New York Wasn't His Kind of Town

Nellie in flames, only slightly ahead of schedule.

What can one say about Don Nelson after the New York Knicks fired him three-quarters of the way through his first season but:

Another $4 million and back to Maui!

The only surprise was that the Knicks couldn't contain their panic until summer, but Nellie's situation was untenable from the start. Actually, it was clear before the start, with doubled ticket prices and an old, dysfunctional team.

Under Pat Riley, the Knicks were chained to their oars like galley slaves. Rather than welcoming Nelson as liberator, they took it out on him as soon as he freed them.

They started 18-6 and everyone still complained. Patrick Ewing publicly vetoed Nelson's plans to make him a point center and Anthony Mason a point forward; Charles Oakley criticized Nelson for letting Ewing sit out practices.

A routine coach's prerogative, benching wild John Starks, finally finished Nelson. It became a gargantuan issue in the tabloids, with Starks spouting off daily--"This is not going to be healed"--and Nelson replying he wasn't going to be "intimidated by John or the newspaper coverage."

Knick management watched, terror-stricken.

The team had just dumped its bench to create $10 million worth of salary cap room--but how could it recruit one of David Falk's prize free agents like Alonzo Mourning or Juwan Howard if Falk's bell cow, Ewing, didn't like Nelson?

Intrigue boiled everywhere.

Reports leaked that Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts wanted to can Nelson, but Knick President Ernie Grunfeld was supporting Nellie--a suggestion that the political Checketts was covering his backside before offing his coach.

Somewhere, Riley, another former Checketts ally, was laughing his moussed head off.

There were reports that Nelson, realizing it was hopeless, forced the Starks issue to provoke a firing, collect the rest of his two-year, $4-million contract to go with his swag from Golden State, and retire to his home in the Islands.

Indeed, a year ago Nellie happily allowed the Warriors to sack him, and he went philosophically again Friday.

"Change has to happen to this team," Nelson said hours before getting canned, "and I could very well be part of that change. And that would be acceptable on my part."

Assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy, who used to be Riley's go-fer and has never coached an NBA or college team, takes over on a very interim basis, unless Ewing adopts him.

Checketts now has to find a coach Ewing likes--it would help if Falk represented him too. Don't be surprised if the next name to surface is . . . John Thompson.

Yes, Big John, Ewing's coach at Georgetown--and Mourning's and Dikembe Mutombo's. Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo still spend the off-season in homes in the same neighborhood near the campus.

Thompson is a formidable capitalist in his own right who has stunned interested NBA teams with his salary demands. If the Knicks call, he's sure to ask for something in Riley's $3-million range--annually.

What if the Georgetown kids don't like the idea of having their own franchise? The Knicks will face the inevitable--the wrecking ball--with only one more question to answer:

How many bodies does Checketts get to throw over the side before it's his turn?

COUNTING DOWN TO 70: LOOKING GOOD (GULP)

News flash for skeptics (hello) who didn't think the Chicago Bulls would burn themselves out trying to win 70 games:

They won't have to burn themselves out to do it.

On a 73-win pace, they need only finish 16-6 to reach 70. If they win their last 11 at home, where they are 30-0, they need go only 5-6 on the road.

Of their 11 road games, only four are against teams over .500.

And they're hot. Since losing at Miami on Feb. 23, they have won six in a row and have led by at least 20 points in each.

Their stars have played light minutes recently, except when Coach Phil Jackson let Michael Jordan stay on the floor 38 minutes against the Pistons to finish his 53-point night.

"There isn't any question we're playing for 70," Scottie Pippen said. "We want 70 wins. I know Phil may want to rest guys and work with the second unit, but when they get out there on the court, their mind is going to be the same as ours."

MAGIC: IT'S NOT A LARK ANY MORE

Lost in the hubbub about Magic Johnson taking his name out of Olympic consideration--as if he was going to make it anyway--was a more important revelation:

He's coming back next season.

Who cares who's on the Olympic team? It's a ceremonial romp, so the guest list is strictly optional.

If the Olympians were cool to Johnson's candidacy, he means more to the Lakers. If he returns to them--being Magic, he mentioned several possibilities--they're that much stronger, not to mention favorites in the free-agent sweepstakes.

This has been the nightmare scenario among general managers for this summer, Falk fleecing them while the Lakers pick over the crop to see who they want.

If Johnson returns, this is no longer a five-month lark, trying to reach the finals out of the West for the honor of being dispatched by the Bulls in the finals.

Among others, this would surprise Johnson, who came back aboard thinking it would be sweet but short.

"I was thinking that," he says. "The main thing was coming back and making sure I still had it. I didn't want to be an old man sitting out there and nobody respects you, that whole thing.

"I wanted to make sure I could still do it. I knew I could but I wanted to make sure I could."

He may have wondered about the young Lakers, but they have fallen in behind him like fuzzy ducklings. If Magic dominates press coverage, so much the better, it's less they have to do. It's a blessing all around; they get a chance to grow up with actual veteran leadership.

Assuming, of course, he's a Laker.

If they net a big fish named Mutombo or Shaquille O'Neal, you can color Johnson purple and gold. Being Magic, however, means never ruling out a possibility.

Last week he threw out Miami (Riley is there), Detroit (Grant Hill, and it's home) or New York (the Knicks are stiff as mackerels; maybe he likes big cities). By now the Miami Herald may have an investigative team here and the New York tabloids may have photographers staking out the Forum. It's a Magical time, with all that implies.

NAMES AND NUMBERS

Good People, Bad Boys: The Bulls, who have always brayed about their insistence on hiring only quality people, added John Salley. With James Edwards and Dennis Rodman, that gives them 25% of Detroit's last championship team. Salley, though personable, is no Boy Scout. He threw a New Years' Eve party in Toronto in which gun shots were fired and a car wound up in Lake Ontario.

Despite home-and-home losses, the Lakers are still on the Houston Rockets' trail. The Rockets just lost Sam Cassell, who scored 24 points here last Sunday testing his sore right elbow, saw it become inflamed and underwent arthroscopic surgery. The Lakers had better grab the No. 4 spot to get home-court advantage since Cassell, Clyde Drexler and Mario Elie will be back by April. . . . Actually, the Lakers would like to move up to No. 3 and miss the Rockets altogether. "You move out of the way or we'll move out of the way," Johnson told Rocket Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, laughing. "We don't want to see you guys."

Is Mourning backing away from his informal commitment to Miami and Riley? "I'm not ready to say right now I will be here at the end of my career," he said. "Pat and I pretty much have an understanding. I have talked to Pat on numerous occasions, and I really haven't come to a conclusion at all. I'm going to explore my options. The bottom line is, I'm going to do what's best for Alonzo." Comment: The bottom line is, the Heat had better make the playoffs or Riley could be shopping for a center again.

Rod Strickland returned to the Portland Trail Blazers--and immediately scratched himself with a "sore groin." Final totals for his walkout: six games, $166,830 forfeited, still no understanding with Coach P.J. Carlesimo. "I'd be fooling myself and y'all if I said that," Strickland said. Meanwhile, Strickland's agent told ESPN that Carlesimo will be the one to go.

He's been around long enough to get it but doesn't: Billy Owens, on his third team in two seasons and still trying to come to terms with the nature of the NBA, says of his trade by Riley, "It's like a friend let you down." . . . He's been around long enough, too: Orlando is 11-1 since the All-Star break, led by O'Neal, upset by his MVP snub. "I'm sort of on a mission," he said after scoring 41 points against the Trail Blazers. "I still don't get your [press] respect. If I wanted politics in my life, I would be Senator Dole's right-hand man. I don't want politics. I shouldn't be paying these rookie dues anymore. I'm a four-year veteran."

The Dallas Mavericks, playing a small lineup with power forward Popeye Jones out, are launching almost 40 three-point baskets a night. "I'm an improviser," says Coach Dick Motta. "I've always been proud of that." . . . Another theory: The Mavericks, who started tanking before the All-Star break, don't care enough to run a play. What's there to be proud of? Motta gets credit for doing one of this season's crummiest coaching jobs, along with Denver's Bernie Bickerstaff. . . . Jackson, on the case for naming Rodman to the Olympic team: "He's blue, red and white all over."

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