THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Lakers, Prophecies Going the Wrong Way

Pride goeth before a fall every darn time.

You remember Pat Riley's famous guarantee?

Meet Son of Guarantee.

The Lakers, never loath to proclaim their re-emergence, saw their era of good feeling bubble over 10 days ago when Laker laureate Mychal Thompson announced, "We'll be in first place by the end of next week."

Bad timing, Mych.

Here's the bitter truth: The Lakers were, are and for the foreseeable future will not be as deep as Portland and thus have less room for error.

So when the schedule bunched their trips, and Sam Perkins got hurt, and Magic Johnson's and James Worthy's minutes piled up, and Byron Scott slumped, and Vlade Divac's biorhythms nose-dived or that haircut sapped his strength, and Perkins limped back to duty, the Lakers fell off their high horsies.

The Lakers got this far by saddling up Johnson and Worthy and seeing how far they could go. Magic averaged 42 minutes in the first five games of the last trip and was too exhausted to keep a dinner date with Charles Barkley.

In Denver, Mike Dunleavy played Johnson for seven minutes of the fourth quarter with a 19-point lead, explaining, "At this point in the season, you don't want to give a team life."

At Milwaukee, Johnson finally sagged, asking out and saying, "Lord knows, I need the rest."

He can rest over the summer, should he make it that far.

In case the Lakers forgot, they're still the underdog.

Kicking back: At an inn on Mt. Hood, the Trail Blazers spent their week off at an organizational retreat.

The serenity was broken only by snickering.

"Tell Mychal to shut up," said an amused Jerome Kersey of his ex-teammate.

"Catch us, then talk."

Said Terry Porter: "They've got a lot of work to do before they catch us. You've got to take Mych with a grain of salt."

Actually, the Blazers have been resting right along. While Johnson and Worthy average 39 minutes, Clyde Drexler, averaging 35, is the only Blazer logging more than 33.

Proving his firing was righteous, demonstrating once again he never had a clue, Knicks' ex-general manager Al Bianchi said on his way out of Gotham that he'd do it all over again but next time "wouldn't be such a nice guy."

Nice? He was petty, devious and had an ego the size of Winston Churchill's.

Also, he wrecked the franchise.

Bianchi couldn't handle Rick Pitino's full-court press or Pitino's equally formidable ego and planted anti-Pitino stuff in New York papers.

Pitino, no unmixed blessing himself but graced with the forgiving virtue of competence, took the Knicks from 24-58 to 52-30 in two seasons. Richard Evans, Madison Square Garden president, could have sided with Pitino but took the easy way out. Coaches come and go but general managers last until the building collapses for a basic reason: Top management doesn't like decapitating a head it faces every day.

Pitino took what little hint he required--he had always said he was going back to campus--and departed. Bianchi installed a puppet, assistant coach Stu Jackson. Only after Jackson junked the press and went to a half-court game did they notice Johnny Newman didn't rebound, Gerald Wilkins couldn't shoot and Mark Jackson couldn't shoot and had a head as big as Bianchi's or Pitino's.

Desperate, Bianchi axed his puppet, importing his old Phoenix mentor, John MacLeod, a capable coach but another half-court guy.

Their direction set, the Knicks can be expected back in the NBA finals by 2010, with a lucky draw in the lottery or two.

Just when you thought the ego wars were over, here's new Knick president Dave Checketts.

Checketts, 34, perhaps only coincidentally a protege of Commissioner David Stern, said he would stick to the business side but added he would also be the last word on trades.

The Knicks are not expected to pursue heavyweights like Detroit's Chuck Daly, who had signaled an interest in the general manager's job, or Pat Riley.

Current candidates for the post of player personnel director-Checketts' helper are of the Ernie Grunfeld-variety. The new boss says he wants someone with whom he'll be "comfortable" which is being interpreted as "someone not too big."

Grunfeld, a Knick assistant coach, is a Bianchi protege.

Management, it must be tougher than it looks.

Shelby Strother, sports columnist for the Detroit News, died of cancer last week at 44 and is mourned throughout the league and the industry.

He was a hulking, warm, funny, larger-than-life figure. A latecomer to the biz, he knew about real work, having toiled as a shrimper in Florida.

He hungered for the Real Experience. While the rest of us often settled for droll commentary on briefings held in hotel ballrooms, Shelby pounded the street, accumulating larger-than-life anecdotes: the night in a dwarf bar at the Seoul Olympics; the visit to the leper colony at the '90 Super Bowl in New Orleans. In New Orleans, which hums with voodoo priests and gris-gris men, you almost had to tie Shelby down.

He loved the NBA because there's still some fun left, and if some cage idol rails at being mistreated at $3 million a year a la baseball's Rickey Henderson, it's not so much a breaking news story as a straight line.

Shelby expired quickly, passing through our fingers like sand running out of the hourglass, while we tried to figure out the right thing to say.

The Pistons are wearing black patches in his honor (not because he was a homer; Shelby kept saying this season they were in trouble). He'd have been flattered. He'd also have been surprised to find himself so loved.

"It's like everything in life," Chuck Daly said. "We take people too much for granted.

"I told him I'd have an Irish whiskey for him, which I did."

He was my friend, too, and I miss him.

He and his wife, Kim, had two sons, 13 and 9, and a fund is being established for them. Anyone wishing to contribute can write to Shelby Strother Family Trust Fund, P.O. Box 1333, Detroit, Mich. 48231.

NBA Notes

Still bashful after all these years: Ex-UCLA tempest Reggie Miller criticized Indiana fans who cheered Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and booed the Pacers. Added Miller after scoring 40 in the rout of the Bulls: "We've got just as good a team as they have. Trade Michael Jordan off that team and who do they have? Really? Who the hell do they have over there? Nobody." Said alleged nobody Horace Grant: "We're going to see them again and I'm looking forward to it."

Pearls before swine: Sacramento, flying by charter for the first time this season, is 1-29 on the road, with 26 straight defeats. Nicknames for the plane include Airball One. . . . Last season, Houston went 10-31 on the road and Rocket management canceled its charter and now flies commercial. At the Kings' pace, they may be hitchhiking.

The San Francisco Examiner ran a contest to name the Warrior trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin, and selected Run TMC. Sports editor Glen Schwarz's personal favorite was Three Guys Who Aren't Joe Barry Carroll. . . . Warrior Coach Don Nelson tried to acquire Moses Malone off the Atlanta bench, which would have helped since the old churl is still a rebounding fool. The Hawks wouldn't trade him, though, since they can get all his annual $2.5 million back under the cap on a salary exception by cutting him after the season. Says Hawk president Stan Kasten: "We'll have the biggest hammer in the league. You can do a lot of things with that money."

Exploitation: it isn't patriotism any more when mascots employ national symbols to revive snoozing fans. At Denver, Rocky, an ersatz mountain lion, struck out with an "I hate L.A." sign that fans ignored, then ran onto the floor with an American flag, finally producing a cheer. In Miami, Burnie, the Heat mascot, performed a mock beating on a figure dressed as an Arab. Burnie, whose long suit obviously isn't sensitivity, marks Knick visits by mauling a pretend bag lady.

Charles Barkley update: After the 76ers' Armon Gilliam had turned the ball over, Barkley yelled, "Armon, you can't dribble through three unprintables!" Barkley later amplified the three-unprintable rule, telling writers: "There are only six guys in this league who can dribble through three unprintables," listing Jordan, John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Magic Johnson and, of course, himself. . . . Says Boston's Kevin McHale, another mainstay of the all-interview team: "Charles ruffles some feathers and that's good. I fall into the ranks of the drones, myself. He says things a lot of us would like to but don't dare. We are 290 drones and Charles."

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