Star-driven NBA has suddenly lost its big wheels


They had a nice little NBA season going, with the usual thrills and spills and also Michael Jordan, and then, mysteriously, it all began to unravel.

As we head toward the All-Star Game this weekend, it isn't yet clear who will be able to suit up, or if anyone will. Larry Bird is out, although he might be back. Isiah Thomas is out for the season. Charles Barkley is just now coming back. Bernard King has dizzy spells from what was described as an allergic reaction. Magic Johnson, after a kick in the head, couldn't remember who he was.

In a league that has been traditionally star-driven, the NBA can't find anyone to put behind the wheel.

What's the problem? It's usually safe to guess conspiracy (I always like to blame either the NFL or the CIA, whenever possible), or maybe a Bill Laimbeer-Ricky Mahorn reunion tour. Those two will party your town down, and take a player or two with them. Or might it be as simple as shoes? Could all those guys switching to the new pump-style sneakers have inflated them to the point where they've begun to explode?

Of course, it could be coincidence, I guess. Or it might be a signal indicating a decline of Western values. I don't want to sound like one of those guys who say things were always better in the old days (How could they be? There was no cable), but Wilt was never hurt. In fact, one season Chamberlain played every minute of every game. You could look it up.

And it isn't just the stars who are out of action. Let's look at the Bullets, if we can still find them. Against the Boston Celtics the other night, they were down to six able-bodied players, three of whom belong to Anonymous Anonymous, a support group for people no one has ever heard of. When Byron Irvin suited up for one game, they put "Irving" on his uniform. At least, they could have made it "Erving," since no one needs a doctor more than the Bullets.

What a story the Bullets are. They overcome holdouts and eating disorders and a lack of proven quality players to escape what seemed to be a certain slot in next season's draft lottery and become a playoff contender, thanks, in large part, to Bernard King. But that's when he's dizzying others and not himself.

And now, after performing a season-long magic act, the Bullets have added disappearing to their routine. Darrell Walker is on the injured list. Haywoode Workman, who has spent his brief career trying to prove you can't have too many vowels in your name, joined him yesterday. Pervis Ellison (back) is day-to-day. Charles Jones (hamstring) is day-to-day. Ledell Eackles (flu) is day-to-day. Mark Alarie returns from an eye laceration.

Still, they're managing to win games. However much credit Wes Unseld gets, it isn't enough. King is set to return, but imagine what Unseld could do if the Bullets had John Williams, too. Remember him? He's the player who was supposed to be the Bullets' centerpiece, except they had trouble fitting him into a room. Williams, month-to-month, is still rehabilitating an injured knee.

All the injuries are threatening to ruin an NBA season worth remembering. So many stories. There are the old Celtics, pretending to be young. There are the old Lakers, trying to be the real old Lakers. There are the Portland Trail Blazers, in the midst of a breakthrough season. There is Mr. Robinson, in a breakthrough commercial season. There are the Pistons, going for three without Isiah Thomas. Throw in the Bulls on the rise and the Knicks on the decline, the Jazz, the Bucks and the rest and you've got yourself some excitement.

And then somebody kicks Magic in the head, and, not only does he have to leave the game and go to the hospital, but he also suffers from a brief spell of amnesia. This is a very good thing only if you owe Magic money. I mean, what if he forgot to show up for the All-Star Game?

The NBA All-Star Game -- to paraphrase a line from Woody Allen, and the Wood-man is a giant NBA fan -- is the most fun you can have without laughing. If you're like me and think that a power move to the basket is the best thing in sports, then this is Karl Malone on one side and Dominique Wilkins on the other. This is Jordan in the air when no one is going to hammer him. And it's Magic, if he can remember who his teammates are, leading a fast break that looks like it's being run in fast-forward. Maybe Barkley and/or Bird will make it, too.

Whoever shows up, this Sunday's game is certain to be special if only for the return of Bernard King. We know all about the improbability of his comeback and the splendor of his game, but what makes King's accomplishment so entertaining is how much he seems to enjoy it himself. In King, we have the rare person who understands where he has been and what he has achieved. It will be fun watching him have fun.

It was fun just to watch King when he got the news that he made the team. He had trouble breathing then, too, but he wasn't hurting. Not at all.

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