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Once a prime-time player, a slashing swingman who averaged 29.8 points for the Detroit Pistons six seasons ago, Jerry Stackhouse is now a bystander when the Dallas Mavericks announce their lineup to pyrotechnics and ear-splitting noise at American Airlines Center. His sweats on, he rolls his shoulders and jogs in place as the starters' names are called, knowing he won't be needed until midway through the first quarter, at the earliest. "Sometimes over on the bench you stiffen up a little bit when you don't get in right away," says Stackhouse. "But it's just something to deal with." � And he is dealing with it well. Stackhouse is among the favorites to win the Sixth Man Award, an honor with which, like most sixth men, he would rather not be favored. "I can't speak for everyone," says Stackhouse, who was averaging 11.5 points at week's end and erupted for a team-high 33 in the Mavs' 129--127 double-overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns on March 14, "but I'd rather be starting."
Stackhouse finds himself sitting out the intros because the value of the sixth man, which had bottomed out in recent years, is on the rise again. For the last seven weeks Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been bringing Manu Gin�bili, arguably San Antonio's best player after Tim Duncan, off the bench. (Gin�bili was averaging 18.1 points in that span, compared with 16.9 overall.) "A lot of guys who have won the award have been [de facto] starters," says Gin�bili's teammate Brent Barry, one of two players (along with Michael Finley) who filled the supersub role when Gin�bili was in the opening lineup. "They're playing starter minutes, 36 or 37, and the starting guy is playing 14."
To be eligible for the Sixth Man Award, a player simply must "come off the bench in more games than he starts." By the end of the season that standard may apply to Gin�bili. For now, Stackhouse's main competition is Leandro Barbosa, perhaps the quickest player in the league. The Suns' fourth-year combo guard from Brazil was averaging 17.4 points and 4.2 assists at week's end, and he led Phoenix in scoring in three straight wins earlier this month. In other words, the three best teams in the West--and in the league--have superior sixth men.
So do two of the top clubs in the East. Anderson Varej�o, a 6'10" forward, causes a sort of constructive chaos when he enters the fray for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And the surprising Toronto Raptors have been bolstered by 7-foot sharpshooter Andrea Bargnani, the top pick in the 2006 draft, who was averaging 11.5 points. But a winning atmosphere is not necessary for a productive sixth man; even on teams just scrapping to make the playoffs, there can be found ready, willing and able firemen. "I have only one thought when I go in there, and that's to play harder than anybody else," says the New York Knicks' 6'9" forward David Lee, who is averaging a double double--11.2 points and 10.7 rebounds--on the season (12 starts) but has not played since developing a stress reaction in his right leg on Feb. 23. "I have to. They've been going at it for a while, and I'm trying to catch up."
When healthy, Lee, an overcaffeinated version of Varej�o, will grab rebounds, follow missed shots, dive for loose balls and play ferocious interior defense. (Merely in his kinetic energy he's a contrast to Knicks center Eddy Curry, whose D runs the gamut from indolent to indifferent.) Lee fulfills the classic role of a sixth man: to turn up the heat on the court and in the building. The Madison Square Garden fans begin cheering for him as soon as he rises from the bench, and by the time he reaches the scorer's table they're going nuts. "I don't even have to look up from my computer," says Howard Beck, who covers the team for The New York Times, "because I know it's for David."
In all likelihood, and for a variety of reasons (as we'll see), none of these players are on a course to become a long-term sixth man in the tradition established by the Boston Celtics. The most famous Shamrock of the pine is 6'5" swingman John Havlicek, who was a sixth man at the start of his 16-year Hall of Fame career, which began in 1962. But he was not the Celtics' first. That honor belonged to Frank Ramsey, a 6'3" swingman whom coach Red Auerbach used in the role from the mid-1950s until Havlicek's arrival. "It just kind of evolved," says Ramsey, 75, from his home in Madisonville, Ky. "I don't even remember anyone talking about it until maybe my third year. 'Hey, you're a great sixth man,' I'd hear. 'O.K.,' I'd say, 'I'm a sixth man.'"
Ramsey was a terrific offensive player--he averaged 13.4 points over his nine-year career and was elected to the Hall of Fame--but he couldn't beat out Bob Cousy or Bill Sharman at guard, or Tommy Heinsohn at forward. He might have been a better all-around player than Boston's other starting forward, Jim Loscutoff, but Auerbach liked Loscy's size, not to mention his willingness to inflict pain and suffering on opponents.
Because Heinsohn got gassed easily--he was a heavy smoker-- Ramsey usually made his entrance in the first quarter. And since he came in for a player known as Tommy Gun, Ramsey knew he had to put points on the board. "Maybe it was because I was playing against other reserves, but it did seem like I was open a lot," says Ramsey. "Of course, the way we ran and Bill [Russell] rebounded, most of us were open a lot."
Havlicek, Boston's alltime leading scorer, was the NBA's top reserve through the 1960s, but the role remained fairly uncommon for another decade. The league presented its first Sixth Man Award in '83, to Philadelphia 76ers forward Bobby Jones. Marc Iavaroni, now a Suns assistant coach, had a serviceable seven-year career as a power forward, but he is remembered only for being a ceremonial starter on a championship team. "Nobody ever had to tell me that Bobby was better than me," says Iavaroni. "I knew it myself."
The list of All-Star-caliber players who won the Sixth Man Award continued: Boston big men Kevin McHale and Bill Walton, Milwaukee Bucks swingman Ricky Pierce (the only winner to lead a team in scoring, with 23.0 points per game in 1989--90), Phoenix forward Eddie Johnson, Indiana Pacers forward Detlef Schrempf and Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc. The position was so capably filled that any number of outstanding subs never won the award: Vinnie Johnson, nicknamed the Microwave because he heated up so fast for the championship Detroit Pistons teams of '89 and '90; Michael Cooper, a three-point specialist and defensive ace on three Los Angeles Lakers title teams; and Thurl Bailey, an outstanding all-around forward who came off the bench for the Utah Jazz for six seasons beginning in 1985--86.