On Nov. 30 the 76ers acquired Derrick Coleman, the immensely talented yet exceedingly frustrating power forward who tormented the Nets for five seasons by alternately showcasing his considerable skills and his considerable petulance. Sixers coach-general manager John Lucas, who has made a career of trying to salvage the reputations of wayward ballplayers, was convinced a change of scenery would turn Coleman around. "Don't worry," Lucas told Philadelphia owner Harold Katz. "He'll be different here."
Now, nearly two months later, Coleman hasn't challenged the 76ers' dress code, blown off team meetings or refused to enter a game, all lowlights on his New Jersey resume. That's because since the Nets traded him, along with Sean Higgins and Rex Walters, for Shawn Bradley, Greg Graham and Tim Perry, Coleman has suited up only six times.
On Dec. 9, just three days after whetting the appetites of his new employers with 17 points and 11 rebounds in his Sixers debut, a win over the Mavericks, Coleman landed awkwardly while lunging for a rebound against the Celtics, spraining his right ankle. Originally Coleman was expected to miss 10 days, but as of Sunday he remained on the sidelines and the reeling Sixers were 7-30.
The mercurial Katz has kept quiet in public. Yet privately, team sources say, he has sought assurances that his new star isn't dogging it. According to Lucas the injury is painfully real. "The ankle would have been better off broken," says Lucas. "It's so severely sprained it's going to take forever to be right." As coach, Lucas may not have forever; last week the 76ers were talking with former Celtics coach Chris Ford as a possible replacement.
Coleman tested the ankle against the Kings on Dec. 29 but experienced considerable pain and did not play in the second half. He tried again on Jan. 3, against the Warriors, with similar results. Lucas then persuaded Coleman to see a foot specialist. His ankle was placed in a cast on Jan. 10, and even though the cast was removed a week later, Lucas vowed he would not rush Coleman back into action. "We've tried him at 60 percent," Lucas says. "It's no good for him, and it's no good for this team."
Though Lucas refuses to fault Coleman for his injury, he is upset about his weight, which ballooned to as much as 280 pounds. Coleman has since made some dietary adjustments and, according to Lucas, is down to 269 pounds. But after taking that step forward, Coleman took another step back when he returned last Thursday from a visit to his hometown, Detroit, 24 hours later than Lucas had requested. Mark down Jan. 18 as the day Coleman logged his first official fine with Philadelphia. Said Lucas, "He's the leader of this team, and I expect him to act that way."
There is also a new condition attached to Coleman's earning minutes with the Sixers when—or, more ominously, if—he returns this season. "I will not allow Derrick Coleman to go out there again until his weight is down to 260," says Lucas. Does Coleman know about this? "He will when he reads this article," Lucas answers.
Net Loss—or Gain?
When Butch Beard accepted the Nets' coaching job at the beginning of last season, his starting lineup included Coleman and then All-Star point guard Kenny Anderson. Now, after New Jersey dealt Anderson and Gerald Glass to the Hornets for Kendall Gill and Khalid Reeves last Friday, he has neither. (The trade was put on hold Saturday after the Nets asked for more medical tests on Reeves, who has been suffering from a sprained ankle.) When asked if he would ever have guessed that both his franchise players would be dealt in less than a two-month span, a somber Beard answered, "I would have told you it would never happen."
So what does Beard have now? Six guards and a starting center ( Bradley) with a delicate psyche. New Jersey management insisted it had to trade Anderson—who had refused an offer of $40 million over six years—or face losing him to free agency next summer and getting nothing in return. But in this case, nothing actually might have been preferable to the alternative. The reasoning: With the best crop of free agents in NBA history about to become available, the Nets would have had Anderson's $3.9 million to spend if they had stood pat and watched Anderson walk away in July.