A Pack of Trouble : Former USC Guard Presents Big Problems for Nugget Opponents as Explosive Sixth Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When guard Robert Pack left USC in 1991 after helping the Trojans to their first NCAA playoff berth in six seasons, few thought he had a chance to play in the NBA.

But the Portland Trail Blazers invited Pack to training camp at the request of Trojan Coach George Raveling after Pack had played well in the L.A. Summer Pro League

"I felt I had the talent to be drafted, and if not drafted at least invited to someone's (rookie-free agent) camp," Pack said. "That's hurt me more than not being drafted. Not being invited to someone's camp makes you feel like you weren't even noticed at all in college."

But Pack is being noticed now.

Now with the Denver Nuggets, he has blossomed into one of the NBA's most explosive sixth men.

In fact, Pack, 25, plays as if he's still trying to prove he belongs in the NBA.

"No one gave me a chance to be in the league," Pack said. "I didn't get a shot in any camps, but I was real confident that I could play and I didn't give up and that's really important. I think I have a lot of heart."

Although Pack's emergence has astonished many NBA observers, Raveling isn't surprised.

"I think he's been working at his game every summer," Raveling said. "He's been trying to refine his game. I'm not really surprised because Robert has a tremendous desire to succeed and he's willing to work hard to achieve it."

Pack, who was traded to the Nuggets by Portland last season, helped propel Denver to one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history. They eliminated the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs last weekend.

It was the first time that a No. 1-seeded team was eliminated by a No. 8. The SuperSonics had the NBA's best regular-season record, 63-19; the Nuggets and Miami Heat had the worst records of any playoff teams, 42-40.

Today, the Nuggets will try to bounce back from a 2-0 deficit in their second-round series with the Utah Jazz.

Against Seattle, Pack outplayed All-Star guard Gary Payton in the decisive fifth game, scoring a career-high 23 points, 22 after halftime, as the Nuggets eliminated the SuperSonics, 98-94, in overtime. It was Seattle's first home loss in 15 games.

With the Nuggets trailing late in the third quarter, 62-53, Pack scored nine points as Denver outscored Seattle, 13-2, and took the lead for the first time.

Pack, who had made six three-point shots during the regular season, made six in the final three games, three of them in the deciding game and two of those in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets took an eight-point lead.

"The three-point shots weren't planned, it was just something I had to do," Pack said. "I was wide open and I had to take them and, fortunately, they went down for me."

With the Nuggets leading in overtime, 96-94, Pack stole the ball from Payton with 54 seconds left but his shot was blocked by Shawn Kemp. Then he sealed the victory by making two free throws with 18 seconds left after center Dikembe Mutombo blocked a shot by Kemp.

After averaging nine points during the regular season, Pack averaged 15.7 points in Denver's three victories over Seattle.

"I don't know how to explain it, but I know I can run the team and play the game," Pack said.

Pack has demonstrated it during the playoffs.

With Denver on the verge of being eliminated in Game 4, Pack sank a three-point shot with 27 seconds left, sending the game into overtime, and the Nuggets went on to win, 94-85.

Pack, who was nicknamed "Left-out Larry" after complaining that he didn't get enough playing time during the regular season, has gotten more playing time than starter Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the playoffs. Even though Abdul-Rauf has struggled in the playoffs, shooting only 32.8%, the Nuggets don't plan to start Pack in his place. That doesn't faze Pack.

"My goal is to become a starter in this league," he said. "I haven't put a lot of thought into it because at this point in time, thinking about starting could hurt me. I don't control the minutes, it's up to the coach to make that decision."

Pack could become a starter, but perhaps not in Denver, where there is speculation the Nuggets will package him with their first-round draft pick in a trade for a veteran point guard.

"There's been (trade) rumors, but I've tried to stay focused," Pack said. "If that's what happens, I'll just have to deal with it. If it turns out to be a move where I'm not here and I do get a chance to start, I'm going to take advantage of that opportunity."

Denver Coach Dan Issel isn't surprised that Pack has played so well.

"When you've got guys who sit on the bench and some nights get a lot of minutes and other nights don't get a lot, I think being a professional is to keep yourself prepared and be ready when your opportunity comes," Issel said.

"When you put Robert in a game, something always happens. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad and (sometimes it's) terrific."

Although Pack is an explosive scorer who seems to energize the Nuggets, he is inconsistent.

Although he averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 5.4 assists this season, he also averaged a team-high 3.1 turnovers.

Pack maintains that he commits so many turnovers because he is under pressure when he gets into the game and takes risks.

"I get ahead of myself, trying to make things happen right away," he said. "If I started, I'd be more relaxed."

Pack was runner-up behind Minnesota rookie guard Isaiah Rider in the NBA slam-dunk contest in February, but he hasn't perfected his jump shot.

"I worked a lot on my jump shot last summer, trying to improve it, because I knew that if I could hit that outside shot guys would have to come out on me and then I could use my quickness to blow by them," Pack said. "When Tim Hardaway came in the league, he wasn't the greatest shooter, but he improved his (jump shot) and it opened his game up.

"My shot didn't fall (during the regular) season, but I never lost confidence. I continued to shoot and last Saturday it all paid off."

He has also developed a reputation for being irresponsible.

He has been late for buses and was fined after skipping a shoot-around before a game at Dallas last month. Pack maintained that he missed the team bus by a few minutes, but team officials contended that he could have taken a cab to the arena.

But the Nuggets will live with Pack's flaws, at least for the time being, because of his explosiveness.

He signed a three-year, $3-million contract with Denver last December, after sitting out the first 13 games of the season in a contract holdout.

Pack used some of the money to buy a new van for his mother, Wilma, and a new truck for his father, Robert Sr. He's also building them a house in Tacoma, Wash.

"My mom worked her fingers to the bone cleaning people's houses," Pack said. "There'd be times when she'd work two jobs and she'd come home from one job and be home an hour and be gone to the next and I'd hardly get a chance to see her.

"To be able to have her sit down and enjoy a new house and a new car is really gratifying."

Pack's parents moved to Tacoma from New Orleans after Pack had started college. Pack grew up in a tough part of New Orleans, the same area where San Diego State tailback Marshall Faulk lived.

"Growing up there, you had to be tough, but I think those tough areas helped me to fight through a lot of tough things that have happened in my life, like not being drafted," Pack said.

"I learned that if you got knocked down, you had to get back up."

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