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This year's fish-out-of-water story belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where a guy nicknamed alter a rap star seems to have stumbled onto the set of lice Haw. You can picture the confusion: The Cavs snapping their suspenders at the sight of this citified apparition in an electric-yellow suit. "Where did you get that?" wonders a befuddled teammate watching the ever-worldly Gerald Wilkins—a guy once featured in the pages of GQ—turn himself into a walking neon sign. "Houston," says Wilkins (a.k.a. Doug E. Fresh). The Cavs, who don't quite wear bib overalls but who do favor cowboy boots over tasseled loafers, sigh in collective relief. To a man, they were afraid such togs might be available in Cleveland.
Such is the uneasy—but getting much easier—condition of the Cavs, perennial runners-up to the Chicago Bulls in the Central Division. They're the team with no flash, no bash and, after numerous playoff failures, no stash of championship rings. For years the Cavaliers have enjoyed a close-knit anonymity, winning enough games when they've been free of injuries to retain a healthy respect in the NBA but losing enough when they weren't to discourage national attention. They've been highly skilled (this year three of them were repeat All-Stars), if unspectacular, absurdly well coached by Lenny Wilkens and absolutely content in their middle-market obscurity. For seven years they've been the most-comfortable and most-unnoticed team in the league.
And here comes Wilkins, their Cousin Vinny, striding about in his gaudy fashion, Doug E. Fresh out of New York—demonstrative, athletic, a bit out of control, an urban nightmare come to the most rural team since that outfit in Hoosiers.
Has he fit in? From the day he arrived he has been a discomfiting walking headline, promising "to get in Michael Jordan's jock" and to "become one of the main men around here" and, of course, complaining about his playing time. The rest of the Cav starters, schooled together for six seasons in Wilkens's team concept, have been agog.
But if Wilkins has been an amazement to his teammates in Cleveland, they have been puzzling to him, too. "All they want to do", says Wilkins, "is fish and race cars." He shakes his impeccably groomed noggin. "I feel like Doc Hollywood."
This is not to say that the Cavs' newfound chemistry isn't working, however. As in all good fish-out-of-water stories, there are dramatic stages in this one—initial distrust, begrudging cooperation and then, almost too late, full-fledged brotherhood. We're almost to that part. The happy ending of an NBA championship remains in doubt, but a few more months like February, when the Cavs went 12-1, and the story will be screen-ready. And if Wilkins, who is now the starting forward, averaging 10.8 points as of Sunday, and who has become fairly selfless, fits in any better, he'll be singing gospel songs with teammate Mark Price, putting together dragsters with Larry Nance and helping John (Hot Rod) Williams assemble his little Styrofoam subdivisions (about which, more later). O.K., but this is a fish-out-of-water story, not science fiction. Still, at week's end, as the Cavs were completing a 3-2 road trip that left them within 2½ games of Chicago, anything seemed possible. "I'm getting so comfortable here," Wilkins says. "I may finally start spending my money."
Cleveland was plenty good before Wilkins arrived. In two of the last four seasons, they won 57 games; last season they reached the Eastern Conference finals, where they pushed the Bulls to six games. And they have always been—for Clevelanders, anyway—a pleasure to watch. General manager Wayne Embry, mindful of Cleveland's blue-collar work ethic, has been careful over the years to create a team that "signified the city—hardworking, not a lot of pizzazz." The stolid play of Nance, Price, Brad Daugherty and Craig Ehlo was greatly appreciated by the townsfolk, if not by many fans elsewhere, but the Cavs were nobody's idea of Showtime. Even they admit that.
"I'm not a great athlete like Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson," says Daugherty, Cleveland's 7-foot center. "I'm just not a running, jumping kind of player." There is nothing about his game, which the casual fan sees as a series of soft hooks and jumpers, that is terribly exciting. Yet he does lead the Cavaliers in scoring (20.3 a game) and rebounds (10). And he leads NBA centers in that all-unassuming statistic, assists (4.3). "I'm not the kind of player somebody's going to name a shoe after," says Daugherty.
He is typical of the Cavs in other ways, too. He's country, from a farm in Black Mountain, N.C. He loves—sorry, Gerald—fishing and racing. He wears number 43 in homage to Richard Petty and even used to sponsor a race car, although he gave that up three years ago when it occurred to him that his principal role in the operation was writing checks. "I had to get me a new hobby," he says, "like children." He has two. His principal role in that operation also is writing checks.
About the only time you really notice Daugherty, a five-time All-Star now in his seventh season, is when he's not in the game. During the 1989-90 season he missed 41 games, and the Cavs drifted from their 57-25 record of the season before to 42-40. Even this season, when he missed nine games in November with tendinitis in his left knee, Cleveland won on only three occasions.