A Yugoslav center turned heads courtside-and Stateside
The elimination of the U.S. Dreamers' Team from the World Basketball Championships in Athens on Aug. 8 came with a dollop of d�j� vu. Against the Americans in the gold medal game of the 1972 Olympics, the Soviet Union threw a full-court pass for the winning layup as time ran out; this time, in a 66-64 semifinal victory, Russia struck over land, with forward Serguei Panov dribbling the length of the floor for a layup with four seconds to go. In Munich a referee made the final basket possible by putting three seconds back on the clock; in Athens no referee intervened when, after Panov's score, Vassilij Karassev pinned the ball to the floor behind the baseline as the clock ticked down. At least as much time as was given to the Soviets in '72 was taken from the Americans 26 years later, and a running three-pointer by Wendell Alexis of the U.S. dropped in just after the buzzer.
Despite the bitter finish, several of the CBA lifers, European league vagabonds and green collegians making up the American team caught the eyes of NBA scouts during their three weeks together—and not Alexis and Jimmy Oliver, the top U.S. scorers, both of whom were deficient defensively. Bird dogs couched their comments warily because of lockout-related restrictions, but scouts took note of Michael Hawkins, the 6-foot point guard who played last season with Olympiakos of Athens; of 6'9" power forward Gerard King, a banger who has filled out during two seasons with Fontanafredda of the Italian league; of 1998 CBA MVP Jimmy King, a 6'5" guard whose in-transition slam on a shovel pass from Hawkins on Aug. 8 gave the crowd a hint of a Dream Team floor show; and of Brad Miller, the 6'11" center out of Purdue who went undrafted in June. The first three are free agents; Miller signed with Livorno in Italy's Serie A—but with an out-clause if an NBA team shows interest after the lockout ends.
Easily the finest player of the tournament was 6'11" center Zeljko Rebraca of Yugoslavia, which beat Russia 64-62 on Sunday for the title, with Rebraca blocking a shot, scoring off a rebound and making two free throws in the closing minute. He has a reported $1.5 million deal with Italy's Benetton Treviso for the coming season, and Virtus Bologna is trying to lock him up for three years after that.
Minnesota holds the NBA rights to this fluid 25-year-old shot blocker and scorer (13.6 points a game in Athens) whom U.S. coach Rudy Tomjanovich calls "poised, strong and streamlined," and Rebraca is interested in joining the T-Wolves for the 1999-2000 season. A year ago he told Minnesota vice president Kevin McHale he didn't feel prepared for the NBA. "I think I'm ready now," Rebraca says. "After this season I think I'll be even more ready. I really want to play in the NBA. But I want to play. I don't want to sit on the bench." He also says he would expect to earn more than he's getting in Europe—all the more reason for the Timberwolves to make sure they can afford to pay players besides Kevin Garnett.
Malone Wears The Union Label
The biggest shock of last week's aborted NBA-labor negotiating session came not when the owners walked out, feigning indignation over the proceedings, but when Karl Malone walked into the press conference afterward and sat beside union executive director Billy Hunter in a show of solidarity. It was a curious about-face for a player who in 1995, during the league's last round of labor strife, had been a vocal critic of efforts by some of the league's other big stars to decertify the union so the players could pursue an antitrust suit against the league. At that time Malone not only exchanged barbs with Patrick Ewing (now the union president) over Ewing's hard-line labor stance but also wondered aloud why his peers were so greedy.
Yet there was Malone on Aug. 6, slapping Ewing on the back and vowing support. "It [supporting the union] isn't about helping Karl Malone," he says. "I'm going to get mine. But if you look at the history of the NBA, the leaders always left the next group of players with something better, from Dr. J to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson. I'd like to be part of that."
One of those legacies—the Larry Bird exception, which enables a team to re-sign a veteran free agent for any amount, regardless of the team's salary cap status—is the sticking point in these talks. The owners favor eliminating or modifying the rule; players want it left alone.
Malone hadn't been represented by an agent for the past decade, but he recently hired Dwight Manley, who also handles Dennis Rodman and Brian Williams. That could be bad news for the Jazz. Malone's contract (worth $6.2 million this season) expires next summer, but Malone says that he and Jazz owner Larry Miller had a secret agreement that would have circumvented the salary cap and paid Malone more than the rules allow. Now Malone says he wants no part of such deals.