After 24 years of going by his initials, A.C. Green is making a name for himself. They know what to call the Laker forward around the National Basketball Assn. now. They call him one of the best young players there is.
He came into the game without a name, the same way he came into the world. His father, A.C. Green Sr., was proud to pass down his handle to his baby boy after the child's birth in Portland, Ore., even though the initials themselves, like Harry S. Truman's "S," stand for absolutely nothing. A.C. is not short for Adam Clayton Green, or Abel Cain Green, or Art Carney Green, or anything like that.
"Maybe they couldn't agree on a name at the hospital after he was born," guessed Laker Coach Pat Riley. "Maybe it just means After Childbirth."
Regardless, baby Green grew up big and strong. By the time he wrapped up his college days at Oregon State, he was 6 feet 9 inches tall, supple of arm and leg, and surprisingly quick for his size. He was definitely a player the NBA's scouts and coaches recommended drafting.
But, not too high. A.C. Green is good, they said, but not that good. Take him, sure, but don't take him among the first few picks. He could turn out to be a decent pro, but it's doubtful he could turn out to be a great pro.
Gene Shue was one of those who thought as much. This was before he came to be coach of the Clippers, against whom Green gathered in a dozen rebounds in Saturday night's 108-97 Laker victory at the Sports Arena.
"I saw him play a couple of times," Shue recalled. "He didn't strike me as anything special. I thought he was a running player who hustled. He was a good player who was willing to work hard, that much was obvious. But there was no indication at all that he could rebound or play the way he does now. I mean, none."
So, 22 general managers got to pick a player before Jerry West did at the 1985 college draft, and all 22 of them took a pass on A.C. Green. West was known for his shots and assists during his distinguished playing career, but this, this was his greatest steal.
Green now ranks among the NBA's leaders in rebounding. He has become a starting power forward and powerful force for a championship ballclub that already had three, possibly four, of the sport's brightest stars, and he is getting better by the hour. By the time the All-Star Game rolls around in February, Green might belong in it.
This has become the age of the power forward in the NBA, with mid-size musclemen such as Charles Barkley, Charles Oakley, Michael Cage and Green dominating much-taller men on the boards. Anywhere from six inches to a foot shorter than men like Manute Bol and Ralph Sampson, these forwards are far hungrier when it comes to going after rebounds.
"They almost take it as a personal thing," Riley said. "They look at it as if every shot that's missed is going to be theirs. As if that ball belongs to them."
To which Shue added: "They're better than the centers right now. The centers are becoming less important."
Where the Lakers are concerned, it is intended as no insult to say that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar no longer strikes fear into hearts of opponents. He can still win games for them and command respect, but he rarely dominates play beneath the basket. There is dirty work to be done, and Green does it.
Without him, the Lakers never would have gotten off to the start they did. They were 8-0 before Thanksgiving week, even though the ailing Earvin Johnson had missed much of the exhibition season and the aging Abdul-Jabbar was still adjusting to getting his bulked-up legs up and down the floor.
Green just kept plugging and chugging. He pounded those boards and fired those outlet passes, springing the Lakers' fast breakers. For November, he was the team's official nominee for NBA Player of the Month. He and James Worthy formed a perfect pair of forwards, big enough to flex some muscle, but quick enough to generate some heat.
The Lakers eventually ran into some trouble. Tendinitis turned up in Worthy's knee. Abdul-Jabbar's scoring contribution dwindled until finally his streak of double-figure games ended at about a zillion. The Lakers lost six times in nine games, which, around the NBA, was news along the lines of a second earthquake having hit Los Angeles. The world champion Lakers could be beaten--even by Washington and Cleveland.
Two things happened to get the team back on track. One was Magic Johnson's ridiculously wonderful, last-second shot off the glass to beat the Celtics at Boston Garden. It was the biggest bank job in that town since Brinks. Some people still think Magic banked that shot off one of those championship banners.
The other thing that happened was that Green never let up. Abdul-Jabbar's streak ended, Worthy's knee went out on him and Michael Cooper had one weird shooting day on the trip when he couldn't have thrown the ball through a Hula Hoop. Green, though, kept going, even leading the team in eye-opening categories such as field goal percentage and minutes played.
Green said he knew all along that the solution was "to keep working hard all the time and wait for everything to come together. We're too good a team to stay down for long. It was just a bad, bad road trip."
When he first joined this company, Green figured to be lucky to even make trips. He made a great first impression, though. Maurice Lucas, also new to the squad, was willing to take Green under his wing, but soon learned that the kid didn't need many hints on how to mix and mingle. Green got 17 points and 16 rebounds in his second pro game, at Dallas, and became the first Laker rookie in 22 years to appear in every game of the regular season.
Trouble was, the season didn't end there. The Lakers had a playoff date with Houston, and Riley felt the rookie wasn't ready for it. For five nights, the teams struggled, and the Rockets won four of them. Not once did A.C. Green get off the bench.
"That was my mistake," the coach generously admitted Saturday, looking back. "I went with veterans in that situation, but what we should have done is go with quickness. By the time I got smart enough to realize that, we were finished.
"A.C. sort of soft-shoed it for a while during the season. He didn't go after it the way he did earlier in the year, like that night in Dallas. There were stretches where he would look awesome, then stretches that he would disappear. He didn't seem ready to go to war every night. So, I used the guys who, I thought, would."
Today, Green is a good soldier. He leads the Lakers in rebounding, night after night. He got 28 points against Denver. He gives the team a dimension it didn't have before, a Kurt Rambis who can shoot. He is making a name for himself around the NBA.
And to think there were 22 players better than him in the 1985 draft.
Sure there were.