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The NBA
Jack McCallum
April 13, 1992
Gliding to Barcelona
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April 13, 1992

The Nba

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Gliding to Barcelona

Well, let's see. Magic Johnson retired (sort of). Larry Bird missed 30 games, including one on Sunday against the Bulls, because of his back injury. David Robinson had surgery on his left thumb. Michael Jordan was called in to confer with commissioner David Stern about his alleged unsavory associations and gambling debts (page 11). And Charles Barkley has...well, never mind. Yes, it has been an eventful year for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which has yet to go through even a two-lane layup drill.

The funny thing, though, is that at this point there's an excellent chance the original 10 NBA stars who were selected last September will all make it to the gate in Barcelona, barring new injuries. Magic effectively came out of retirement with his performance at the All-Star Game, while Bird has been, at times, as brilliant as ever since his return to the Celtics lineup last month. Robinson should be back by mid-May (it's anybody's guess, though, whether or not his Spurs will still be around); in case he's not, the Cavaliers' Brad Daugherty almost certainly would take his place on the Olympic roster. Jordan's off-the-court difficulties have had no effect on his play, and Barkley will be fine as long as 76er owner Harold Katz and certain of Barkley's teammates aren't around.

And who will be the 11th NBA player to join this select group? (The U.S. Olympic team will probably include 11 players from the NBA and one from the college ranks.) Insiders with knowledge of the selection process say the NBA player will almost certainly be the Trail Blazers' Clyde Drexler. The selection committee was hoping he would have an excellent season so it could in good conscience pick a player from Portland, the site of the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament from June 27 to July 5, and the Glide responded. Anyway, picking a shooting guard to back up Jordan is a necessity.

The announcement of the two roster additions—the final NBA selection and the college player—was originally to be made in mid-April, after the NCAA tournament, but Olympic and Piston coach Chuck Daly insisted it be delayed until the first or second week of May. It's going to be hard enough to drag the Pistons through a likely first-round encounter with Boston, Daly reasoned, without dealing with the probable Olympic exclusion of his three stars, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman.

Hakeemgate

The most farfetched scenario suggested by various media and league people for the Hakeem Olajuwon-Rockets civil war holds that the All-Star center was actually in cahoots with management to keep the Rockets out of the playoffs and thus eligible for a lottery pick. The evidence does not support such a conclusion, considering the uneasy relationship that has long existed between Olajuwon and his employers, as well as the downright nasty tenor of the recent and as yet unresolved contretemps over an injury to Olajuwon's left hamstring. The Rockets, who essentially accused Olajuwon of faking the injury and using it as a renegotiating ploy, had suspended him on March 23 for three games, which resulted in his losing about $46,000 per game. For his part, Olajuwon had called general manager Steve Patterson, among other things, "stupid" and "unqualified for his job."

This much is certain: If the Rockets fail to qualify for the playoffs—as of last weekend they were 1½ games behind the Lakers for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot—Olajuwon's five-game absence will be considered the major reason.

The Rockets were holding the eighth spot on March 17 when, in the fourth quarter of a game at home against the Clippers, Olajuwon complained of tenderness in his hamstring. He played on, and the Rockets won 100-92. But Olajuwon missed the next five games—despite being cleared to play for the last three by team physician Charles Baker—and the Rockets lost all five, enabling the undermanned but overachieving Lakers to pass them. Olajuwon returned last week for a showdown at The Summit against the Lakers, but even his 20 points, 16 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals could not prevent the Rockets' 107-101 defeat. The Lakers will probably make the playoffs even with Magic Johnson missing the entire season and three other starters (Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Sam Perkins) missing big parts of it. Meanwhile the Rockets are sinking to mediocrity with Olajuwon. That says everything about the differences between the two franchises.

The Olajuwon situation will not go away, even if the Rockets do on April 19, the last day of the regular season. For two weeks the imbroglio was front-page news in Houston, reaching even city hall, with city councilmen John Goodner and Vince Ryan taking the Rockets' side and Bob Lanier—the city's mayor, not the Hall of Fame basketball player—standing foursquare behind Hakeem. "I love Hakeem Olajuwon," Hizzoner told the Houston Chronicle. "He gave me a basketball for my birthday."

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