No, the Detroit Pistons aren't to be confused with Welcome Wagon. And their power forward, Rick Mahorn, isn't Gandhi. This noted, let us go back to an important Central Division game in Cleveland on Feb. 28 between the Cavaliers and the Pistons, the teams with the two best records in the NBA. Mark Price, Cleveland's All-Star point guard, was fighting past a pick Mahorn had set near the top of the three-point arc. Mahorn, who's not much for manners on the court, unloaded an elbow to Price's head. Price went to the floor, got up, stayed in the game for a short while and then headed for the bench. He had suffered a concussion that would sideline him for two games, including a rematch between the Cavs and Pistons. ( Cleveland won the first 115-99; the Pistons, the second 96-90.)
"I don't see how he could have had a concussion," says Mahorn. "I barely brushed him. In the hole that would be considered a love tap. Hey, I don't have anything against Price."
That assessment of Mahorn's blow might surprise Price, and it definitely would surprise Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations, who fined Mahorn $5,000 for his love tap. The fine was Mahorn's third this season for playing too rough—total cost: $11,000—and it only enhanced his image as the NBA's chief bully. "I'll play, I'll help us win, if it kills me. If it kills you," he says.
Mahorn's buddy, Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, is another roughneck. Recently the two were jawing in the training room at the Pistons' new home. The Palace of Auburn Hills. Laimbeer watched the 6'8�", 252-pound Mahorn receive treatment for his back. Mahorn, who can play forward or center, had undergone surgery in July for a ruptured disk and since has had flare-ups of pain. The consensus among the Pistons—and even among some reputable NBA sources outside the state of Michigan—is that they would have beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in last season's championship series if Mahorn, not to mention the sore-ankled Isiah Thomas, hadn't been ailing. Mahorn was in such pain during the series, which Detroit lost in seven games, that one night he slept curled up in the corner of his room at the L.A. Marriott, because he couldn't find a comfortable way to sleep on the bed.
"Coach Horn, what were you last year anyway, 30 percent?" said Laimbeer. Mahorn's reply was a grimace. Later, he grimaced again while tying his shoes. He was in pain, but he hadn't received a flood of sympathy cards from other NBA cities. If good villains make good theater, Mahorn is one of the league's headliners.
The 30-year-old Mahorn has had run-ins, scowl-offs and dustups with the best of them, including Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, Larry Nance of the Cavaliers, five Chicago Bulls and their coach, Doug Collins, all at once, and even (gasp!) Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Who can forget the Mahorn hip that sent Bird sliding across the Silverdome floor in 1987? Certainly nobody who follows pro basketball. "Rick's thing is intimidation," says Steve Jones, who broadcasts NBA games for TBS. "The kind that wears on you. He wants you so agitated you forget the game."
New York Knick center Patrick Ewing, who played pickup games against Mahorn when Ewing was at Georgetown and now has to face him as a pro, says, "He's a great defender. He knows all the tricks. He can push you out, then pull the chair and make you fall flat on your butt. Until this day, when I play Rick Mahorn, I know it's going to be a war."
"My reputation is unfounded," says Mahorn. "I can play. I wouldn't have been in this league for nine years if I couldn't play. Thug this, enforcer that. I take 48 minutes very seriously, that's all. When you consider who I have to guard...."
Mahorn takes the opposition's low-post scorer. "That means Ewing, Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, Moses Malone and Mailman Malone—every night," says Mahorn. "You know anybody who wants that?"
"Rick brings a maturity, unselfishness and a glue to our club," says Detroit coach Chuck Daly. "We need that defensive rebounding, and we really need that low-post D."