The conservative thinking was that Christian Laettner, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon last September, would not play this season. But Laettner, who came to Detroit in a sign-and-trade deal with Atlanta on Jan. 22, made his Pistons debut on March 17. His numbers were modest (8.5 points, 4.3 rebounds per game), but his impact was felt almost immediately. He brashly called a team meeting less than two weeks into his Detroit tenure to urge his new teammates to adopt a more professional approach. The result: The Pistons won six straight with him in the lineup. "He's different," says Detroit's franchise player, Grant Hill, who also teamed with the notoriously prickly Laettner at Duke, "but he wants to win, and he knows how to win, and we needed some of that."
At week's end Laettner was on the shelf again, this time with a broken rib he suffered on April 1, but he is expected to be back before the playoffs begin. While Laettner is a true power forward, he has logged minutes at center everywhere he has played, and the Pistons hope that his return will spur center Bison Dele into a more conscientious effort in games and practices. Dele's lackadaisical style has frustrated his teammates, including Hill.
Laettner knows plenty about being unpopular. His previous gig was in Atlanta, where he averaged a career-low 13.8 points per game and lost his starting job to Alan Henderson. Ask Laettner what led to his departure from the Hawks and, predictably, he pulls no punches. "[ Atlanta vice president and general manager] Pete Babcock told me the media ran me out of town," Laettner says.
Babcock says he never said anything of the sort, adding that the Hawks were interested in re-signing Laettner and that trading him was "a business decision based on a difference of opinion on his value." In other words, Atlanta decided that Laettner's not as good as he thinks he is.
Detroit thinks Laettner is plenty good and looks forward to having him for the postseason, aware that his strong play comes with his strong opinions. "As long as the guy backs it up," says Pistons coach Alvin Gentry, "it's fine with me."
The Fine Line
Kendall Gill, Nets
April 3 versus Miami: 40 minutes, 6-of-15 FG, 3-of-6 FT, 15 points, 10 rebounds, 11 steals. Gill, the subject of constant trade rumors under former coach John Calipari, had the third triple double of his career (his first as a Net) and tied the NBA record for steals in an 88-77 New Jersey win. Gill also blocked two shots and had no turnovers.