Whatever concerns the Detroit Pistons have as they head into the postseason, the attitude of Otis Thorpe is not one of them. When happy and content—as he is now after an extended flap with coach Doug Collins—the 6'10", 246-pound veteran power forward is a good soldier whose work ethic is as admirable as the way he executes the pick-and-roll. But when he feels he has been slighted, he can go into a funk.
Thorpe's dark side emerged during a Feb. 2 game against the Phoenix Suns at The Palace of Auburn Hills, when a sideline confrontation with Collins sparked a six-week stretch of strained relations. In a first-quarter timeout during a 106-97 loss to the Suns, Collins reportedly questioned—Thorpe would say ridiculed—his power forward's defensive commitment in front of the team, then later refused to discuss the incident with him, which only made Thorpe angrier.
Thorpe is normally an unselfish player who doesn't demand the ball or command the headlines. But he's also a proud man who believes there are times when he should receive his due. The Phoenix game was such a time. That evening he became the 43rd player in NBA history to play in at least 1,000 games. Friends and family, including Phyllis Freed, his agent and longtime mentor, had come in from out of town to help him celebrate.
In Thorpe's eyes, Collins made him look bad in front of people important to him. "For that to happen was totally uncalled-for," Thorpe said later. "I thought it was a special occasion for me, a positive situation, but it came out negative."
A golf fanatic, Thorpe might have heeded his own advice about that sport. "You can't concentrate on one bad hole too long," he likes to say, "or you'll ruin your round." Yet that's what he" did. Although he led the Pistons with 27 points that night, after his flare-up he went through the motions defensively and on the boards, finishing with just six rebounds. Over the next six weeks his offensive production dropped to 10.8 points per game from his previous average of 12.9.
Around the league some who know Thorpe weren't surprised. When he went to the Pistons from Portland in September 1995, his baggage included a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer, prone to griping and finger-pointing. "The guy can be like a wife," says a former colleague, "nagging all the time."
Not until Collins met with his power forward one-on-one before a road game in Cleveland on March 17 did the two patch things up. "We just sat and talked." Collins told the team's beat writers. "I told him how much we need him and that we can't win without him. What's happened to this franchise over the last two years—a major part of it is him. I wanted him to know that and to hear it from me."
That smoothed the situation. In the 10 games from March 17 on, Thorpe averaged 17.2 points.
But why did the incident last so long? And why does Thorpe seem so sensitive to slights, whether real or imagined? Freed, who has known him since he was 16, thinks she may have the answer. "There have been so many times in his life when he hasn't been treated with respect," she says. "I've counseled him about how to handle that."
Thorpe's youth in Boynton Beach, Fla., was marked by instability. His father and mother separated when he was 11, and his mother passed away when he was in his early teens, forcing him to move in with an aunt. As a teenager Thorpe had little firm ground in his life until he met Freed through her son, Chip, in 1979. The two boys became friends, and, says Phyllis, "we just sort of took him in."