Inside The NBA

January 29, 2001

Worldly View
Dikembe Mutombo has more important things to worry about than his
impending free agency

Hawks coach Lon Kruger arrived at practice on Jan. 16 to find his
starting center, Dikembe Mutombo, looking glum. "I am not good,"
Mutombo said. "My president has been shot."

That day Laurent-Desire Kabila, who since 1997 had assumed
dictatorial powers over Congo, reportedly had been murdered by
his bodyguard. Mutombo endured sleepless nights last week,
phoning his native country for assurances that the streets were
quiet and that his family--including a brother who lives a few
blocks from the presidential palace in Kinshasa--was safe. "It's a
very sad day for me," Mutombo said last Friday, near tears as he
discussed the assassination. "It's sad the way we are now in
Africa, the way people are dying."

Mutombo has his size-22 feet planted in two enormously different
worlds--one in Congo, where he is trying to build a desperately
needed 300-bed hospital, at a cost of $44 million; the other in
the NBA, where he is expected to command a five-year contract
worth more than $75 million next season. As one of the marquee
free agents this summer (along with the Kings' Chris Webber and
the Mavericks' Michael Finley), the 7'2" Mutombo has been the
subject of trade rumors for the last year. The Hawks have
discussed dealing him to a half dozen suitors, including the
Knicks--who have not formally offered Latrell Sprewell, Allan
Houston or Marcus Camby in return, reports to that effect
notwithstanding.

Barring a move by the Feb. 15 trade deadline, Mutombo will spend
the rest of the season in Atlanta. "Ideally, we would like
Dikembe to finish his career with us," says Hawks G.M. Pete
Babcock. Mutombo, 34, who is building a home in suburban Atlanta,
could demand a sign-and-trade deal. He remains disappointed in
the Hawks' management, which in the summer of 1999 dismantled a
team that had gone 137-77 in the three years after Mutombo signed
as a free agent. The key trade was Steve Smith and Ed Gray to the
Trail Blazers for Jim Jackson and Isaiah Rider. Despite that move
and others, Mutombo says with a laugh, "I love the city."

At week's end Atlanta had gone 42-79 since the Smith trade, but
team president Stan Kasten believes the Hawks' fortunes are
changing. After a 1-10 start this season--attributable in large
part to Mutombo's missing the first five games with malaria and
his sub-par performance as he recovered--the young Hawks had gone
13-15 through Sunday. That they stood only 4 1/2 games out of the
final playoff spot in the East was due mainly to Mutombo. Like
the last survivor of a royal family, he is the only dominating
seven-footer in the conference. Despite career lows in points per
game (8.3) and shooting (44.2%) through Sunday, he was averaging
an NBA-leading 13.9 rebounds and blocking 2.32 shots to earn his
$14.4 million salary.

The hardest thing for young players to learn is team defense, but
Mutombo's regal presence is helping erase a lot of mistakes and
keeping the Hawks in games. The recent emergence of Lorenzen
Wright as the starting power forward can be attributed to his
partnership with the big man. "I've seen that relationship
progressing," says promising second-year guard Jason Terry.
"We've got a lot of room for error because we know he's sitting
back there."

Mutombo will never be the focal point of Atlanta's attack, but he
has avoided serious injury and runs the floor well for his
age--whatever it is. "[Assistant coach] Rick Mahorn is always
joking that Deke is 42, that no one's ever seen his birth
certificate," Wright says. "I always figured he was 31 or
something."

Mutombo appears to enjoy his leadership role and Kruger's
enthusiastic, high-energy practices. "The progress we have made
lately has been very positive," Mutombo says. "I am going to make
my decision after I see how much progress has been made and how
we finish."

The money will matter too. Mutombo intends to add to the $3
million he has invested in the planned hospital in Kinshasa. "I
want to accomplish something bigger than me," he says. He is also
seeking donations--his fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing
pledged $100,000 last month--but does not want to rely too much on
corporate support. After the hospital has been running a couple
of years, he wants to be free to turn control over to a church or
other nonprofit organization.

Whatever Mutombo earns or does in the NBA, it will do little to
ease the pain he feels when he ponders the wars, poverty and
disease that plague Africa. "Killing somebody or invading a
country has become too easy," he says. "I can build a hospital,
but how are the people going to use it if the road to it has
been destroyed by days and nights of bombing?"

The Development League
A Very Minor Minor League

Faced with diminishing fan interest, league executives are
finally acknowledging that the game's pace and flow were indeed
more appealing during the Bird-Magic era of the 1980s. As tedious
one-on-one play proliferates, commissioner David Stern and others
are publicly discussing whether to allow zone defenses. Further,
in light of what appears to be one of the least productive rookie
classes ever, deputy commissioner Russ Granik believes more than
ever that many of the young players entering the league are not
capable of competing. "If it were up to us, we would like to see
a situation in which a player under age 20 could not play in the
NBA, period," Granik says.

Granik raises the issue of minimum age knowing he would have to
persuade the players' association to accept one. "It's been
informally brought up with the union in the last several weeks,
and the reaction we got is that nothing has changed," Granik
says. "We hope to discuss it again in the near future."

The facts of collectively bargained life have helped shape the
National Basketball Development League, or D League, some details
of which NBA officials hope to reveal during All-Star weekend. It
will make its debut in November with eight teams playing in
roughly 5,000-seat gyms, and it will be based in small cities in
the southeast, like Fayetteville, N.C., the only town awarded a
franchise thus far. Teams will play 56 games through mid-March,
24 of which will be shown on ESPN. While salaries will be roughly
$30,000, officials hope the D League will be more attractive to
players than the CBA, IBL, ABA and overseas leagues because of
its sponsorship by the NBA, which will use it to train not only
players but also coaches, refs and executives.

The D League will, however, be a far cry from a true farm system,
like baseball's. Under the collective bargaining agreement, it
cannot serve as a place for NBA players to rehab injuries or to
polish their skills, nor can it be a place for top prospects such
as Jazz rookie DeShawn Stevenson to get seasoning. Indeed, high
school draftees like Stevenson won't be eligible: The age minimum
of 20 will apply in the D League. Teams will be unaffiliated with
NBA franchises; the talent pool will consist entirely of
undrafted players and free agents, who could be claimed by any
NBA team.

Over time, the D League could broaden its relationship with the
NBA and become more of a traditional farm system--the players'
association permitting. "There should be a decided effort to have
people under 25 or 27," says Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who
coached in the CBA in the 1980s. "The NBA, which allows 15-man
rosters, should have 12-man rosters, and those three kids sitting
on the end of the bench in street clothes should be in that
league. Not the whole season, but they should be allowed to go
down there for 10 or 15 or 20 games. I hope for the sake of
basketball that it works. But it's a long shot."

Though the NBA set the D League's minimum age at 20 because it
doesn't want to compete with colleges for talent, Granik says the
minimum might one day be lowered to accommodate high school
grads. While appearing in November before the Knight Commission,
the blue-ribbon panel that is investigating college sports,
Granik was implored by NCAA president Cedric Dempsey and other
commission members to consider 18 as the minimum age. Those
members hoped the D League would provide a home for players with
no interest in a college education.

Practice Facilities
Worth a Kings' Ransom?

The Kings recently unveiled a $9.1 million practice facility next
to Arco Arena, and the timing couldn't be better: Management
hopes to persuade Chris Webber to remain in Sacramento when he
becomes a free agent this summer. The prospect of Webber's doing
so would not be bright if the team was still practicing at
California Highway Patrol Headquarters, the Salvation Army gym,
McClellan Air Force Base or Natomas High School, which have been
among the Kings' 12 temporary training sites over the past 16
years.

Brian Grant, a former King who didn't enjoy that aspect of
playing in Sacramento, says he was drawn to Miami after touring
the Heat's practice facility at American Airlines Arena. The
separate gym features one-and-a-half courts, a private
underground parking lot and a view of Biscayne Bay through an
enormous picture window.

Kevin Garnett often arrives at midnight at the Timberwolves'
practice facility in the Target Center and uses a rebounding
machine that feeds him the ball. "There's no limitation on when
the players can use it," says coach Flip Saunders. "Anytime you
have something of your own, it's always better. It's like owning
a house instead of renting. You bring a free agent in and let him
know he can use this to become a better player."

Such facilities are undoubtedly appealing, but do they make a
difference? When the Spurs open their private facility this
summer, only four teams will be without one, and three of them
are winners. The 76ers share their practice court with the
students of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine; the
Knicks work out at SUNY-Purchase, though they are committed to
building their own site; and the Jazz shares its practice
facility with the employees of the Franklin Covey company, which
makes day planners. The other team that doesn't have a private
facility and has no plans to build one is--predictably--the
Clippers, who have adopted Los Angeles Southwest College as their
home.

Outside the Box Score
Mason Jarred

Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy effectively shut down the Heat last
Thursday with the masterstroke of playing massive 7'3" center
Arvydas Sabonis on 6'8" forward Anthony Mason. As Miami
stubbornly continued to play through Mason in the low post, its
shooting percentage plummeted. Mason, the Heat's most consistent
scorer in recent weeks, missed his first eight shots in the face
of Mount Sabonis and did not connect from the field until making
a 15-footer with 2.4 seconds left in the third quarter, which
ended with the Blazers ahead 69-52. Portland won 85-74.

For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Worries about his native Congo haven't prevented Mutombo from lifting the Hawks. COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT (STEVENSON) Minutes have been scarce for Stevenson, but he wouldn't be able to play at all in the D League. COLOR PHOTO: FRANK MCGRATH/NBA ENTERTAINMENT COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON

Around The Rim

The Sonics are serious about making Gary Payton curb his
disruptive behavior. "His point to me was, 'I'm the same guy
I've always been,' and I don't disagree," says G.M. Wally
Walker, who suspended Payton for a game last week after he
barked at teammate Ruben Patterson during an 89-80 loss to the
Suns, then got into a shouting match with coach Nate McMillan
afterward. "My point was that we're doing things differently
now. Gary is too smart and too good for us to accept this kind
of thing any longer."...

Rik Smits has decided not to return to the Pacers this season.
The 34-year-old center has also canceled plans to rejoin the
Dutch team this month...

Even after their overtime loss to the Raptors on Sunday, in
which Allen Iverson scored 51 points, the 76ers were 5-2 this
season when he scored 40 or more--yet another indication of his
value as a shooting guard. When he was a rookie, in 1996-97,
Philadelphia lost all five games in which he scored 40 or more,
but Iverson was playing the point then...

Even though he's living in Seattle, Detlef Schrempf still has a
locker at the Rose Garden in Portland. The Blazers are paying
the second year of his $2.2 million contract, but Schrempf, who
has been on the injured list this season because of a pinched
nerve in his neck, doesn't intend to return to action even if
the condition of his neck improves. "The team's playing well
right now," he says. "I'm planning on staying out of the way."

Personal Choice
Heat swingman Dan Majerle

"My sophomore year at Central Michigan, I had a blister on my
foot. The trainer told me to wear the sock inside out, that it
would cut down on friction or whatever. I'm telling you, the
blister was almost the size of the bottom of the foot, but I
didn't want to miss any games, so I did what he told me to do. I
just wore it like that, then I never turned it around again."

Eleven's the Charm

When 6'8" Chucky Brown (left), a career 6.2 points-per-game
scorer, stepped on the floor for the Warriors last week after
signing a 10-day contract, he set a record by playing for his
11th NBA franchise. In pro sports history only Arizona
Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Morgan has suited up for more teams
(12). Here are the NBA's most traveled players.

--David Sabino

NUMBER OF TEAMS CAREER

CHUCKY BROWN 11 1989-90 to present
Earned ring with Rockets in '95 after being signed away from
Yakima of CBA

TONY MASSENBURG 10 '90-91 to present
Played for four NBA teams and in the Italian League during
'91-92

BENOIT BENJAMIN 9 '85-86 to '99-00
Third choice in 1985 draft is still Clippers' alltime blocks
leader

TONY BROWN 9 '84-85 to '91-92
Also suited up in CBA and Europe; now a Trail Blazers assistant

TYRONE CORBIN 9 '85-86 to present
Man in demand: traded five times and picked in an expansion draft

TIM KEMPTON 9 '86-87 to '97-98
Played for six additional teams in Italy, France, Turkey and Spain

Scout's TAKE

On the Celtics, who at week's end were 3-4 under Rick Pitino's
successor, Jim O'Brien:

"They're playing tougher defense and not pressing as much. If you
had a way to break Rick's press, you could get some easy baskets
because it tended to spread out their defense. Now they're
concentrating on getting back, focusing on their half-court
defense and packing the lane. They've also gone to a short,
seven-man rotation, with a couple of other guys getting four or
five minutes, sometimes all in one stretch. Rick used to play a
lot of guys, but O'Brien is giving his players longer stretches
on the court as long as they're being productive, and players
appreciate that."

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)