On the first day of training camp in late September, Clipper guard Derek Smith looked around the gymnasium as if he expected to see unsigned free agent Norm Nixon and then-unsigned first-round draft choice Benoit Benjamin lurking in a corner.
Smith then shook his head and made an unsolicited vow to a group of reporters.
"I don't care what happens with me next year, but I'm going to be signed and be here on the opening of camp," said Smith, who will be a free agent after this season. "I guarantee it."
Smith, averaging 25 points a game this season, apparently didn't realize that the Clippers don't operate just that way. As they have been showing again with their negotiations with Nixon, the Clippers live in their own time zone.
Here are some examples from the last six months:
--It took the Clippers two months last spring to finally hire Don Chaney as coach, even though they told him they would make a decision within two weeks after the season ended.
--The complicated Cedric Maxwell-for-Bill Walton trade took more than three months to complete.
--Benjamin missed eight days of training camp before signing, even though Larry Fleisher, Benjamin's agent, said he was ready to start negotiating immediately after the draft last June.
--Nixon's representatives also said they wanted to start talking long ago, but that the Clippers, in effect, told them to wait their turn.
The major reason for the club's stalling tactics is owner Donald T. Sterling's indecisiveness, and his apparent reluctance to pay players and coaches the going rates.
So Smith, the Clippers' leading scorer and most underpaid player, may not know what a struggle he's in for. Counting incentive bonuses, Smith is earning $375,000 this season, which is $725,000 less than Marques Johnson is making.
Ron Grinker, Smith's agent, is ready.
"We will live up to this contract," he said before training camp began. "But after Derek becomes a free agent, we're going to back up the Brink's truck to the Clipper offices. If they don't want to pay what Derek's worth, other teams will."
The Golden State Warriors, another team with a history of front-office problems, are in top--or is it bottom?--form again this season.
First-round draft choice Chris Mullin hasn't signed, the negotiators are said to be $225,000 apart, and they haven't talked in three weeks.
The Warriors also have vowed not to renegotiate the contract of star forward Purvis Short, who is making $545,000.
Rumors are circulating that Jim Fitzgerald, who lent Franklin Mieuli, the financially strapped club owner, close to $5 million last summer and who has the option to buy the team next season, has been stingy with Mullin and has rebuffed Short so that the club will fail and he can move the team next season.
John Hillyer of the San Francisco Examiner recently wrote: "Carpetbagger isn't a pretty word, but perhaps it applies here."
Fitzgerald, the former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, denies the charges. But since he has veto power over any Golden State financial obligation beyond this season, he definitely has an interest in the club's welfare.
Asked at a recent press conference if he will purchase the Warriors, Fitzgerald said: "You're trying to get us to make a decision that hasn't been made yet."
Add Mullin: The consummate gym rat, Mullin admits he's getting fidgety now that the season is two weeks old and he still hasn't signed.
He has managed to keep busy, however. He runs four miles a day, plays basketball with St. John's players and practices alone each night.
"My parents give me about $10 a day," Mullin said. "It's lunch money. Sometimes, I brown-bag it. . . . I don't think it's going to come to sitting out the whole season. I wouldn't mind a trade. The ball's in Golden State's court."
Coach Stan Albeck of the Chicago Bulls, the nervous and superstitious type, took his one-game suspension for fighting with Detroit Coach Chuck Daly lying down.
Albeck, as league rules dictate, wasn't even allowed in the arena to watch the game when the Bulls played Golden State last Tuesday night in Oakland. So, he accompanied the Bulls on the bus to the arena, said goodby, then headed back to his hotel to listen to the game on the radio.
Albeck was lying on his stomach on his bed in the first quarter, when the Bulls took the lead. Each time he stood and walked around the room, however, the Warriors rallied. So, Albeck decided not to leave the bed, even for room service. Coincidentally or otherwise, the Bulls won, 111-105.
Back on the fight front, the Bulls and Pistons will stage a rematch Wednesday night at Detroit. Albeck says he's considering wearing boxing gloves as a joke before tipoff.
The real question that should be addressed in the league's silly mandate that Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson must stop wearing athletic shoes with a company logo during games is why Nelson would wear such shoes with a suit and tie in the first place.
"They are more comfortable than street shoes," Nelson said.
Nelson might consider consulting Dr. Scholl's because he'll be fined the next time he wears his Converse All-Stars at courtside. Fortunately for Laker Coach Pat Riley, his Gucci shoes don't have a visible label.
Somebody apparently has put the D back in the Denver Nuggets, a team that until about a year ago hardly ever played defense. Many people no doubt thought it was only the third-quarter score when it was reported last Thursday night that the Nuggets had beaten the Seattle SuperSonics, 90-73.
The score was correct, though. The 73 points the Nuggets allowed were the fewest in the franchise's history.
Said Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer, who was president of the Nuggets the club's first 10 years: "90-73 was the halftime score at some of our games when I was there."
Two nights later, the always defense-minded Boston Celtics held the Washington Bullets to 73 points, the fewest Boston has allowed since the 1981 NBA championship series against the Houston Rockets. The Bullets shot 34%.