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THE NBA : Comeback by Rockets' Wiggins Becomes Bell-Ringer for Charity

February 20, 1990|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER

The money continues to roll in at the Salvation Army at the rate of almost $190 per game, courtesy of Mitchell Wiggins, a former down-and-outer who should be an honorary general or something by now. Comeback player of the year in the NBA, too, if they gave out such an award.

Wiggins is content to be a starting guard for the Houston Rockets. He spent the previous 2 1/2 seasons out of the league, banned for substance abuse, before returning, in better shape than anyone could have imagined.

Part of that time was spent attending support-group meetings at the Salvation Army, a place, he said, that gave him a chance to pick his life back up. So when Wiggins returned to the Rockets this season with a $225,000 nonguaranteed contract, it was with a hitch: $10 to the Salvation Army for every point scored.

Considering the former first-round pick of the Indiana Pacers averaged 9.6 points in his career, it seemed like a nice gesture. It has turned into a big payback.

"They're going to break me," he said.

Wiggins hopes so. After getting 24 points against the Chicago Bulls Monday, his 28th consecutive double-figure game, he is at 664, an average of nearly 19--and a donation of $6,640 so far.

"When this first came out and it got publicized, a lot of people asked me if I was going to become a defensive specialist," he said, smiling. "But it's for a good cause. . . . That's something I wanted to do for them. Without them, I don't think I'd be in the position I am."

That position has more money in the future. Wiggins and the Rockets are negotiating a contract, and Wiggins clearly has leverage. When he missed 16 games in December because of strained knee ligaments, the Rockets had the league's second-worst record that month, behind only the expansion Orlando Magic.

Surprisingly, when the Rocket guards were struggling, it was because of Sleepy Floyd's inconsistency at the point. Injury-free, Wiggins has been a problem for the opposition only.

"Oh, man, it's been a lot better than I could have expected," said Wiggins, whose best season-long scoring average is 12.4, as a rookie in 1983-84 with Chicago. "But I'm very comfortable with the system here and very comfortable with the players. Usually when someone comes back after being gone so long it can be a big transition, but it was a lot of the same things here as when I left.

"If I would have averaged four or five points a game, people would be saying, 'He's been out 2 1/2 years, that's right where he should be.' No one has ever tried a comeback like this, so no one knew what to expect."

Now, some people do. The Houston Rockets get their offense, the Salvation Army gets about $190 per game. Mitchell Wiggins simply got his career back.

In the wake of more front-office mismanagement in Denver, the biggest benefactor, strangely, may be Atlanta Hawk Coach Mike Fratello.

First, the Nuggets lost Pete Babcock. For those scoring at home, Babcock's role with the Nuggets had changed four times since July 9.

He went from president and general manager to strictly general manager to executive vice president to strictly general manager again.

At last, when Babcock sensed the general manager's role would only be superficial, he left.

The Hawks, who had already been pursing Babcock, wasted little time hiring him as their general manager. He replaces Stan Kasten, who resigned as general manager in a long-planned move to become team president.

Fratello, under pressure for failing to take his talented but emotionally unsettled team beyond the Eastern Conference final, couldn't have been happier. No wonder.

Babcock has long admired Fratello, a fact not lost on the coach. In fact, as director of player personnel for the Clippers, Babcock gave Fratello his first interview for an NBA coaching job after Paul Silas was fired. The job eventually went to Jim Lynam, but the mutual admiration remained.

And Denver?

Minority owner Peter Bynoe put himself in charge of trades. And then went to Paris after the All-Star break. The Nuggets sent a league-wide telex that Allan Bristow, an assistant coach, is the new contact for trades.

Forget for a moment that Dominique Wilkins, devoid of any originality, should have finished no better than fourth behind Rex Chapman, Kenny Smith and Shawn Kemp in the slam-dunk competition during the recent All-Star weekend. It's good to know that Kemp, the Seattle rookie who finished fourth, kept all his attempts pedestrian compared with past exploits.

As a high school junior in Indiana, Kemp says he got a running start and leaped over the width of his Toyota Corolla for a slam. Because it was such an awkward stunt, he landed on his chest. He says he still has the scar to prove he accepted the dare from friends.

No props can be used in the NBA showcase. No wonder Kemp, the league's youngest player, said he ran out of unique ideas midway through the competition.

After years of trying to forget Ted Stepien, Cleveland fans might finally have had a breakthrough.

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