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Some of those names belie a common perception about the role: that it is the province of out-on-the-floor players who handle the ball and can get their own shots quickly and often. That's what Ramsey and Havlicek did, though Havlicek was also a good defender. And both Vinnie and Eddie Johnson as well as Pierce fit that mold, as do Stackhouse, Barbosa and Gin�bili. But McHale was an inside scorer and Walton (by the 1985--86 season) was mostly an inside distributor. Jones was an all-arounder, as were Schrempf and Kukoc.
"What you have to provide in the role," says Cooper, "is something unique. The things that Havlicek did were the things that I tried to do, whether it was diving for a loose ball, rebounding, making an assist or scoring--something that wasn't happening before I got on the floor."
If today's teams do discover a catalyst off the bench, it's usually by accident. There has been no repeat Sixth Man Award winner since Schrempf earned his second in 1992, and over the last six years only two names--guards Bobby Jackson and Earl Boykins--have appeared more than twice in the top 10 of the voting. When the Knicks' season began, for example, coach Isiah Thomas was almost certain that guard Jamal Crawford would be his top reserve. "Heck, it's hard enough figuring out what your starting lineup is going to be," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "I wasn't nearly smart enough to know that LB [ Barbosa] would be a good sixth man. It just happened."
Streak-shooting Bulls guard Ben Gordon won the Sixth Man Award as a rookie in 2005 and got off to a quick start as Chicago's off-the-bench spark at the beginning of this season, leading the team in scoring. But coach Scott Skiles, needing more production early in games, inserted Gordon into the starting lineup in January. While the move has helped the Bulls surge in the standings, Skiles would have preferred to keep Gordon on ice. "[Coach] Don Nelson, my rookie year [with the Bucks], often said he felt naked without Ricky Pierce on the bench," says Skiles. "I understand that feeling."
Indeed, there are reasons that a good sixth man is hard to find. "Too many guys think they're better than the role," says Minnesota Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations McHale, who won the next two awards after Jones's. "All their agents are saying, 'Hey, my guy should start,' and their guy believes it." Players also tend not to be as versatile as some of the old-timers, and so it's not as easy to "mix and match combinations," as Miami Heat assistant Bob McAdoo, a sometime sixth man with the Lakers in the early '80s, puts it.
Then, too, expansion has diluted the talent pool. Most teams are structured to pay (or overpay) two superstars and slot in everyone else behind them. Coaches tend to build around those two players, maybe three, and not think so much about a starting five and a hot-handed sub. When Ramsey first came off the bench for the Celtics, there were eight teams in the league. He eyed the court and saw five guys whose numbers would eventually be hanging from the Boston Garden rafters. "I believed I was good enough to start," says Ramsey, "but when I looked who was in front of me, how could I complain?"
By contrast, when Memphis Grizzlies swingman Mike Miller, last season's Sixth Man winner, took a look from the bench he saw Pau Gasol and, well, Lorenzen Wright, Shane Battier, Eddie Jones and Chucky Atkins. Former coach Mike Fratello talked Miller into the role--and Miller, an offensive-minded type, performed it well--but he never thought for a minute that he wasn't the second-best player on the team, behind Gasol. "Mike told me from the beginning that I'd be finishing most games even if I wouldn't be starting them," says Miller, who has started all but one game this year, "and that helped me accept the role." (Virtually every sixth man, by the way, will find a way to mention that he finishes games.)
Even Stackhouse, coming off the pine for the league's best team, does not see himself as a reserve. "I still have goals I want to achieve, and that's why it's imperative to try to win [a title] right now," says Stackhouse, who is averaging--whaddya know?--the sixth-most minutes on the team. "Then I can really assess where I want to go forward. There's no doubt in my mind I could still play starter's minutes and help the team."
In truth, the desire of sixth men to be main men is consistent throughout the NBA's history. Even Cooper admits, "Being a sixth man made my career, but I would've preferred to start." This may be the season, however, in which that perception changes, particularly if a team with a strong one (like Dallas or Phoenix) wins the championship. And Gin�bili is really enhancing the idea of a super fireman. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 21 he scored 24 straight points, and two weeks ago the southpaw known for his corkscrew shots and his willingness to give up his body was named Western Conference player of the week. Gin�bili believes, in fact, that his minutes are more consistent as a sixth man.
Lee, though, is not at that point. He enjoys the idea that he can turn on a crowd and turn on a team just by rising from his seat--for now. "The other day a guy said to me, 'So, you must be ready to do this for your whole career,'" says Lee, "and I said, 'Whoa, dude, let's hold up on that.'"