Spurs coach Bob Hill may want his newest guard, Vernon Maxwell, to "punch somebody" this season, but the player formerly known as Mad Max dismisses Hill's flippant remark with a chuckle. While Maxwell has thrown a haymaker or two in his time, including the infamous blow he dealt a heckler in Portland two seasons ago, he insists his fists are now unclenched for good. "I'm through with all that," he says. "I'm trying to save some money now, so I need to cut down on my fines."
Spoken like a Mild Max or, as he prefers to be called, "just plain Vernon." Hill and San Antonio general manager Gregg Popovich don't care what he calls himself as long as the 6'4" Maxwell injects a bit of his well-known combativeness into the mild-mannered Spurs. When push comes to shove, they don't shove back—or at least they haven't in the playoffs the past two years. Popovich was particularly incensed at how meekly San Antonio fell to the Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals last season, so he signed the feisty Maxwell in August. This will be Max's second tour of duty with the Spurs; he spent his first NBA season and a half in San Antonio, beginning in 1988-89.
The signing is a good barometer of how desperate the Spurs are to "get a little bit of a swagger," as Popovich puts it. Maxwell, 31, comes with a rap sheet that would give any general manager pause. He has been fined by the NBA nine times, for everything from throwing his chewing gum at a referee to slugging that fan in Portland. The latter drew a $20,000 fine and a 10-game suspension. In addition Maxwell was docked by law courts for pleading no contest to a 1993 charge of resisting arrest and in 1994 for illegally carrying a gun. Currently he is appealing a 90-day jail sentence he received last January for failing to complete rehabilitation and drug testing after he pleaded no contest to a charge of marijuana possession. As a member of the Rockets in 1994-95, he sulked so much over losing playing time to Clyde Drexler, who was acquired in midseason, that after the first game of the playoffs he and management agreed that he would leave the team.
"It's pretty obvious that this is a gamble," says Popovich. "But it's a gamble that we can afford. Vernon is both the most talented guy we could get and the most dangerous, but we have the kind of players on this team who can handle a player who's had a questionable career on and off the court." Popovich consulted center David Robinson, forward Sean Elliott and point guard Avery Johnson before signing Maxwell, and all three said they wanted to bring him back.
A candid discussion with Maxwell also helped persuade Popovich. "I said to him, 'Vernon, why in the hell am I even thinking about signing you? You're more trouble than you're worth,' " Popovich says. "He said to me, 'Coach Pop, I'm embarrassed. I've got three kids, and my oldest son [Vernon Jr., 10] reads things in the paper about me that I don't want him to read. I want all that to stop.' "
Popovich tried to include a clause in Maxwell's contract that would have prohibited the player from visiting Houston, the site of most of his legal woes, except when the Spurs played there. "The NBA office and the players' association had a good chuckle over that one," Popovich says. The league disallowed the clause. Popovich drew more laughs during a Rotary club speech when he described Maxwell's recent visit to the Popovich home. "My wife had him go through the metal detector at the front door," he said, "and of course we sent the children out of the house."
Maxwell can give the Spurs more than just a nastier attitude. He scored 16.2 points a game with the 76ers last season, and Hill will count on him to provide offense as the first guard off the bench. But Maxwell realizes his main mission is to firm up San Antonio's backbone in the playoffs. "We want to get to the point where everybody who steps on the court thinks he's the toughest guy on the floor and plays that way," he says. "Whatever I can do to help us get to that point, I'm going to do."
That sounds a bit like the old Mad Max. But then Maxwell slips into his new, less ornery persona, laughing again when asked if San Antonio will be his last stop. "I sure hope so," he says. "My wife told me she's tired of moving."