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Jay Vincent limped into Dallas' Reunion Arena on a strained left knee, before a Maverick shootaround. Two nights earlier he had limped to 23 points in 37 minutes against the Houston Rockets. Indeed, on the night he suffered the injury—almost a month ago, late in the first half of a game against the New York Knicks—he had scored 40 points, shooting nine-for-nine from the field in the third quarter. The knee needed rest, but Vincent said, "I'd prefer not to sit out now...if you know what I mean."
We know. Before breaking a bone in his right foot last Dec. 9, fellow rookie Forward Mark Aguirre was averaging 23.6 points a game and was a contender for Rookie of the Year—a position Vincent now shares with Buck Williams, Kelly Tripucka and Isiah Thomas. Averaging 26.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in the 39 games he's started since Aguirre was injured, Vincent has been virtually unstoppable.
Except by Aguirre. In his first full workout after returning from his injury, Mark was the player on the floor most sought after by the media. For Vincent the scene brought back familiar memories, but nothing to be concerned with at present. Aguirre is coming off the bench and still not playing at peak efficiency, and when he does begin to cook it may be on a back burner to Vincent. "You can forget about playing team defense when you guard Vincent," says the Knicks' Campy Russell, who tried to guard him when he popped for 40. "You're too busy to help out on other players." Especially when the other players are intent upon getting the ball to Vincent. "Jay's been my meal ticket because he helps me so much," says Allan Bristow, a nine-year veteran who is second in assists behind Boston's Larry Bird among NBA non-guards. "Teams are so worried about him inside that they don't play me tough outside. That just gives me an easier lane to pass the ball to Jay. I could take that shot, but I know I'm never going to lead the league in scoring [he averages seven points a game]. If Jay can hit 70% of the time he gets the ball around the basket, then why not give it to him?"
At 6'7", 230 pounds, Vincent is already one of the NBA's best power forwards. "I'm effective from anywhere in the post," he says. "I don't think anyone can stop me from four feet on in. They either let me score or foul me."
It's hard to believe now, but Vincent wasn't the Mavericks' first choice for a hired gun. Or the second. Much to his chagrin, Aguirre and Guard Rolando Blackman were picked ahead of him. Vincent was the Mavs' first choice in the second round, the 24th player picked overall. He was so sure he'd be taken in the first round that on the day of the draft he invited about 15 friends to his home in Lansing, Mich. to what he thought would be an early celebration. "It was heartbreak time," Vincent says. "All the fellas were trying to cheer me up, but there was just no cheer there."
Maverick Coach Dick Motta, who had considered taking Vincent with the ninth pick in the first round but instead chose Blackman, was happy to find Vincent available on the second round. Motta was also surprised to see Elston Turner of Mississippi, who has become his starting off-guard, available on the second. Dallas quickly grabbed him, too, although by now Motta was doubting himself. "We'd gotten four players we thought very highly of when we expected only two. I began to wonder if there were some flaws in our scouting system."
Motta wasn't assuaged when he saw Vincent work out in Dallas' preseason rookie camp. While Aguirre was playing like the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Turner and Brad Davis were reviving memories of Motta's Chicago backcourt combination of Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, Vincent was sluggish and overweight. "He was a disappointment at first, not in his ability but in his attitude," Motta says. "He said he was upset about the draft, but he came in too heavy to show why it was wrong."
"We just didn't get along at first," Vincent says of Motta. "It was like I was over here and he was over there." As Aguirre got off to his scintillating early start, Vincent struggled. Limited to about 19 minutes a game, Vincent was acting as if "it was the last 19 minutes I'd ever get," he says. "I thought the world would end if I didn't score 20 points or get 30 rebounds."
As much as anything else it was a "little thing" that made a believer out of Motta. Against Milwaukee on Jan. 20, Vincent took an elbow that left him with a nasty gash over his right eye, requiring four stitches. Before the game had ended, though, Vincent was back in the lineup. Perhaps the medical attention inspired the nickname Doctor Jay, but Vincent objected. "It just didn't sound right," he says. "It would be like calling another player the Iceman."
With all due respect to Lamont Cranston, the Shadow would be a perfect nickname for Vincent. Whether fighting for recognition or fighting on the street, Vincent has always lived in the shadows. As one of six brothers growing up in Lansing, Jay was off limits for the neighborhood bullies. When not protecting each other from the wolves, the Vincent siblings competed for the attention of their parents, Sylvester, who died in 1972, and Ella.