will the Wizards make a change
next season? Cooper called Michael Jordan last week to find out
for client Darrell Walker, the current coach. The Nets? Cooper
client Don Casey is probably gone, and New Jersey may bring in
Fratello. Meanwhile, say league sources, Celtics coach Rick
Pitino, who loves Stephon Marbury and has ties to Nets minority
owner George Steinbrenner through their horse racing interests,
has put out feelers about the New Jersey job. If Pitino leaves
the Celtics, they may consider Wayne Embry--yes, a Cooper guy--for
their G.M. position.

Line of the Week
'Zo Fine

Heat center Alonzo Mourning, April 6 versus the Hornets: 40
minutes, 12-21 FG, 2-4 FT, 26 points, 17 rebounds, 6 blocks, 2
steals. 'Zo padded his league lead in blocks in the 76-70 win,
which helped Miami keep its hold on second place in the East.

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

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Though he took his share of lumps with the Bulls, Kukoc still has that championship drive. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN To help Seattle advance in the playoffs, Baker will be thinking fewer points, more defense.

Around The Rim

In late February and mid-March, Hornets guard Eddie Jones dropped
from 200 pounds to 180 due to heavy playing time and to insomnia,
for which he began taking medication. Concerned about their
All-Star's condition, Charlotte's coaches ordered him to drink
protein shakes and do extra weight training. At week's end Jones
was up to 194 pounds....

Celtics coach Rick Pitino told his players and the Boston media
last month that if Florida, coached by his protege Billy
Donovan, reached the NCAA final, he would miss practice on the
afternoon of April 3 so he could fly to Indianapolis and attend
the game that night. (Donovan's Gators lost the final to
Michigan State 89-76.) But while the Celtics were working out
without him in Boston, Pitino was at a hotel in Indy giving a
motivational speech to GTE executives--a talk that was scheduled
two months ago (whether Florida was in the final or not) and for
which he was paid $50,000, according to Washington Speakers
Bureau, Inc....

Before the tip-off last Thursday in Vancouver, Grizzlies coach
Lionel Hollins refused to take charge of his team unless his
salary was adjusted. Hollins, who was still receiving an
assistant's salary of around $250,000 despite having been
promoted on Dec. 16, had been told by the team's new ownership
that he would not get a raise. (Dick Versace is likely to
replace Hollins at season's end.) The coach's threat prompted
Grizzlies management to bump his salary to $600,000.

Instant Successes

With 64 wins through Sunday the Lakers had clinched home court
advantage throughout the playoffs, but they would have to win the
rest of their regular-season games for Phil Jackson to equal the
mark for most victories by a coach in his first year with a team.
Since 1950, these are the coaches who had the most success in
their inaugural season with a team.

COACH SEASON TEAM RECORD (PCT.) HOW THEY FINISHED

Bill Sharman 1971-72 Lakers 69-13 (.841) Won championship
Phil Jackson 1999-00 Lakers 64-13 (.831) ???
K.C. Jones 1983-84 Celtics 62-20 (.756) Won championship
Paul Westphal 1992-93 Suns 62-20 (.756) Lost in Finals
Bill Fitch 1979-80 Celtics 61-21 (.744) Lost in conference
finals

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)