THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Short Guide to Help Face Long Season

Charles Barkley just called the 76ers racist, so what time is it, boys and girls?

It's the NBA season!

Yes, the NBA season, wherein America's highest-flying, highest-paid, most quotable and commercially exposed athletes cavort for your viewing pleasure, assuming you can still afford it or have established credit at your bank.

One magazine estimated the cost of a night at the Forum for a family of four at $247, although it must have used the cheap seats. Imagine the bill sitting courtside at $400 per.

Consumer advice: Call your neighborhood movie-studio vice president and ask to borrow his tickets. Your taxes pay for his writeoff.

But enough economics, it's Showtime.

For those who don't have time to monitor the next six months, here is how the season will go by division--maybe.

PACIFIC

1. Portland--The Lakers made them choke last spring, but the Trail Blazers are still the deepest, fastest, strongest team in the NBA. Maybe they will be smarter, too, but we won't know until the playoffs.

2. Lakers--Assuming Magic Johnson gets back before real damage is done, they should be better. Sedale Threatt was a gift from Seattle. Trail Blazer officials are still grumbling about SuperSonic boss Bob Whitsitt.

3. Phoenix--Not going anywhere but not bad, either.

4. Golden State--Coach Don Nelson adds Billy Owens, trying to get out of the 6-4 and under league.

5. Clippers--You read right. They will make the playoffs, too. They finally have a mix of kids and veterans. Donald T. Sterling wants it. The team's slogan is, "No Excuses, Just Results." Coach Mike Schuler is resisting the notion that he's under the gun; maybe he thinks Sterling will commit hari-kari if the Clippers buckle again. Best bet: If they aren't respectable, it will be no excuses, no results and no Schuler.

6. Seattle--Good talent, but the pieces don't fit.

7. Sacramento--What are the Kings doing?

MIDWEST

1. San Antonio--Wild card. Antoine Carr is a big pickup, literally and figuratively. Coach Larry Brown says holdout Rod Strickland "stuck a dagger" into the Spurs last season, but Strickland is better than anyone else they have. Brown could win a title or be gone by Valentine's Day.

2. Utah--Will win the usual 54 games.

3. Houston--Shot selection from hell. For a start, Don Chaney should tie Vern Maxwell's right arm down.

4. Dallas--Should have started rebuilding last season. A fire sale looms for Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper.

5. Minnesota--Fired Bill Musselman, the first step in a journey of 1,000 miles.

6. Denver--At least there are real rookie prospects: 7-1 Dikembe Mutombo and Mark Macon.

CENTRAL

1. Chicago--The Bulls look as if they have bad chemistry--Michael Jordan vs. his teammates--but it hasn't bothered them yet.

2. Detroit--Staying up on sheer perversity. Hell hath no wrath like Isiah Thomas with something to prove. Watch out in the playoffs, Bulls.

3. Milwaukee--After Moses Malone got 21 points against the Lakers in the preseason, Elden Campbell said, "He must have been a killer in his time." Hint: It isn't over.

4. Cleveland--The Cavaliers need Mark Price to contend, but he is out until December.

5. Indiana--Long-range bombers, not physical, but ask the Celtics: No team to take lightly.

6. Atlanta--Only Dominique Wilkins stands between the Hawks and the basement. They wouldn't trade him . . . would they?

7. Charlotte--Prize rookie Larry Johnson but little else.

ATLANTIC

1. Boston--Larry Bird is back, but Dee Brown and Kevin McHale are hurt. The Celtics limp better than this division runs.

2. New York--Pat Riley is coach of the year and gets to stay on this time.

3. New Jersey--Someone has to move up in this division.

4. Philadelphia--Barkley doesn't dig Armon Gilliam, Harold Katz, etc.

5. Orlando--The Magic is a tough little customer with its motion offense and Scott Skiles.

6. Miami--Ron Rothstein couldn't deal with young, mistake-prone talent. Coach Kevin Loughery will let the kids rock and roll.

7. Washington--No Bernard King, no respectability.

KNIGHT ERRANT

When Barkley said the 76ers kept Dave Hoppen to avoid an all-black team, there might have been more going on than social commentary.

His charge has dubious merit, but Barkley has seen all he wants and would like out.

Centers Charles Shackleford and Manute Bol are hurt. It was either Hoppen, Gilliam or Jayson Williams at center. Neither Gilliam nor Williams has yet shown he can guard a forward.

Quoth Barkley: "Philadelphia is somewhat of a racist city. . . . Let's not kid ourselves. . . . There are just as many black racists in Philadelphia as there are white racists. . . . People never say I'm wrong. They just say I shouldn't say it."

Like Jimmy Durante, he has a million of 'em.

The 76ers debated trading Barkley last season when his play fell off. If they struggle again, Trader Katz might pull the trigger.

Where to?

How about Phoenix and Barkley's buddy, Cotton Fitzsimmons?

Stay tuned.

LAST ADD, YOU KNOW WHO

Says Barkley of 76er prospects: "It's going to be a war out there. I just don't know if we're going to be the United States or Kuwait."

ROOKIE WATCH

Denver's Dikembe Mutombo averaged 21 points and 13 rebounds in exhibition games. Said Charles Barkley: "He's going to be a stud. I thought he was the best player in the draft. There are teams who made a big mistake by not drafting him earlier." Mutombo was the fourth pick, behind Larry Johnson, Kenny Anderson and Billy Owens. . . . Cleveland center Brad Daugherty, on 5-11 rookie guard Terrell Brandon: "I'd never heard of this guy before, but he has the ability to be the future of this team." . . . Laker General Manager Jerry West had a draft-day deal with the Warriors to get Brandon. It fell through when the Clippers' deal for Doc Rivers started an early run on point guards. Brandon became the No. 11 pick and was gone by the Warriors' choice.

NAMES AND NUMBERS

Just Barely Kidding: Phoenix was so eager to ax Joe Barry Carroll, the Suns ate his $1-million contract. Observers say Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons wanted Carroll gone. . . . Act II: Atlanta General Manager Pete Babcock said Fitzsimmons told him Carroll worked hard, contributed and, more than that, "is the one guy who could turn your team around." Not in this lifetime. Said Babcock: "I learned a long time ago that when Cotton starts praising one of his players, you turn around and run as fast as you can."

You think you've got troubles: With Brian Shaw and Dee Brown hurt, the aptly named John Bagley will open at point guard for Boston. Bags reported at 220 pounds and claims to have lost 10, but nobody believes him, including the Celtic trainer. . . . Larry Bird's extension adds another $2-million bonus to this year's pay. He will receive $6.87 million in bonuses, plus $2.2 million in salary, a total of $9.07 million. . . . Way to Hold the Line: Charlotte owner George Shinn vowed he would never pay Larry Johnson $20 million. Johnson signed for $19,999,999 over six years. His contract includes six airline coach tickets between Dallas and Charlotte so his mother can see him play. Hint to Johnson: At $3.3 million a year, Mom rides first class.

Detroit rookie Charles Thomas: "I knew I made the team when I came out of the shower and Bill Laimbeer said hello. That's the first thing he's said to me in camp." . . . Mr. Consistency, or What Did You Do This Summer? Detroit's William Bedford, driving with a suspended license, got his eighth speeding ticket. . . . Mr. Cerebral: Hawk Coach Bob Weiss, complimenting Kevin Willis for paying better attention: "Last year, he thought a scouting report consisted of whether we wore red or white that night."

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