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NBA PLAYOFFS

Cheeks a Fearless Leader

Trail Blazers: First-year coach seemed to be in with the wrong crowd, but Portland's strange mix has settled down.

April 24, 2002|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Keep thinking, Mo, it's what you're good at.

Back at the Hole in the Wall, or wherever the Portland Trail Blazers rode off to after Sunday's disappointment against the Lakers, the little outlaws are planning their next job, er, game.

It's hard to be a Trail Blazer these days, what with their reputations, inherited and/or merited; with impulse control that runs the gamut from acceptable to absent, and their high-risk approach to the game, not to mention public relations.

In real life, they're a basketball team, not as big or scary as some they've had but still good enough to rally from 13-18 and finish sixth in the wild West under rookie Coach Maurice Cheeks. They're a decided underdog in this NBA first-round playoff series but, as they showed the mighty Lakers 10 days ago in Portland, capable of surprises.

Of course, with the Trail Blazers, surprise is a way of life.

"I always thought they were nuts," says guard Steve Kerr, who arrived last summer after three years with the low-key San Antonio Spurs. "This just confirmed it, that's all. But in a good way.

"I've had a great time, getting to know a lot of the guys. And I wasn't sure if I would fit in. I felt kinda weird coming to this team, especially having been with the Spurs the last three years, a team that's so opposite....

"In a weird way, it's been one of the most fun years I've had, just because it's so nuts. It's such a new experience for me. I've seen it all this year, water bottles flying through the air, chairs, balls flying into the stands, people throwing Bill Walton dolls onto the floor...."

Remember that last Laker game at Portland.... Rasheed Wallace, who plays Sundance Kid to Cheeks' Butch Cassidy, getting upset at a call, while the Trail Blazers were wiping out a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit.... Rasheed coming back to the huddle and kicking a chair so hard, the TV replay showed Kerr, sitting on the bench but facing the wrong way, ducking.

In Portland, one learns to stay alert.

All but forgotten in the ongoing High Jinks Chronicles is the fact this remains one of the league's deepest and most versatile rosters.

If Arvydas Sabonis' retirement means they've gone from big and imposing to slight and overmatched in a conference dominated by huge teams; if General Manager Bob Whitsitt concedes their championship window might be closed for the moment; if the pieces don't quite fit--or come close--they still rose from 13-18, when everyone was writing them off with their rookie coach, and went 31-8 from the start of January to the end of March, playing so well with such esprit, it was not uncommon to hear people from other teams saying they were the best team in the NBA.

"I mean, you have to take people for what you see them," says the soft-spoken Cheeks, who prefers to stay positive in a job in which he's destined to be forever asked about the negative.

"I don't believe you can keep getting it from third parties, fourth parties. Certainly, I was getting it from 25 parties about my guys [before taking the job] but I didn't take that at face value.

"I didn't know how they would be ... so I had to come in and give 'em a fair shake.... And they gave me a fair shake. And that was pretty much the way we regrouped ourselves as a team, because we believed in one another."

Calming this madcap crew that, as another West coach noted, "would have driven Dean Smith out of coaching," is now considered one of the season's most impressive coaching jobs.

By all accounts, Cheeks has become their steadying influence.

The problem is, they require a lot of steadying and he's just one man.

Sins of the Jail Blazers

"We were always adding players to try to match up with Shaq [O'Neal] and beat the Lakers. Maybe we added one or two too many. The mix was a little different than the norm. You had a guy like Dale Davis who went to the finals [with Indiana] and had an All-Star year and was used to playing big minutes and we asked him to take a backup role. That was difficult for him. And [Shawn] Kemp, he was a guy who was capable of helping us but there was the conditioning factor....

"You know, every year, we took steps to get better and for three years we did. Then it just fell apart at the end."

Former Trail Blazer assistant

Tony Brown to the Detroit News

Everything about these Trail Blazers is a high-wire act, reflecting their challenge and the risks they've run to surmount them.

Despite owner Paul Allen's bankroll, superstars don't put them atop wish lists, as O'Neal did with the Lakers. Nor did the Trail Blazers finish badly enough--they're the only team that has never been in the lottery--to luck into Tim Duncan and David Robinson, as the Spurs did.

So Whitsitt grabbed talent at every opportunity, however immature, expensive, overweight and/or incompletely thought-out.

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