The Off Center
Scores of college players worked as counselors at Red Auerbach's summer camp in 1991, but Georgia Tech center Matt Geiger clearly stood out. He was the only one who was accompanied to the gym every day by his personal trainer—and his mother. "He was a flake," recalls Chris Ford, who was then coach of the Celtics. "A good-hearted kid, but way out there. I never thought he'd have an NBA career. He didn't show anything on the court."
These days Ford coaches the Bucks, and he admits he needs someone just like the 7-foot, 245-pound Geiger, who in his sixth NBA season, has carved out a niche as an able—if slightly off-center—center. He runs the floor, rebounds in traffic and is capable of clamping down on some of the league's top big men. Not bad credentials to have in a free-agency year.
Geiger, 28, was a key to Charlotte's recent winning streak, which reached a franchise record 10 games before an 83-80 loss to Washington last Saturday. Since starting in place of Vlade Divac, who had surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee on Jan. 20, Geiger through week's end had averaged 14.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 53.0% from the floor. Although he's rarely the first or second offensive option for the Hornets, he has a knack for getting open for the dish when Charlotte's guards penetrate. "He's one of those guys who is always around the basket," says his coach, Dave Cowens.
The Hornets played so well with Geiger in the lineup that he remained there after Divac returned to action on Feb. 28. Geiger's success hardly squares with the image of the gawky college senior who underwhelmed the Celtics seven years ago. "I wasn't very aggressive, but I'm just the opposite now," says Geiger, whom Charlotte acquired from the Heat in the November 1995 deal that sent Alonzo Mourning to Miami. "I got to the point where I realized if I wanted to play professional basketball, it couldn't be for the fun of it. It had to be my job."
He gets support, in abundance, from his parents, Kay and Richard, who live in Clearwater, Fla., but frequently travel the country trailing the Hornets. The Charlotte players have dubbed the elder Geigers their official team chaperones. Kay gives them postgame hugs, while Richard joins them in the hotel bar for a brew or two. It perplexes Matt that people find his folks' devotion unusual. "My family is part of me," he says.
In 1992, when Matt's twin brother, Mark, lost his hair while undergoing chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin's disease, Matt shaved his head as a show of solidarity. Mark has been in remission for five years, but Matt keeps his pate bald as a tribute to his brother, whose illness has persuaded him to make the most of life. He had the words carpe diem tattooed on his ankle in '93 and has seized each game since with a sense of urgency.
Yet Geiger is hardly the sole reason Charlotte, which through Sunday's games was 40-24 and ranked fourth in the Eastern Conference, is flourishing. Sweet-shooting guard Dell Curry, who missed 29 games with a strained calf, is healthy again, and the backcourt of David Wesley and Bobby Phills, who both came to the Hornets as free agents this season, has finally gelled since I Phills' return from a groin injury on Feb. 20. "He plays both ends of the floor so hard," says general manager Bob Bass of Phills, who was sidelined for 14 games. "He really slows down two guards."
All-Star Glen Rice remains one of the league's most lethal shooters, and when Anthony Mason sticks to his gritty low-post game instead of grumbling about his shots or minutes, he's invaluable. "Early in the season Mase would get the rebound and then dribble down himself," says Wesley. "Now he's throwing a great outlet pass. He's listening to the play calls. That gets everyone involved."
Divac, like Geiger, will be a free agent this summer, and each will look for a monster deal. (Does Bryant Reeves and $11 million a year ring a bell?) While Bass hopes to re-sign both his big men, it's unlikely he will. Asked to choose between them, Cowens wrestles aloud with the decision. He loves Divac's soft hands, deft passing and experience. He loves Geiger's physicality, rambunctious-ness and live legs.