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The NBA / Sam McManis : If Gminski Tests Free-Agent Market, Lakers Will Go Shopping

Each farewell ceremony for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar serves as a reminder that the Lakers will be in the market for a center this summer. They still have plenty of shopping days left, but it is never too early to think about how best to use that $1.5 million.

At the top of their shopping list figures to be Mike Gminski of the Philadelphia 76ers, who seemingly meets the Lakers’ specifications.

At 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds, He is big, mobile, durable, a dependable defensive rebounder and outlet passer, and is almost as productive than Abdul-Jabbar and Mychal Thompson combined have been this season.

As of Monday, Gminski was averaging 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds a game, ranking sixth among starting centers in each category. Conversely, Abdul-Jabbar and Thompson together average 18.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.

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And, most important, Gminski, 29, will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Unless, of course, Gminski re-signs with the 76ers, a distinct possibility since owner Harold Katz has been quoted as saying he will do whatever it takes to keep him.

“I’ve been talking with Philly since the beginning of the year,” Gminski said last week before the 76ers defeated the Clippers at the Sports Arena. “They’ve expressed some interest in getting something done, and those talks have progressed. I think something will resolve itself there, before the end of the season. There haven’t been any snags up to this point, but you never know what I might do.”

Gminski seems torn between the security of signing a long-term contract before the playoffs and the potential of a financial windfall should he test the free-agent market.

If he signed now, Gminski estimated, he would get a contract falling somewhere between those of Denver Nuggets center Danny Schayes at $1 million and Portland Trail Blazers center Kevin Duckworth at $2 million.

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“That sounds about right,” Gminski said. “My market value has already been dictated in my position. I mean, I’m not going to go radically high or low.”

But, since no attractive centers figure to be available in June’s collegiate draft and Gminski is the only quality free-agent available without compensation, he could become the beneficiary of a bidding war.

The Lakers, however, will be somewhat restricted. They will only be able to use half of Abdul-Jabbar’s $3-million salary--$1.5 million--to pay a replacement. Their other option is to trade for a center, but General Manager Jerry West has vowed to use all available funds.

West will not publicly comment on his prospects for an off-season acquisition, but Gminski certainly would be a good catch. The Lakers may be limited in the money they can offer, but they can promise playing for a championship contender. Gminski is understandably skittish about discussing free agency during the season, but he did not seem unreceptive to a possible move to Los Angeles.

“It depends on the kind of money I’d make and the situation I go to,” Gminski said. “That’s kind of a moot point now. I’ve got to concentrate on this year with the Sixers. Everything will take care of itself.”

So intent are the 76ers on re-signing Gminski--and avoiding a bidding war--that General Manager John Nash has set aside club policy of not negotiating contracts during the season. One advantage Philadelphia might have over the Lakers is proximity to Gminski’s family. He was born and reared in Connecticut, went to college at Duke, in North Carolina, and lives in a loft near the Hudson River in New Jersey. His wife, Staci, is a Wall Street executive.

“You can never rule anything out,” Gminski said when asked specifically about signing with the Lakers. “But I’ve found that if Mr. Katz says something, he’s usually pretty true to his word.”

When last teammed with Coach Jim Lynam as a Clipper during the 1984-85 season, Derek Smith was approaching stardom. Smith averaged 22.1 points that season and increased his scoring average to 23.5 eight games into the 1985-86 season.

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Then came a knee injury that required surgery and sidelined him, essentially, for the rest of that season. Then came a trade to the Sacramento Kings, who gave Smith a big contract only to be disappointed when his still-weak left knee prevented him from being the offensive threat he had been.

It all finally came to a head this season when Smith, believing his knee was fit, feuded with Coach Jerry Reynolds and was benched. Eventually, that led to a suspension. On Feb. 7, the Kings waived him.

Enter Lynam, now coaching the 76ers. Six days after his release, Smith signed with the 76ers, and his career has been revived.

Expectations are not as high as they once were, but Smith has contributed as a shooting guard off the bench, something Philadelphia has needed since Andrew Toney’s retirement.

“I’m a happy man now,” Smith said. “I can just settle down and play now. (Sacramento) always expected so much from me because of the (contract, which pays him $925,000 this season). My knee is fine, and I’m just a role player now. That’s fine with me.”

When Smith was a free agent after the 1985-86 season, he almost signed an offer sheet with Philadelphia. Instead, he signed an offer sheet with Sacramento that was matched by the Clippers, who then traded him to the Kings.

“Maybe this is where I should’ve been all along,” Smith said. “All I know is that Jimmy Lynam’s always been good to me and I’m trying to play as hard as I can for him.”

So far, Smith has been productive. In his first six games as a 76er, he made 19 of 30 shots, 63%, while playing about 15 minutes off the bench.

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The New York Knicks had been able to elude adversity this season, moving into the Atlantic Division lead in the first week of the season and holding steady.

But Friday, the Knicks got their first dose of bad news. Team physician Norman Scott determined that point guard Mark Jackson, last season’s NBA rookie of the year, has torn cartilage in his right knee that will sideline him for four to six weeks. Monday, he had arthroscopic surgery, a 40-minute operation performed by Scott.

Last season, the Knicks’ top six players missed just one game, combined, to injury. Before Jackson went down, the Knicks’ top eight players this season had missed three total games to injury, one each by Rod Strickland, Gerald Wilkins and Johnny Newman.

Knick management, reportedly, was pushing for Jackson to have the operation, rather than letting the knee heal naturally. But a team spokesman said Monday it was Jackson’s decision to have the surgery. “Everything went well, and a full recovery is expected,” the spokesman said.

Even with the loss of Jackson, the Knicks seem better prepared to maintain their level of play than most teams that lose a playmaker and offensive threat.

That’s because Strickland, the rookie point guard who is Jackson’s replacement, could start on many teams, and the recently acquired Kiki Vandeweghe can assume much of the offensive load. In his first start, Saturday night against Chicago, Strickland scored 22 points and had 14 assists.

Still, Coach Rick Pitino says Jackson will be missed.

“Losing Mark is like cutting off your head,” Pitino told Newsday. “He relays all messages to me. It’ll be a very different experience for all of us.”

NBA Notes

Referee Earl Strom, 62, recently announced that he will retire at the end of the season. He is writing a book about his life and times in the NBA. Quipped Brian McIntyre, the league’s public relations director: “It’s our understanding he wants to retire. I guess that gives people enough time to prepare an Earl Strom farewell tour. Imagine how many Seeing-Eye dogs he’ll get.” Strom’s reason for retiring? “My wife said I’ve had enough.”

Charles Barkley, the irrepressible Philadelphia forward, and teammate Shelton Jones were at a Los Angeles nightclub after last week’s game against the Clippers when Mike Tyson made an entrance. Barkley, apparently, has long boasted to teammates that he could knock out Tyson and talked of making the challenge. Jones invited Tyson to the 76ers’ table. But, for once, Barkley was speechless when Tyson looked him in the eye and asked, “You bad Charles Barkley? You want to fight me?”

Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, in a magazine interview, called Knick forward Charles Oakley a “stupid rebounder.” Malone explained: “All he wants to do is rebound. Sort of heavy-legged. Doesn’t run the floor well. Real beefy, just likes to rebound.” Responded Oakley: “I wish he had used a different word. If he means praise, thanks. If not, we’ll settle it on the floor.”

Danny Ainge on the one positive aspect of going from the Boston Celtics to the Sacramento Kings: “There are a lot of golf courses in Sacramento. See, I’m trying to grasp the good stuff.”


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