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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Nuggets Sprinkled With Nuts, so It’s Time to Go

He hadn’t laughed in weeks. He was afraid one night he might bite a referee in the neck. His players didn’t like him anymore. He didn’t like them, either.

So Denver’s Dan Issel did what no one ever does. He walked out on a talented young team, a supportive front office and adoring fans.

“The job was consuming me,” he said. “Every waking minute, I was thinking about coaching the Denver Nuggets. It turned me into something I didn’t want to be.”

Yeah, an NBA coach.

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Issel was more the ceremonial variety, brought in as a public relations move three seasons ago with the franchise on its back. With the lottery supplying talent--Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Rodney Rogers--the Nuggets made the playoffs in his second season.

They bumped off the Seattle SuperSonics and took the Utah Jazz to seven games with John Elway as head cheerleader asking fans: “Are you ready to--MUTOMBO?”

Reduced to an afterthought in a town dominated by the Rockies and Broncos, the Nuggets promoted their boomlet as the start of something big, bringing in veterans Dale Ellis and Cliff Levingston to get their kids over the top.

However, the easiest climb is from the bottom to .500. Without a superstar, with Ellis out for the season, they went back to what they had been, a .500 team and a quarrelsome one at that.

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Their lack of depth became a problem. Everyone was unhappy with his minutes except Mutombo, who was unhappy because he didn’t get more shots. Issel tried keeping them all happy, but team captain Reggie Williams complained about his shifting rotations. In reply, Issel made the 24-year-old Stith a co-captain.

Issel bawled out rookie Jalen Rose in a huddle. According to observers nearby, Rose whispered to teammates he would play “any . . . way I want to play.”

In a home loss to the Phoenix Suns, Issel went off at the officials, surprising people who knew him.

“I couldn’t stand to be around me,” Issel said later, “so I know nobody else could.”

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Wisely, he walked.

“You know what the answer is?” said the Houston Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich, another frustrated coach.

“Frozen yogurt. When it gets to the point I can’t stand coaching any more, I’m going to pitch it all and open a frozen yogurt stand.

“Now that would be perfect. Every morning, you’d get out of bed knowing your hardest question of the day would be, ‘Sir, would you like sprinkles or nuts?’ Sprinkles. Nuts. I might be able to manage that.”

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ZO HATES THIS CULT OF PERSONALITY STUFF

Last week’s marquee matchup brought the Charlotte Hornets, winners of eight in a row and typically full of themselves, to Orlando.

The Magic won, 109-98. Shaquille O’Neal had 35 points and 12 rebounds, Alonzo Mourning 33 and 12.

Said Orlando’s Penny Hardaway: “Watching those two go at each other is like thunder and lightning.”

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The Hornets have a thing about Shaq, whom they consider a massive bully tormenting their gutty, little Zo. Coach Allan Bristow spent the game screaming at officials to stop O’Neal from scattering bodies about. In reply, Shaq threw down several fearsome dunks, each time staring over at Bristow.

“Every coach in the league complains about Shaq night in and night out,” Magic Coach Brian Hill said. “And I guess if he wasn’t playing for me, I’d probably be doing the same thing.

“That’s part of it, and if that gets the big fella riled and he plays hard and wants to dunk on somebody, I’m not going to tell Allan to stop.”

Mourning, ever volatile, went ballistic when asked about the matchup.

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“There’s two teams out there!” he roared at the press.

“You don’t know . . . about basketball! You all don’t know a damn thing! You all just think there’s two players out there going up against each other! There’s two teams, 10 guys on the court! You all are so . . . narrow-minded, man! You all look right past it! If you all want to see that . . . go watch some boxing or something! Man, I want to sit here and talk about two teams and you all want to bring up some . . . matchup! That’s it! I’m through talking!”

What Alonzo meant is, he believes there’s too much emphasis put on the individual in modern society.

He intends to say just that in his next Nike commercial, in which he’s shown dunking over King Kong.

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NOW FOR THE WEEK’S OVER-HYPED EVENT

The Magic is at Phoenix today in a matchup NBC has been promoting for two weeks: Shaq vs. Joe Kleine, Danny Schayes, A.C. Green, et. al.

There will be suggestions they’ll meet in the finals, but that’s a lifetime away. Last season it was supposed to be Phoenix and the Knicks, but Charles Barkley’s back went out and so did the Suns.

The Suns may be more fun with Danny Manning, but a real center would be nice in a postseason matchup with David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and/or Shaq. When the Suns are double-teaming opposing centers, opposing guards shoot uncontested three-pointers and even Vernon Maxwell can hit those.

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For his part, Hill is tired of being on everyone’s marquee. Last week he tried watching the NFL playoffs and every 20 minutes, here came another commercial for the Dream Matchup.

“I even got mad at my daughter, Kim, for talking about the Phoenix game,” said Hill. “I told her, ‘You’re a coach’s daughter, you know better than that.”

JEKYLL AND STARKS: BEAST STIRS IN THE EAST

For Pat Riley, every darkness but one--his last with the Lakers--has yielded to a dawn. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that his Knicks are back in stride.

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It’s at least a little surprise, though.

Three weeks ago, when they were 14-12 and had just lost Charles Oakley and Herb Williams, one Knick described the mood as “near mutiny.”

Even the imperturbable Riley despaired out loud.

“You start getting hit with injuries, one thunderbolt after another,” he said. " . . . We really lose two of our best defensive players. Somehow, I don’t know how you replace that.”

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Since then, they’re 8-1, including last week’s victory at Houston in the rematch of last spring’s finalists.

One way or another, they recovered.

Patrick Ewing, who had hobbled back from arthroscopic knee surgery, began feeling better. His shooting, which last season fell below 50% for the first time since he was a rookie, bottomed out at 47.6% a month into this season. Since, he has shot 51%.

John Starks, cold, tormented by last spring’s two for 18 Game 7 and openly castigated by Ewing and Oakley, warmed up in his inimitable style. He had a three-game stretch in which he shot 60%, declared his slump over, then went three games shooting 27%.

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Perhaps disoriented by his roller-coaster season, Starks did something else a Knick isn’t supposed to do: speak candidly.

Sneering at the NBA champion Rockets before Thursday’s game, Starks announced:

“We can’t look at it like this team flat-out beat us. We beat ourselves in those last two games. Looking at it from a personnel standpoint, we’re still a better team.”

Actually, few thought they were the better team last spring, although many thought they were the tougher team.

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Amazingly, even Riley bought in, suggesting just how hard he took last spring’s loss.

“If we could have seen his shot pass over Hakeem’s hands, who knows?” Riley said, recalling Starks’ three-pointer that Olajuwon tipped at the end of Game 6.

The Rockets, previously obliged to sort through headlines and magazine covers for the disrespect they were sure was out there, accepted the insult more in amusement than indignation.

They had their own problems: a 75-point outing two days before in a loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. When the Knicks left town, the Rockets had one more: a 77-point game and another loss.

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Starks went nine for 17, dunked left-handed over Olajuwon, scored 22 points and exorcised his demons, for a night, anyway.

Oakley is due back after the All-Star game. Charles Smith is playing his best ball since leaving the Clippers, giving Riley the long-missing No. 3 option. Derek Harper has settled in. Hubert Davis is hot. If everything goes right, this could be the best Knick team Riley has ever taken into the playoffs, and the Magic could have something to worry about.

FACES AND FIGURES

That’s about all that’s stirring in the East, too: Going into the weekend, the conference had five teams over .500--and two of them, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, are cold. . . . Cleveland Coach Mike Fratello’s amazing mirror job is 3-5 since its 11-game winning streak ended. . . . The Pacers are 6-5 after a 14-6 start and Larry Brown has been growling about lack of effort for months. Upset that his players were laughing and joking on the plane home from a loss at New Jersey, he called a Christmas practice, walked in, told them if they didn’t care, he didn’t either and walked out.

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The Chicago Bulls, who won 55 games a year ago, lost to the Washington Bullets and Milwaukee Bucks last week, falling below .500. The Atlanta Hawks, who won 57 games a year ago, will have to go 41-4 to match it. . . . Assuming both Chicago and Atlanta qualify, that leaves a playoff slot for the sorry New Jersey Nets, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Bucks and Detroit Pistons to fight over. Starting the weekend, the 11-23 Pistons were only 2 1/2 games out of a playoff berth.

Scottie Pippen better not hold his breath waiting to be traded. He’s still insulting Bull General Manager Jerry Krause every day but had better go after owner Jerry Reinsdorf, whom Krause fronts so faithfully for. Bullet General Manager John Nash and Philadelphia 76er boss John Lucas called to inquire but reported the asking price--three front-line players or No. 1 picks--too steep. Said Lucas, no dummy: “I don’t think they want to trade him.” . . . Probable scenario (this week’s anyway): Reinsdorf will cling to Pippen but if they go .500 and exit in the first round, he’ll bow to the inevitable and shop Pippy for real

The Portland Trail Blazers are taking bids on Clyde Drexler, but it’s impossible to get comparable talent for a 32-year-old with a $9.75-million balloon payment due next season. The Knicks would love to match him up against Hardaway but have little to offer.

Dear Cedric, get a life: In the three games before getting 10 shots in the Laker loss at Indianapolis and threatening retirement, Cedric Ceballos had averaged 39 minutes, 14 shots, 25 points and 10 rebounds. . . . For the record: In response to a reference to Nick Van Exel as “170 pounds of attitude,” the Lakers put the imp on the scales and found him to be 183. “Thirteen extra pounds of attitude,” trumpeted spokesman John Black.

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Keep thinking, Luke, it’s what you’re good at: Lucas and his 76ers, just back from an 18-day West Coast trip, checked into a Days Inn at the Philadelphia airport to prepare for the Bulls. “I just want basketball to be a priority,” said Lucas. “No phones, no beepers. We’re going to review what do with Chicago, review again before the game and go play.” He also made players room together. Jeff Malone left this on Dana Barros’ answering machine: “Yes, I’m leaving a message for my roomie. Could he please bring the milk and cookies tonight? I’ll bring the chips.”

Clarence Weatherspoon woke up sick in the hotel, staggered out to maintain his streak of 195 starts and left after three minutes. . . . You could see this coming, couldn’t you? The 76ers lost, 115-77. . . . Said Bull Coach Phil Jackson: “I guess they won’t have to stay in hotels at home anymore.”


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