Portland trail Blazers coach P.J. Carlesimo sat in the mid-afternoon Miami traffic last Friday, getting nowhere except further behind schedule. What he thought would be a quick errand—arranging to have extra tickets for that night's game against the Miami Heat left for some friends—had taken longer than he had expected, and now here he was on his car phone, already late for his next appointment and apologizing profusely to the person on the other end. "I thought I was being smart," he said. "But things got a little complicated. You think you know what you're getting into, and then it turns into something else."
Carlesimo could just as easily have been talking about his troubled tenure as the Blazers' coach. When he left Seton Hall to take the Portland job last season, he thought he knew what he was getting into, that the adjustment from coaching inexperienced college kids to handling highly paid veterans wouldn't be smooth. But lately his stewardship has turned into something else—something uglier. The Blazers' 115-89 loss to the Orlando Magic last Saturday dropped them to 2-9 since the All-Star break and 26-33 overall, and it left them mired in ninth place in the Western Conference; had the season ended last weekend, Portland would have been out of the playoffs. But the Blazers weren't merely losing, they were collapsing. NBC analyst Steve Jones, a former Portland player who has also been the Blazers' local television commentator for 13 years, said last week that the team had "a major storm brewing, like Hurricane Andrew."
Anger appears to be the prevailing emotion among the Blazers these days. There have been at least two locker room scuffles in recent weeks—a bizarre, postpractice flare-up between forward Clifford Robinson and guard James Robinson, who were both undressed and preparing to shower at the time, and a brief dispute between forwards Gary Trent and Dontonio Wing-field. When boxer Roy Jones Jr. visited the Blazers' locker room after Portland had halted a three-game slide by beating Miami 102-88, he might well have been looking for sparring partners.
The hometown fans have also been the target of some of the Blazers' ire. Forward Clifford Robinson, Portland's leading scorer (22.0 average at week's end), was outraged when spectators at the Blazers' new Rose Garden arena booed him during the second half of a 3-for-13 shooting performance in a 108-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 20. He might be ready for a trade, Robinson declared, "if I have to put up with this s—-." But the angriest man in Portland has been Rod Strickland, the talented point guard whose relationship with his coach seemed to go sour on the day Carlesimo took over the Blazers. Or maybe before that. But there's no doubt that the dispute reached its boiling point on Feb. 22, the day of the league's trading deadline, when Strickland, upset that Portland hadn't fulfilled his demand to be dealt, went AWOL and the Blazers responded by suspending him indefinitely without pay. Strickland, at week's end Portland's second-leading scorer at 19.3 points a game and third in the league in assists (9.5), lost⅛2 of his $2.28 million salary, or about $27,805, for each of the six games he missed. Through Sunday the suspension had cost him $166,830.
On Monday, Strickland, who had declined interview requests from SI, finally showed up at the Blazers' practice in Portland and pledged to play out the remainder of the season. But it was probable that he and Carlesimo did not have a long-term future together. "I don't think it can ever be completely resolved, not at this point," says forward Harvey Grant, Strickland's closest friend on the Blazers. "There's too much bad blood. Rod will be back to finish the season, but after that, well, something's probably going to have to happen."
Strickland wanted something to happen before the trading deadline. His antagonism toward Carlesimo dates at least as far back as last March, when Carlesimo benched him for missing a team flight—"I don't like him, and you can write that," Strickland said at the time—and it may go back even further, to a relatively minor incident at the 1988 Olympic trials. Carlesimo was helping to run the tryouts, and Strickland, who had just finished an All-America junior season at DePaul, was auditioning for a spot on the Olympic team, which he ultimately failed to make. The way Strickland remembers it, he was slighted in some of the scrimmages and drills that Carlesimo ran.
But Strickland wasn't nearly as enraged then as he was the day before the trading deadline, when he was hit with a $3,100 fine for missing several mandatory weightlifting sessions during the season. "Any trade rumors?" he angrily and profanely asked a reporter. "Me for [Minnesota Timber-wolves guard] J.R. Rider? Whatever. They'd better get rid of me." The next day he warned that if a trade wasn't made, his relationship with Carlesimo could get "very ugly."
Blazers president Bob Whitsitt maintains that only in the hours before the trade deadline did Strickland ever ask to go elsewhere. "I asked Rod last summer if he wanted to be traded, and right to my face he said that he didn't, that he felt he could work out whatever problems he had with P.J.," says Whitsitt. "I asked him again about two weeks before the deadline, and he said he didn't want to go anywhere. Then a day and a half before the deadline, he came in and demanded a trade."
Strickland's agent, Mark Termini, calls the assertion that there had been no earlier trade requests "inaccurate," claims that there were "numerous meetings" with Whitsitt about Strickland's displeasure and believes that relations between Carlesimo and Strickland had long before deteriorated to the point where Strickland shouldn't have needed to openly ask for a trade. "If it were pouring down rain in Portland and Bob was walking down the street," Termini says, "would he need me to tap him on the shoulder and tell him to put up his umbrella?"
Whitsitt says that the Blazers never came to the brink of making a deal for Strickland, who has two years remaining on his $12.6 million contract. But according to sources around the league, a trade with Denver that would have included Nuggets guard Jalen Rose and forward Reggie Williams fell apart when the Blazers wanted forward LaPhonso Ellis included in the package. And after Strickland's furious reaction to the fine for missing the weightlifting sessions, the Blazers contacted Minnesota about a trade in which Rider and Strickland would have been the principals. But no deal was made, which suggests that Carlesimo wants to make one last attempt to mend his relationship with Strickland and that Whitsitt is unwilling to trade him for less than equal value. "If we sit down at the end of the season when everyone has a cooler head and Rod tells me he wants out, then we can take our time and determine what would be the best deal," Whitsitt says. "But I can't tell you how many guys have screamed for a trade in the middle of the year and then been grateful after the season that they didn't get what they asked for. We still think there's a chance Rod will be one of those guys."