Walt Piatkowski was running late.
A traveling salesman whose territory covers the Nebraska panhandle, Piatkowski had promised his son Eric, a star basketball player at the University of Nebraska, he would attend the Cornhusker game against Oklahoma State, but he had to drive to a business meeting in North Platte before the game.
Pulled over by a state trooper on his way to the meeting, Piatkowski expected to get a speeding ticket.
"Why are you going in such a hurry?" the trooper asked.
"I'm trying to get to my son's ballgame at Nebraska," Piatkowski replied.
"Oh, you're Piatkowski's dad," the trooper said. "Here's a warning ticket. Good luck to Eric and get on down the road."
After leaving the meeting, Piatkowski dumped his notes on the front seat and raced to the game.
But he was stopped again.
"Where are you going so fast?" the trooper asked.
"I'm trying to get to Nebraska for the game," Piatkowski said.
"I'm watching that game, too," the trooper said. "They're playing Oklahoma State and Byron Houston. Here's a warning ticket."
Now that Eric Piatkowski has joined the Clippers, Walt Piatkowski would probably draw blank stares from California Highway Patrol officers if he invoked his son's name to talk his way out of a speeding ticket.
But if NBA scouts are correct in their assessment of Piatkowski, a 6-foot-8 swingman who was the 15th player selected in the NBA draft, it won't be long before Piatkowski becomes as well known in Los Angeles as he was at Nebraska, where he became the first player in school history to score more than 1,000 points, get more than 600 rebounds and pass for more than 300 assists.
The Clippers think Piatkowski has a bright future.
"I love him," forward Loy Vaught said. "I think he's going to be good for this team. He has a great outside shot and he's a hard-working guy."
Piatkowski was the most valuable player of the 1994 Big Eight tournament, when he scored a school-record 43 points against Oklahoma in the opening round.
"He was one of the best athletes we've ever had at Nebraska, and in basketball he was probably the best," Nebraska Coach Danny Nee said. "He's a very, very talented player. We thought we had a real diamond in the rough when he came to Nebraska, and I think his best days are ahead of him. I think he can be a hell of a player in the NBA. He runs the wing as well as anyone on any level."
Although he coached Piatkowski for five seasons, Nee jokingly said he still doesn't know how to spell his name, which is pronounced Pie-it-KOW-ski.
"Everyone pronounces his name wrong," Nee said. "For a while we called him the Polish Rifle."
Clipper Coach Bill Fitch, who coached Larry Bird for four seasons, compared Piatkowski to Bird after coaching Piatkowski in last spring's Phoenix Desert Classic, a postseason all-star tournament for players in the draft. Piatkowski was voted MVP of the tournament after averaging 22 points and shooting 63%.
"He's got a lot of Bird's mannerisms," Fitch said. "To compare anybody's game to Bird is an injustice to the person that you do it to. I didn't mean to put a label on him that way. But he's got a lot of Bird's qualities to practice and work hard."
Piatkowski was flattered by the comparison.
"He probably said that thinking he was never going to coach me again," Piatkowski said. "It was awfully nice of him to say that, and I hope I can live up to his expectations."
Fitch hasn't changed his mind since Piatkowski joined the team, ending a weeklong holdout on Oct. 14 by signing a five-year contract reportedly worth $6 million.
"He shows the tools that I saw at the Phoenix camp and that we saw in school," Fitch said. "He's got a great stroke, he's a smart kid, and he plays hard while he's out there. He can do nothing but get better."
Piatkowski learned his work ethic from his father, a 6-8 forward who played for Fitch at Bowling Green. After graduating in 1968, the elder Piatkowski spent 2 1/2 seasons in the American Basketball Assn.
"When I was really young, people would ask me, 'Are you going to be a pro basketball player like your dad was?' " Piatkowski said. "At that age you could really care less. I really liked the fact that he never pushed me at all. He just let me do my own thing.
"I never saw my dad play in the ABA because I wasn't born yet. But when I was in second or third grade, he still played a lot of basketball for a town basketball team that went to other towns for tournaments. I remember that I'd beg him to let me go along. And if for some reason I couldn't go, I'd be crying."
Fitch said Eric got his shooting touch from his father, who led the Mid-American Conference in scoring as a sophomore.
"He was a lot better shooter than Eric," Fitch said. "He was a shooter and a competitor. I think Eric got a lot of that from him.