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They Can't Take Away His Dream : Clippers' Cage Is Finding His Way Around the NBA

June 17, 1985|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The name suggests entrapment, lack of freedom. But to Michael Cage, discovering the derivation of his name was a form of liberation.

Cage, who is part Cherokee Indian, learned not long ago that his great-grandfather was a medicine man. Actually, he lived sort of a double life. In addition to warding off evil spirits, the man made bird cages. People began to refer to him as the cage man. Thus was born a name that is almost perfect for a basketball player.

Delving further into his heritage during his recently completed rookie year with the L.A. Clippers, Cage discovered the presence of a cousin in Los Angeles named Oscar D. Flying Cloud. He is hopeful of picking up further insights when he drives home to West Memphis, Ark., next month. Cage plans stops at Indian settlements along I-40 in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"I want to explore the Indian part of my past," Cage said recently as he dined on a seafood platter at a harborside restaurant. "It's a quest for me, another area of discovery."

There isn't much Indian lore in the National Basketball Assn., except possibly for Robert (Chief) Parish of the Boston Celtics.

Cage's free-wheeling nature is at odds with his body, which complicates his life as a power forward. His soul wants to soar, but his feet can't keep up. He has always thought of himself as a dreamer, a visionary. Alone in a gym he can burst the cocoon of limitations that traps each man. Every shot, every move is possible.

Reality is considerably harsher. Cage, who dislikes confinement, spent much of the year on the Clipper bench. He sat brooding until the season's final stages, when he was freed by the ascension of Don Chaney, plus a newly found perimeter shot.

Chaney's return as head coach will help, but there are no guarantees on future playing time, even if Cage improves his shooting and his ability to run on the court.

Cage likes to discuss basketball, but basically he loves to talk, period. Even if there is some guy with a notebook or a tape recorder. Especially if there is a guy with a tape recorder.

As a kid, Cage's his goal was to procure a new tape recorder every year, and his happiest times were spent making up stories about men who could fly and dictating them into one of his machines.

He has always been enamored by the sound of his own voice. If that suggests he ought to be in radio or television, well, he is moving in that direction. In fact, Cage can see himself as the Chick Hearn of the jazz deejays. If he has to be someone a bit more conventional, he probably would settle for becoming the next Brent Musburger.

That is, if he doesn't become a tour guide or a newspaper critic.

Later in the summer, armed with camera and tape recorder, he will travel to Greece for a two-week vacation. Last summer he spent time in Italy when it appeared he might not reach contractual accord with the Clippers. He would like to be able to read Greek and Italian, which would put him in a unique position among NBA power forwards.

He had some problems with wily old Maurice Lucas of the Phoenix Suns. Lucas boxed him out so adroitly, Cage couldn't move. Imagine the effect if Cage started reciting Homer or Dante.

Cage doesn't always have his nose in a book. The sports pages--which so many athletes claim they don't read, when in fact they're compiling voluminous scrapbooks--attract his perusal every morning. But only after he has finished with the main news section.

"Some people have to have that first cup of coffee to get them going," Cage said. "I don't drink coffee, and never have, but I can't get going until I've read the front page. I've got to know what's going on in the world. Knowledge is power."

In quest of some higher good, Cage ran headlong into pain and loneliness five years ago when he defied his parents and headed west from Arkansas to play college basketball at San Diego State. The West, as it had for many before him, offered fresh opportunities, along with a sense of disorientation.

A rerun of that experience awaited him during his rookie season with the Clippers, who moved from San Diego to Los Angeles at the same time he completed his Aztec career.

Cage took an apartment in Marina del Rey and a seat on the bench, and liked neither. He spent little time in the apartment, except to sleep, and he played very little during the first half of the season, except when a game was decided.

If he hadn't forced himself to break away from his roots five years ago, he might not have endured the trials of his first season in pro basketball.

"I have never been close to giving up at any time in my life," Cage said. "My outlook has always been positive. But after I ran away from home, in essence, to play in San Diego, I felt very lonely, and there were some bad vibes with my parents. My father told me, 'The disobedient child's days shall be shortened.' "

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