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Forget the Blinders, Ceballos Has Arrived

He’s the Lakers’ Invisible Man. Their Stealth Bomber, if you will.

Oh, I don’t mean he shows up wrapped in bandages like Claude Rains or that radar can’t find him.

It’s the way he plays basketball. Remember that old TV series “The Shadow?” The hero, Lamont Cranston, was always stepping into the breach out of nowhere, leaving his mark, then disappearing again.

The guys trying to cover Cedric Ceballos on court could relate. You don’t know he’s there till you hear the swish of the net. He scores 30 points a night without seeming to have showed up. You think it’s a mistake when you see the total up on the board.

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“It kind of began in junior college in Ventura,” Ceballos was recalling the other night in the Laker locker room. “They had this guy on the other team who was filling the air with basketballs, rattling the boards. And I was just trying to play my normal game. Afterward, everyone was surprised I had 50 points and he had, oh, 14 or so. It’s been like that.”

Ceballos’ “normal” game is to get points as unobtrusively as possible. He’s not a three-point demon like the Pacers’ Reggie Miller. He doesn’t take off at mid-court like Michael You-know-who and fly to the basket.

Cedric’s game is keep-on-the-move. Frequent-flyer.

“They don’t design plays for me, a kind of set-piece offense. They know I’ll be there.”

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His coach, Del Harris, confirms. “No one can move without the ball like Cedric. He moves without the ball about as well as anyone ever.”

Most players need the ball to affirm themselves. Some guys you need a court order to get them to unleash it. Not Cedric Ceballos. When the play starts, he disappears into the crowd like a pickpocket at work. He leads his man around the court as if he were on a leash--until he becomes that sine qua non of every attack--the “open” man. You might say he was the “secret” weapon.

Ceballos was a secret all right when he was on the Phoenix Suns because he was in a lineup that had Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle. You needed more than a court order to get the ball. You needed an armed deputy.

Conventional wisdom has it that Cedric didn’t get a proper chance with Phoenix, but Cedric isn’t buying. “They had Charles and Kevin and Majerle and Tom Chambers,” he explains.

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But when he did play, he led the team (and the league) in field-goal percentage. He didn’t get the ball much. But he didn’t need it much. He averaged 19.1 points his last year with Phoenix.

In a way, Cedric has always been a well-kept secret. He himself did not project stardom for Cedric Ceballos. He passed up the possibility of playing for a UCLA or powerhouse Final Four candidate because he didn’t feel his game was at that level. “I started out with a love of the game, a love for playing the game itself and not what the game could bring me.” He was studying criminology with a view to becoming a private investigator, or, at most, an FBI agent.

Instead, he became that NBA staple, a high-scoring small forward and a star. Being drafted 48th overall out of Cal State Fullerton is not reassuring. But not even his invisible scoring methods could conceal the results.

The Lakers’ general manager, Jerry West, who grows rich on spotting Cedric Ceballoses, got him for a piece of paper.

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Well, it was a gaudy piece of paper--a No. 1 draft pick. That could turn out to be another Michael Jordan. It could also turn out to be a guy who would be playing in Italy two years from now.

They’ll never let a Cedric Ceballos out of the country. He flipped in 50 points one night (last Dec. 20). You had a picture of the Minnesota Timberwolves studying the sheet later and frowning. “It says here No. 23 scored 50 points--did you see any No. 23 with the ball all night?” And the guy guarding him will shake his head. “He was in there for a while but all he did was set picks.”

Cedric doesn’t even need picks. He’s the master at converting the offensive rebound into the two-point basket or even the three-pointer. He makes a career out of arriving at a point at the same time as the ball. “He has a high energy level, he’s never still on the court,” Coach Harris admits. “The points he gets are opportunistic points.”

There are a lot of them--297 to date this year, a 27-point average.

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That’s superstar stuff. And, even though he’ll never be “Air” Ceballos, two points are two points whether you get them from the bottom of the key or the corner. And he has expanded his horizons. After trying only two three-point shots in four years at Phoenix, he tried 146 last year (made 58) and has tried 32 this year.

The league should have known it was in trouble with Ceballos in 1992. He won the slam-dunk contest (and $25,000) at the All-Star game that year. While this was extraordinary stuff for a man who had played nine games in the league in two years, what was even more remarkable was he did it blindfolded.

“I got the idea from a shoot-around in a game against the Lakers right here in the Forum,” he was recalling the other night. “I saw Magic Johnson put his hand over his eyes and still throw in the one-handed basket. I thought ‘Hey, what an idea!’ I stored it away.”

If a guy can make a basket with a hood over his head (“Look, Ma, no eyes!”) the rest of the league is at a disadvantage. When he can score 30 points when they didn’t even think he showed up, they should at least make him wear a cowbell. Or stand still periodically long enough to wave the ball and shout: “Yoo hoo, fellas! Over here!” It’s only fair.

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