THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Trail Blazers Can’t Shake Reputation
Don’t let anyone tell you intelligence isn’t prized in sports. Players often challenge each other intellectually, as when Reggie Jackson told Yankee teammate Mickey Rivers he had a 160 IQ, and Rivers asked if that was out of 1,000.
Ask the Portland Trail Blazers if brains don’t count.
By this season, they were no longer considered comers but dunces, with “dumb Blazer” quotes the new vogue.
This might have been fun for almost all concerned, but it was also another case of reputation warping reality.
Everyone has a rep. The Lakers were supposedly too namby-pamby, but they were physical enough to win five titles in the 1980s. The Detroit Pistons, supposedly too dependent on their guards, were the only other repeat champions in two decades.
OK, the Trail Blazers had shortcomings.
Three of them--Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Cliff Robinson--considered themselves outside shooters despite evidence to the contrary. At many key moments, opponents were heartened to see one of them launching a shot from the cheap seats with 16 seconds left on the 24-second clock.
This was deemed youthful excess--until last season, when the Trail Blazers compiled the NBA’s best record but fell to the Lakers in the Western finals.
The Lakers were aces at playing the Trail Blazers. They took away the fast break and made Portland make decisions. Suddenly the Trail Blazers were no longer heirs-apparent, admired for their boundless talent, but disappointments who obviously had something holding them back.
Thus the advent of dumb-Blazer lore.
Chicago’s Scottie Pippen came right out and talked about it, saying the Trail Blazers have talent superior to the Bulls’ but aren’t as smart.
Cotton Fitzsimmons called his Phoenix Suns overachievers--"a bunch of Hornaceks"--compared to the Trail Blazers’ “athletes,” prompting Rick Adelman to bristle publicly. In Portland, athlete had become code for the D-word.
The Trail Blazers took to answering questions about their intelligence with “Duh . . . " or said it was too much for their little heads.
In fact, they aren’t the same dummies.
Drexler’s outside shooting improved dramatically this season. A career 27% three-point shooter, he climbed to 34%. This was nice for the Trail Blazers, since he was going to keep firing in any case. Overnight, they became a lot smarter.
In the playoffs, Kersey has been burning and now can take a 15-footer without fear of hurting anyone with the ricochet.
Of course, they’re still capable of reverting, as in Game 4 of the Western finals, when they amassed five technical fouls.
Drexler got himself ejected for landing on Jeff Malone’s foot while shooting, falling down and complaining about the lack of a foul call. If NBC executives were importuning Bryant Gumbel to retract his “CryBlazer” comments to save “Today” ratings in Portland, they must have given up after that.
Sometimes you learn your lessons the hard way.
For the Trail Blazers, final exams approach once more.
THANK YOU, GODS OF BASKETBALL
If you’re the NBA, NBC or a basketball fan, rejoice.
Everything has turned out perfectly:
Bulls vs. Trail Blazers.
Not only that, it isn’t a mismatch as it would have been at midseason. The Trail Blazers have warmed up. The Bulls have struggled and are only slight favorites even with four days to recover.
The Trail Blazers have good physical matchups at the two key positions--Drexler to play Michael Jordan, Kersey to play Pippen.
Terry Porter rates a big edge over John Paxson.
Buck Williams and Horace Grant are a push.
Even with his mood swings, Kevin Duckworth gets an edge over old Mr. Bill Cartwright.
The Portland bench is far superior to the Bulls’ bench. Bull reserves stood out in the Eastern finals only when Stacey King committed his $5,000, amazingly stupid, fire-'em-up-in-Cleveland flagrant foul of Danny Ferry in the closing seconds of a 30-point blowout, and when B.J. Armstrong complained that Jordan and Phil Jackson shouldn’t complain publicly about the bench.
On the other hand, the Bulls have Jordan.
The key matchup?
Normally you’d give Pippen a big edge, but he has had a ragged postseason.
Pippen’s blessing and curse has been developing in Jordan’s wake. He grew to manhood while defenses massed on Jordan, but he didn’t have to learn to step up. In the crunch, Jordan always took over.
Now, however, the Bulls aspire to be a great team, and Pippen to be a great player, and they can’t make it unless he does. For that, he’ll have to be mentally tougher. If Kersey gets a standoff, the Bulls are going down.
Of course, I’ve been watching on TV and maybe it’s like the NBC/TNT guys have been saying:
--Scottie’s ankle, wrist and/or back are bothering him.
--You’ve got to give Xavier McDaniel credit.
--Scottie’s not getting enough shots.
--He’s bringing the ball up too much.
--The half-court style hurts him.
--You’ve got to give Mike Sanders credit.
--Expectations are too high.
Pardon me, guys, but Pippen makes $3.3 million per year. If expectations were lower, his salary would be, too.
Having traded the Philadelphia 76ers into oblivion, Harold Katz, the diet-franchise-whiz-turned-hoop-wheeler-dealer, says he’s retiring to the life of a gentleman owner.
He left with a Katzian gesture: a colossal front office shake-up that was more dramatic than relevant. He was his front office’s problem (remember Brad Daugherty for Roy Hinson?). His team needed the shake-up.
Katz promoted Coach Jim Lynam to general manager, raised his pay to $500,000 and promised him ironclad control.
Lynam hired garrulous, popular, Doug Moe out of retirement.
Moe, a fine coach, said he loved retirement but wasn’t sure if he had enough money to stay retired. The 76ers gave him a three-year, $2.25-million contract to re-feather his nest.
Lynam was a pretty good coach, himself, so what’s the point?
--Katz wanted to remove Lynam but feared public reaction. Lynam, a local boy, is far more popular than Katz.
--Without these moves, Katz would have had to trade Charles Barkley in a fire sale. A Barkley deal now seems to have gone from “inevitable” to “possible.”
Said Katz at his farewell news conference:
“If you want to beat on someone now, beat on (Lynam). I’m tired of being beaten on. I’m bruised. I’m broken. My family don’t even like me.”
Maybe they’re 76er fans.
When the most lucid perspective comes from Barkley, you know you’re in trouble but here it is:
“Moe is a great coach and a nice man, but I ain’t going to sit here and tell you we’ll be better unless we get some players. You might as well get Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne. If our team isn’t any better, I’ll have a hard time showing up at training camp.”
FACES AND FIGURES
Bad news for Elgin Baylor: The New York Knicks are expected to extend an offer sheet to Charles Smith. The Clippers will almost certainly match, but Smith’s salary will climb from its present $1.1 million into the high 2s or perhaps even $3 million. . . . New 76er Coach Doug Moe: “I’ll be like Larry Brown, only I’ll go from retiring to coaching to retiring to coaching instead of team to team. Larry will like that. He likes when his name is mentioned.”
Bad news for Jerry West: Even if he wanted to trade James Worthy for Washington’s No. 1 pick, the Bullets didn’t. A 31-year-old with a $3.2-million salary has little attraction to a rebuilding team. West wants to make his team younger but is up against it. His good players are 28 or older and making $1 million or (much) more, and all the teams in the lottery want to get younger, too.
Slow going in Orlando: In two weeks since their heady lottery day, Magic officials have been unable to get past agent Leonard Armato with talk to Shaquille O’Neal, suggesting Shaq isn’t especially enchanted. “I spoke with his agent and I reiterated our position,” said Magic General Manager Pat Williams. “We are going to draft him.” . . . The New Jersey Nets’ hiring of Chuck Daly makes so much sense, you figured they’d mess it up. Daly gets $1.3 million a year, or $100,000 more than cross-river rival Pat Riley.
Problems at home: San Antonio’s Willie Anderson had bone graft surgery on one leg, then on a trip home banged it leaning over his mother’s bed and had to have it put in a full cast. His rehabilitation was set back two months. . . . Minor Miner problem: The Dallas Mavericks, drafting fourth, had Harold Miner in for a workout, liked him but are expected to take Jim Jackson. No. 5 Denver has a year invested in Mark Macon and wants a big man. No. 6 Washington traded for Rex Chapman and wants a big man. No. 7 Sacramento has Mitch Richmond and wants a swing man. Barring trades, look for Miner to go to No. 8 Milwaukee.
More proof it was time to leave: Kevin Johnson on departed Cotton Fitzsimmons: “Cotton has always been Cotton. Everyone knows what that is. He talks a million miles a minute on the sideline. When we win, it goes in one ear and out the other. When we lose, you learn to block it out.” . . . Fitzsimmons has already resigned his front office post to become a broadcaster for the Suns. Look for NBC to hire him--or for Cotton to eventually return as a coach elsewhere. . . . Nice series, weak analysis: Portland’s Buck Williams, battling Utah’s Karl Malone on and off the court during the Western finals: “John Stockton gives Karl 90% of his offense with his passing ability. As far as I’m concerned, he’s not one of the most physical guys I’ve played. I played against Maurice Lucas, Lonnie Shelton, two gladiators. The matchup with Karl doesn’t come close to that.” In Game 5, with Stockton out, Malone scored 28 in the second half and overtime. Humility, it’s so different: Dan Issel on being named Denver coach: “This is the only team I’d be interested in coaching--and I’m sure it’s the only other team in the NBA that would be interested in having me coach them.” . . . Community service: Former Boston star M.L. Carr has contributed $5,000 from the John Henry Carr Alzheimer’s and Aging Foundation to Alzheimer’s sufferers in South-Central L.A. who were caught in the rioting last month.