They Can't Take Away His Dream : Clippers' Cage Is Finding His Way Around the NBA

Times Staff Writer

The name suggests entrapment, lack of freedom. But to Michael Cage, discovering the derivation of his name was a form of liberation.

Cage, who is part Cherokee Indian, learned not long ago that his great-grandfather was a medicine man. Actually, he lived sort of a double life. In addition to warding off evil spirits, the man made bird cages. People began to refer to him as the cage man. Thus was born a name that is almost perfect for a basketball player.

Delving further into his heritage during his recently completed rookie year with the L.A. Clippers, Cage discovered the presence of a cousin in Los Angeles named Oscar D. Flying Cloud. He is hopeful of picking up further insights when he drives home to West Memphis, Ark., next month. Cage plans stops at Indian settlements along I-40 in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"I want to explore the Indian part of my past," Cage said recently as he dined on a seafood platter at a harborside restaurant. "It's a quest for me, another area of discovery."

There isn't much Indian lore in the National Basketball Assn., except possibly for Robert (Chief) Parish of the Boston Celtics.

Cage's free-wheeling nature is at odds with his body, which complicates his life as a power forward. His soul wants to soar, but his feet can't keep up. He has always thought of himself as a dreamer, a visionary. Alone in a gym he can burst the cocoon of limitations that traps each man. Every shot, every move is possible.

Reality is considerably harsher. Cage, who dislikes confinement, spent much of the year on the Clipper bench. He sat brooding until the season's final stages, when he was freed by the ascension of Don Chaney, plus a newly found perimeter shot.

Chaney's return as head coach will help, but there are no guarantees on future playing time, even if Cage improves his shooting and his ability to run on the court.

Cage likes to discuss basketball, but basically he loves to talk, period. Even if there is some guy with a notebook or a tape recorder. Especially if there is a guy with a tape recorder.

As a kid, Cage's his goal was to procure a new tape recorder every year, and his happiest times were spent making up stories about men who could fly and dictating them into one of his machines.

He has always been enamored by the sound of his own voice. If that suggests he ought to be in radio or television, well, he is moving in that direction. In fact, Cage can see himself as the Chick Hearn of the jazz deejays. If he has to be someone a bit more conventional, he probably would settle for becoming the next Brent Musburger.

That is, if he doesn't become a tour guide or a newspaper critic.

Later in the summer, armed with camera and tape recorder, he will travel to Greece for a two-week vacation. Last summer he spent time in Italy when it appeared he might not reach contractual accord with the Clippers. He would like to be able to read Greek and Italian, which would put him in a unique position among NBA power forwards.

He had some problems with wily old Maurice Lucas of the Phoenix Suns. Lucas boxed him out so adroitly, Cage couldn't move. Imagine the effect if Cage started reciting Homer or Dante.

Cage doesn't always have his nose in a book. The sports pages--which so many athletes claim they don't read, when in fact they're compiling voluminous scrapbooks--attract his perusal every morning. But only after he has finished with the main news section.

"Some people have to have that first cup of coffee to get them going," Cage said. "I don't drink coffee, and never have, but I can't get going until I've read the front page. I've got to know what's going on in the world. Knowledge is power."

In quest of some higher good, Cage ran headlong into pain and loneliness five years ago when he defied his parents and headed west from Arkansas to play college basketball at San Diego State. The West, as it had for many before him, offered fresh opportunities, along with a sense of disorientation.

A rerun of that experience awaited him during his rookie season with the Clippers, who moved from San Diego to Los Angeles at the same time he completed his Aztec career.

Cage took an apartment in Marina del Rey and a seat on the bench, and liked neither. He spent little time in the apartment, except to sleep, and he played very little during the first half of the season, except when a game was decided.

If he hadn't forced himself to break away from his roots five years ago, he might not have endured the trials of his first season in pro basketball.

"I have never been close to giving up at any time in my life," Cage said. "My outlook has always been positive. But after I ran away from home, in essence, to play in San Diego, I felt very lonely, and there were some bad vibes with my parents. My father told me, 'The disobedient child's days shall be shortened.' "

Cage's problems with his parents were ameliorated by his excellent freshman season. At mid-season he was leading the nation in rebounding, and his parents' pride overcame their objections to his leaving home.

It was easier, but not much, when Cage was called upon to sit idle by then-coach Jim Lynam. He had envisioned himself averaging in double figures as a scorer and rebounder. Instead, he wasn't even reaching double figures in minutes played until the latter stages of the season.

"It was hard not to get down on myself," Cage said. "My accomplishments at San Diego State created an ego, and I could see it getting crushed."

Cage said he thought of discussing his problems with Smokey Gaines, his college coach, but couldn't find the right words. "I had visions of doing great things, and when they weren't happening, I got so disheartened, I just didn't know how to explain it all to Smokey," Cage said.

Instead, he tried mind games with the Clipper coaching staff. "I wanted to work so hard in practice that I would make them feel guilty about not using me in games, but it didn't work," Cage said.

Chaney spent time with the rookie after practice, offering sympathy and practical advice, such as improving the jump shot.

"He kept telling me not to get down on myself, and I kept saying I wasn't," Cage said. "Inside, though, I was hurting, man. I just had not prepared myself for not playing.

"And when I did get into a game, I felt like fresh meat for the veteran players (on opposing teams). I had to fight for respect every night. Mo Lucas was one of the toughest. He wiped me out a couple of times. Later I blocked a couple of his shots, and I felt I was getting there."

He felt even better when he made 22 points--including three straight shots from outside--in a late-season game against Detroit. "I was laughing to myself, because they were setting double screens for me to shoot the jumper," Cage said.

He was never called upon to play outside the key at San Diego State. He could dominate many of the college centers he played, but he lacked the size to be an NBA center, and the transition to forward took time.

"I'm trying to be more spontaneous and instinctive, like I was in college," Cage said. "The shot would go up and, bam, I would spin and clear out the middle (in college). I was getting to that stage this year.

"I found out the pro game is so fast, you have to be spontaneous. There's no time to think. That 24-second clock seems like 10."

Cage made another discovery: life has its own 24-second clock. He may try, but he can't outrun it. Cage must still come to terms with this knowledge.

"Some people say the NBA is too helter-skelter," Cage said. "But the thing is, it has given me structure. I know where I am going to be on a given day six months in advance. I like that."

Just another form of liberation.

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