Clippers Watching Rising Son : Basketball: Rookie Piatkowski can draw on father's experiences as he makes his way in NBA.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walt Piatkowski was running late.

A traveling salesman whose territory covers the Nebraska panhandle, Piatkowski had promised his son Eric, a star basketball player at the University of Nebraska, he would attend the Cornhusker game against Oklahoma State, but he had to drive to a business meeting in North Platte before the game.

Pulled over by a state trooper on his way to the meeting, Piatkowski expected to get a speeding ticket.

"Why are you going in such a hurry?" the trooper asked.

"I'm trying to get to my son's ballgame at Nebraska," Piatkowski replied.

"Oh, you're Piatkowski's dad," the trooper said. "Here's a warning ticket. Good luck to Eric and get on down the road."

After leaving the meeting, Piatkowski dumped his notes on the front seat and raced to the game.

But he was stopped again.

"Where are you going so fast?" the trooper asked.

"I'm trying to get to Nebraska for the game," Piatkowski said.

"I'm watching that game, too," the trooper said. "They're playing Oklahoma State and Byron Houston. Here's a warning ticket."

Now that Eric Piatkowski has joined the Clippers, Walt Piatkowski would probably draw blank stares from California Highway Patrol officers if he invoked his son's name to talk his way out of a speeding ticket.

But if NBA scouts are correct in their assessment of Piatkowski, a 6-foot-8 swingman who was the 15th player selected in the NBA draft, it won't be long before Piatkowski becomes as well known in Los Angeles as he was at Nebraska, where he became the first player in school history to score more than 1,000 points, get more than 600 rebounds and pass for more than 300 assists.

The Clippers think Piatkowski has a bright future.

"I love him," forward Loy Vaught said. "I think he's going to be good for this team. He has a great outside shot and he's a hard-working guy."

Piatkowski was the most valuable player of the 1994 Big Eight tournament, when he scored a school-record 43 points against Oklahoma in the opening round.

"He was one of the best athletes we've ever had at Nebraska, and in basketball he was probably the best," Nebraska Coach Danny Nee said. "He's a very, very talented player. We thought we had a real diamond in the rough when he came to Nebraska, and I think his best days are ahead of him. I think he can be a hell of a player in the NBA. He runs the wing as well as anyone on any level."

Although he coached Piatkowski for five seasons, Nee jokingly said he still doesn't know how to spell his name, which is pronounced Pie-it-KOW-ski.

"Everyone pronounces his name wrong," Nee said. "For a while we called him the Polish Rifle."

Clipper Coach Bill Fitch, who coached Larry Bird for four seasons, compared Piatkowski to Bird after coaching Piatkowski in last spring's Phoenix Desert Classic, a postseason all-star tournament for players in the draft. Piatkowski was voted MVP of the tournament after averaging 22 points and shooting 63%.

"He's got a lot of Bird's mannerisms," Fitch said. "To compare anybody's game to Bird is an injustice to the person that you do it to. I didn't mean to put a label on him that way. But he's got a lot of Bird's qualities to practice and work hard."

Piatkowski was flattered by the comparison.

"He probably said that thinking he was never going to coach me again," Piatkowski said. "It was awfully nice of him to say that, and I hope I can live up to his expectations."

Fitch hasn't changed his mind since Piatkowski joined the team, ending a weeklong holdout on Oct. 14 by signing a five-year contract reportedly worth $6 million.

"He shows the tools that I saw at the Phoenix camp and that we saw in school," Fitch said. "He's got a great stroke, he's a smart kid, and he plays hard while he's out there. He can do nothing but get better."

Piatkowski learned his work ethic from his father, a 6-8 forward who played for Fitch at Bowling Green. After graduating in 1968, the elder Piatkowski spent 2 1/2 seasons in the American Basketball Assn.

"When I was really young, people would ask me, 'Are you going to be a pro basketball player like your dad was?' " Piatkowski said. "At that age you could really care less. I really liked the fact that he never pushed me at all. He just let me do my own thing.

"I never saw my dad play in the ABA because I wasn't born yet. But when I was in second or third grade, he still played a lot of basketball for a town basketball team that went to other towns for tournaments. I remember that I'd beg him to let me go along. And if for some reason I couldn't go, I'd be crying."

Fitch said Eric got his shooting touch from his father, who led the Mid-American Conference in scoring as a sophomore.

"He was a lot better shooter than Eric," Fitch said. "He was a shooter and a competitor. I think Eric got a lot of that from him.

"His thing in the ABA was that he was a 6-8 guy who could shoot three-pointers like they were going out of style. I guess you could say he was a small forward in the body of a power forward. Eric's got the stroke, but like I told him the other day, he could be a great shooter and still be the second best in his family."

Fitch put the elder Piatkowski, who had bulked up from 215 to 270 pounds after drinking beer with his friends on the football team, on a rigorous conditioning program before his senior season.

"He was a lot like (Clipper center) Stanley (Roberts) when I met him," Fitch said. "I remember the first time I met him I told him that he'd better grow eight inches or lose 50 pounds. He had a weight problem and he lost it. I remember (after he lost weight) all his shirts fit him like a turtle."

Walt Piatkowski, 49, said Fitch was hard on him.

"He put a rubber suit on me and I had to run the stadium steps with a weighted vest," he recalled. "In a three-month period of time I went down to 215. He just melted the weight off me and made me a good player. I didn't have the jumping ability or the speed that Eric has, but I shot the ball awfully well."

Eric got advice from his father about this season.

"I told Eric that he'd better be in shape to play for Fitch," Walt Piatkowski said. "(Fitch) worked us like you wouldn't believe. He ran us with the cross-country team on Saturdays. You work awfully hard in Bill Fitch's camps. If you don't work hard, you don't last."

Piatkowski will earn more in his first month in the NBA than his father did during his entire pro career.

The elder Piatkowski signed a two-year, no-cut contract for $30,000 a season with a $10,000 bonus with the Denver Rockets 10 days before the 1968 NBA draft.

"I did it for security reasons," he said. "I was married and had a child, so I went with the Rockets."

After making the ABA all-rookie team, Piatkowski didn't play much in his second season after the team signed Spencer Haywood. Traded to Kentucky in 1970, he retired and taught school for a year after his salary was cut.

But he returned to the ABA in 1971, signing with the Miami Floridians. However, he was cut a month into the season after leaving the team for three days to attend the funeral of his father-in-law before Thanksgiving.

"Bob Bass was the coach and I asked him if he was going to cut me and he said that he never cut anyone who was going home for a funeral," Piatkowski said. "I left my car at the Miami airport and flew home for the funeral. When I got back to the Miami airport, I picked up the Miami Herald and it said, 'Piatkowski put on waivers.'

"I've always told Eric that story. It's not me being nasty or doom-and-gloom, but I want him to know it's a business. There is a down side, and Eric knows that. I've tried to instill that in all my sons."

Fitch, who had been hired to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, asked Piatkowski if he wanted to try out for the Cavaliers, but the incident in Miami soured him on pro basketball. He moved to Denver, taking a job as a salesman for a paper company.

"It just took the heart out of me," he said. "It took a while for me just to go back and watch the game. But it all worked out. I've always said to people, 'Never look back.' "

Piatkowski's four sons inherited their father's basketball ability. David, 27, now a high school teacher, was a 6-4 guard who played at Hastings (Neb.) College. Sean, 19, a 6-4 guard who was the runner-up for South Dakota's Mr. Basketball award in 1993, is a sophomore at Bakersfield College. Troy, 17, is a 6-5 senior guard and pitcher at Rapid City Stevens High.

But Eric, 24, is perhaps the best athlete in the family.

"I always thought he had a shot at the pros and I wanted to give him as much experience as possible because I thought Eric was special," Walt Piatkowski said. "It's not only his shooting ability; he understands the game. But the biggest thing about Eric is that he's not selfish."

A prep All-American who was voted South Dakota's Mr. Basketball in 1989 after averaging 25.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and leading Stevens High to the state title, Piatkowski turned down offers from Indiana and Notre Dame to sign with Nebraska because he wanted to remain close to home.

After averaging 13.8 points in his first three seasons at Nebraska, Piatkowski blossomed as a senior, averaging a team-high 21.5 points and 6.3 rebounds in leading the Cornhuskers to the Big Eight title last season.

Piatkowski's stock rose after he played well at the NBA tryout camps.

"I was really scared going into camps," Piatkowski said. "The way I looked at it was that (the camps) had a lot to do with your entire life. It was going to determine where you lived and how much money you were making.

"As soon as the season was over, guys wanted to go out and party, but I started working out twice as hard as I did in the regular season because I wanted to be ready."

Originally drafted by the Indiana Pacers, he was traded to the Clippers the day after the draft with guard Pooh Richardson and forward Malik Sealy for point guard Mark Jackson and the draft rights to Louisville guard Greg Minor, the 25th player selected.

A celebrity in Lincoln, Neb., Piatkowski likes the fact that he's nearly anonymous in Southern California.

"It's kind of neat right now that nobody has a clue who I am. At Nebraska, I'd be trying to eat dinner in a nice restaurant and 50 people would come up to me and ask for my autograph."

But that could change, if Piatkowski meets the expectations the Clippers have for him.

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