THE NBA : Pynchon Vivid in Laker-Celtic Description

Little is known about Thomas Pynchon, critically acclaimed novelist and noted recluse. In the 17 years between "Gravity's Rainbow" and the recent best-seller "Vineland," Pynchon has not made a public appearance. This much is known: The guy is a Laker fan and, apparently, has watched a lot of basketball on television during his self-imposed exile.

"The Tube," as Pynchon calls it, plays a big part in "Vineland," the 1983-84 Lakers a small role. Sample this excerpt from the novel:

"The Movie at Nine, more than the usual basketball epic, was the story of transcendent courage on the part of the gallant but doomed L.A. Lakers, as they struggled under hellish and subhuman conditions at Boston Garden against an unscrupulous foe, hostile referees, and fans whose behavior might have shamed their mothers had their mothers not been right there, screaming epithets, ruining Laker free throws, sloshing beer on their children in moments of high emotion, already. To be fair, the producers had tried their best to make the Celtics look good. Besides, Sidney Poitier as K.C. Jones, there was Paul McCartney, in his first acting role, as Kevin McHale, with Sean Penn as Larry Bird. On the Laker side were Louis Gossett, Jr., as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Douglas as Pat Riley, and Jack Nicholson as himself . . . "

Padding statistics is common among some NBA teams, but the Houston Rockets pushed it too far when they added a bogus assist to Akeem Olajuwon's total so that the Rocket center would earn a quadruple-double.

Olajuwon had 29 points, 18 rebounds, 11 blocked shots and nine assists in a victory over Golden State on March 3, but Rocket officials said they "found" another assist for Olajuwon after reviewing game films.

Rod Thorn, vice president of operations for the NBA, reviewed the film and invalidated the phantom 10th assist. Had the assist stood, Olajuwon would have recorded only the third quadruple-double in NBA history. Alvin Robertson, in 1986, and Nate Thurmond, in 1974, had the others.

Said Thorn: "A box score should not be changed after the fact for the purpose of achieving a statistical milestone. If an appreciable statistical change needs to be made after the box score is distributed, the league office is responsible for making the change if it is deemed necessary."

The phantom assist happened in the first quarter when Olajuwon passed to Buck Johnson for a jump shot. The pass was deflected by a defender. Then, Johnson took a dribble after retrieving the ball.

"That's OK," Olajuwon told the Houston Post after being informed of the NBA's decision. "I was happy for a day. There are more opportunities to do it. I just have to look to the future."

The future is looking better for the Rockets, winners of six consecutive games and closing in on Seattle for the eighth Western Conference playoff spot.

Olajuwon, who requested a trade the week before the All-Star break, is happier now. In his last four games, Olajuwon has averaged 30.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 7.8 blocked shots.

"We always talk about levels in this league, but I don't know if that guy has a ceiling as to how far he can go," Rocket Coach Don Chaney said. "His timing on blocked shots is unbelievable, and it's getting better every game. He's doing it all for us."

Said Laker Coach Pat Riley after Olajuwon led the Rockets to a 17-point victory over the Lakers last Tuesday: "If this is not a three- or four-game run of theirs, they should go higher than eighth in the playoffs. If could be fifth or sixth at this rate."

The Lakers hope they go higher. If Houston finishes in the eighth spot, the Rockets would meet the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Houston is the only team to beat the Lakers twice this season.

Last week's premier game was the Philadelphia 76ers' 17-point thumping of the New York Knicks to take over first place in the Atlantic Division temporarily.

It was the culmination of a gradual slide for the Knicks, who reclaimed first place but have won only 14 of their past 26 games. In that span, the Knicks are 5-9 against teams with winning records.

The Knicks' slump goes beyond the Rod Strickland-for-Maurice Cheeks trade. New York has been short a shooting forward and needs a good backup center for Patrick Ewing. A healthy Kiki Vandeweghe is the shooting forward answer, but he has missed most of the season while rehabilitating his chronically sore back. He played his first game Sunday and scored seven points in 13 minutes.

Knick Coach Stu Jackson says his team's problem goes beyond mere personnel shifts.

"It's a mental thing with us," Jackson told the New York Daily News. "It's out of my league."

Seattle SuperSonic guard Dale Ellis, out since Jan. 12 with internal injuries sustained in a car accident in which he was charged with driving while intoxicated, returned over the weekend. As expected, he came back slowly.

"It just isn't there yet," Ellis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after he scored six points and had six turnovers in his debut against the Hawks. "I've worked out with the team in some shooting drills, but I haven't had any physical contact. That's the hard part."

Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said he plans on bringing Ellis off the bench until he regains fitness and a feel for the game.

"It's not going to come back to Dale by osmosis," Bickerstaff told the Journal-Constitution. "He needs some time. I'm going to get him in and out and see what happens. That's the only way to do it."

J.R. Reid, rookie center of the Charlotte Hornets, challenged his tallest opponent yet, 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, to a fight last week. Earlier, Reid fought with Olajuwon.

Both players were ejected for fighting in last week's game, then traded verbal jabs afterward.

"This ain't Africa," Reid told the San Jose Mercury News. "I'm no lion or tiger. I'm a man and I'm going to beat your butt. There's no way someone 7-6 and 180 pounds is going to move me out and change the way I play."

Bol's reply, courtesy of the Mercury News: "I think he's going to fight all Africans. He fights the wrong guy. He thinks he's tough. He's got a lot to learn."

The Detroit Pistons have begun talks on contract extensions for Dennis Rodman and John Salley.

"I'm not in this game for money," Rodman told the Detroit Free Press. "But people tell me I'm underpaid."

Rodman reportedly has two seasons left on a contract that averages $1 million per season.

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