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Driving For a Title
Jack McCallum
May 11, 1992
Clyde Drexler, now no worse than the NBA's No. 2 player, is gearing up to take Portland to the top
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May 11, 1992

Driving For A Title

Clyde Drexler, now no worse than the NBA's No. 2 player, is gearing up to take Portland to the top

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On the court, yes, it was once true that Drexler was given to bad decision-making, even though his mistakes often came in spectacular packaging. But, be it the coaching change, hard work, maturity or a combination of all those things, every part of Drexler's game has steadily improved—shot selection, passing, court vision, defense. "You used to be able to count on spells of inconsistency from him," said Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka shortly before Drexler destroyed his team in Game 4. "I don't see those now, and I wish I did."

Though the Blazers' Terry Porter had somewhat of an off year, he is still among the top half-dozen point guards in the league, yet Drexler, the team's shooting guard, had more assists (512 to 477) than Porter during the season and had 34 compared to 21 for Porter in the Laker series. The fact that Drexler is now both a shooting and a passing threat when he posts up gives the Blazers a flexibility that only a few teams have ever enjoyed. (Two of those teams come to mind immediately: the Boston Celtics when Larry Bird was healthy and, of course, the Lakers when Magic Johnson was playing.) And then there is Drexler's sudden emergence as a three-point threat. He doesn't really fit the description of a long-range bomber, being a take-it-to-the-basket guy with a less than picturesque form on his jumper, but he made 34% of his 338 three-point attempts during the season. "Most of the time the three-point shooters are not great drivers," said Bertka. "When you have both those aspects, like Drexler does, the defense has big trouble."

The expression that many observers use to describe what has happened to Drexler's game is "toned down." Drexler insists that his style was never "toned up" enough to need toning down. But he's keenly aware that his natural ability has been a cudgel with which his detractors have knocked his play. "He's got talent," they would say, "but he doesn't know how to channel it." That criticism still drives Drexler crazy. Placidly crazy, but crazy nevertheless.

"Athleticism is something you work on to achieve the maximum results," says Drexler. "I came out of college with a 43-inch vertical jump, and I think I could still reach that on a day when I'm totally injury-free. But don't you think I worked on that jump every single day? I think I could run a 4.4 40 today, too. But strength, speed, all those things, I worked on. I was a gym rat, just like any of those other guys who supposedly didn't have much natural ability. The guys I consider superior athletes are people like Jerry Rice, Michael [ Jordan] and Hakeem [Olajuwon], guys who are obviously naturally talented but who also have a high skill level. I'd like to be considered in their class."

Drexler, the fourth of Eunice Scott's seven children, claims to have been short and chubby in his early years in Houston, as hard as it might be to conjure up a rotund Clyde the Glide. When he was 12, he began taking martial-arts lessons from an older friend in the neighborhood, and his coordination and confidence improved. That he grew to 6'6" by the time he was a high school senior didn't hurt, either. He learned basketball from a brother, James, four years his elder, a six-footer whose high school athletic career was cut short by work responsibilities. "The funny thing is that James had one of these picture-perfect jump shots, high, high arc, perfect form, the whole thing," says Drexler. "Exactly what my jumper doesn't look like."

Drexler played one season of high school baseball, as well as a lot of sandlot football, but he eventually gave up those sports to concentrate on basketball. (Today he's an excellent tennis player and an improving golfer.) "All you heard back then was to concentrate on one sport, and I think I got caught up in that," says Drexler. "My one regret is that I didn't get a chance to play two sports at a pro level. Baseball, maybe, or even football, as a quarterback or wide receiver."

Drexler was raised in the Crestmont section of Houston. His mother was head cashier, and his stepfather, Manuel Scott, a butcher for the same large supermarket chain. All the Drexler children attended college. One sister, Denise Drexler, is a city auditor in Galveston, Texas, while sweet-shooting James owns a barbecue restaurant in Houston. When Clyde went to the University of Houston, where he later became one of the fabled Phi Slamma Jammas, he wasn't escaping from anything, didn't feel angry or trapped, and never thought he had to become a professional athlete to be a success. Jordan and Magic, to name two, came from similarly unpressured backgrounds, but their competitiveness has never been questioned, as Drexler's once was.

"Clyde plays with as much fire and determination as any player in the league," says Adelman. "Just because he's laid-back off the court or doesn't seek recognition or hasn't been one of the superstars the league has chosen to market, doesn't change that. He's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever known."

If anything, Drexler was accused of being overly competitive, even foolhardy, for playing in a late-season game against Seattle last month despite a badly sprained right knee. As he dressed for the trip home after Game 4 against the Lakers, a giant ice bag strapped to his knee made a small puddle beneath his feet. The knee doesn't bother him during games, but it tends to swell and must be drained from time to time. On Sunday he looked longingly at his sleek black loafers but shook his head and instead laced up a pair of sneakers. "Can't wear shoes after games," said Drexler, pointing to an ugly raised bump on his left foot. "I don't know exactly how I got this, but it won't go away." He smiled and shrugged. "Well, it's that time of year."

And what time of year is it for the Blazers? Time for a playoff fadeout? Or time to play for the championship that eluded them in 1990 when the Detroit Pistons beat them in five games? At the very least, Portland will have to make it to the NBA Finals for the season not to be considered disappointing. Drexler has clearly removed any remaining "duh" from his game and replaced it with a resounding "wow!" But he will feel fulfilled only if his team can do the same.

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