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THE NBA

East Is in Middle of a Centerfold

October 22, 2000|MARK HEISLER

Missing: Entire Eastern Conference. Once had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman. Now has Spike Lee.

If you find it, please contact Commissioner David Stern, 645 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. Large reward. No questions asked.

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for the Eastern Conference . . . and the league that could use two competitive teams in the finals:

* Alonzo Mourning, the East's best center, announces he'll sit out the season to treat a kidney disease.

* Patrick Ewing, its second-best center, is traded to the West.

* Dikembe Mutombo, the third-best center, hasn't gone west (yet, but he'll be a free agent) but he has malaria. Happily, it isn't serious. Unhappily, when he returns, it'll be to the Atlanta Hawks, who were 13th in the East with him last season.

* Dale Davis, the lone power forward on last season's East all-star squad, gets traded in guess-which direction.

So much for Return to Respectability, 2000-01, East-wise and, possibly, NBA-wise.

The devastation, of course, is deepest in Miami, where Mourning's departure had players and coaches reminding themselves there are more important things than basketball--it's true, but not in their professional lives--insisting this season will be a test of character.

As Coach Pat Riley could tell you, after the last five seasons, who needed another test?

After seeing his players age and attendance decline and suffering humiliations so awful at the hands of the hated Knicks that Mr. Stoic admitted he'd been "humbled," Riley rebuilt what looked like a legitimate power overnight . . . then took another one right in the mousse. Having spent his entire career coaching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ewing or Mourning, he'll tip it off this season with Duane Causwell.

"I've had Zo here going into my sixth year and everything is built around Alonzo--the offense, the first level, second level, and last level," said Riley, in a rare acknowledgment of his predicament.

"Who are going to be the main guys now? Obviously, it's going to be . . . Eddie Jones, Brian Grant, Anthony Mason and Tim Hardaway. . . .

"As of today, the anchor of the team is gone. The quicker the players understand and believe it, the quicker they will move on and realize for the time being, it's their team."

Insiders say Mourning's prognosis seems good. Some doctors reportedly even told him he could keep playing and everyone hopes for an eventual return.

And, because this is the East, the Heat isn't out of it yet!

They don't have a center? Well, who does?

The East now is Causwell, Elden Campbell, Marcus Camby, Sam Perkins, Theo Ratliff, Ervin Johnson, Ben Wallace and Antonio Davis. Those are the starting centers on last season's playoff teams, so imagine what the rest of the conference looks like. (OK, don't imagine: Vitaly Potapenko, Brad Miller, Jahidi White, Jim McIlvaine . . . )

Here's how bad it is:

With Rik Smits gone, Indiana will start 39-year-old, planning-to-retire-for-three-seasons Perkins. If you know Sam, a sweet guy whose biorhythms hover just above flatline, they probably had to wake him up to tell him.

Said Perkins, "It's cool. It's just that I've been so tuned in to coming off the bench. Now I have to prepare myself mentally a little bit."

Translation: They've got to be kidding. Is there a Starbucks around here?

In Philadelphia, Matt Geiger just sized up his new competition and declared himself an all-star candidate!

"I've put my goal as high as making the all-star team," Geiger said. "In the East, it's a realistic goal."

Geiger acknowledged he'll have to win his starting job back first, having been locked in Coach Larry Brown's doghouse and shopped all summer.

In New York, Camby, a 6-11, 225-pound Twiggy look-alike who, nonetheless, always comes in out of shape, did it again and was reprimanded by Coach Jeff Van Gundy again. However, Van Gundy had little choice but to make him a starter, at last.

Not that Camby, the successor to the great warrior, Ewing, is ever out of wishes.

Said Camby, "I'm not a center. I'm not a center. Let's get that in print. I am playing out of position."

Responded Van Gundy, "Let me clarify. He is a center . . . for us."

Western general managers joke about how many Eastern teams could make the playoffs out here (three? two? one? none?) and how many Western teams could qualify in the East (11? 12? 13? All of them, even the Clippers?).

However, one-sided finals skew down TV ratings, which is what has happened since Michael Jordan left in 1998 and his conference, as well as his franchise, collapsed. The '98 finals got an 18.7 rating, but the numbers since have been 11.3 and 11.6.

Of course, if the NBA could have had last spring's thrilling Laker-Trail Blazer series as a last act, the ratings would have been higher and the NBA would be looking rosier.

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