INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Before starting the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls last week, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson warned that, in all the hoopla surrounding his matchup with Michael Jordan, an "invisible player" likely would emerge as one of the heroes in the series.
Cliff Levingston was that player in Friday night's overtime game at The Forum. In 20 hyperactive minutes, the Bulls reserve forward contributed 10 points, four rebounds and three blocked shots. It became his personal "Cliff-hanger."
Levingston seemed to be everywhere in the fourth quarter. His layup tied it at 76. A dunk put the Bulls ahead, 84-80, and his tip-in kept the lead at four with three minutes left. The Bulls went on to win, 104-96, and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Not a bad performance for a player dismissed as "clutter" by a Chicago columnist before the series opener Sunday.
During the season, it was easy to get the impression that the nine-year veteran, acquired as a free agent, did not loom big in the Bulls' title plans. He played half as many minutes as he did in most of six previous seasons in Atlanta and was all but phased out of Chicago coach Phil Jackson's substitution rotation by midseason.
"It would have been easy to hang my head and feel sorry for myself," Levingston said yesterday, suddenly surrounded by a group of reporters delving into his past. "But Coach Jackson told me he was saving me for the playoffs. I kept my mind and body ready for when my chance would come."
Part of Levingston's problems in the regular season were self-made. He had a difficult time learning assistant coach Tex Winter's intricate "three-post" moving offense after years of running set plays with the Hawks.
"I really didn't start grasping it until midseason," said Levingston, whose scoring average dipped to a career low 4.1. "I had a hard time picking up cutters and figuring where I was supposed to be on the floor."
L He also was the victim of a numbers game in the front court.
"We first thought that Cliff would back up Scottie Pippen at small forward, but his power game is much better suited for power forward," Jackson said. "But we had some young players at that position -- Stacey King, Will Perdue and Scott Williams -- we wanted to bring along. We basically knew what Cliff could do.
"He gives us high energy. He's so quick to the basketball, making double teams and steals. He also knows his limitations. He doesn't look to shoot outside. He knows how to play a physical game and plays like a 7-footer in the paint."
Levingston, a well-muscled, 6 feet 8, 210 pounds, has been tagged with the name "Good News" because of his aggressive play and contagious, upbeat personality.
"He just has a gift for making everyone loose in the dressing room," Winter said.
Levingston, however, began feeling like a stranger in Atlanta, and rejected a four-year contract offer worth $4.4 million to take significantly less from the Bulls. He earned $750,000 this season and will get paid $1.35 million next season if Chicago decides to pick up his option.
Asked why he was willing to play for less money and security, Levingston said: "It's like going to a casino and rolling the dice. I wanted to finally be on a team that I felt was ready to compete for a championship.
"In Atlanta, there were too many egos involved. They thought 'me' before 'we.' It's just the opposite with the Bulls. Everyone has a common goal -- winning a title -- and guys are willing to sacrifice.
"That's what I try to do here, just looking to block a shot, make a key rebound or steal to get us in gear. Our bench has been ridiculed, but we've been putting a lot of pressure on our starters in practice, and you can see how guys like myself, Perdue and Williams have contributed in the playoffs."
After Friday's clutch performance, Levingston no longer is "invisible." He has become a marked man.
"We all know who he is now," Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "But I've always admired him as a hard worker. He's always had a knack for being in the right place at the right time."
Right now, being a member of Jordan's unsung supporting cast seems the perfect place for Cliff Levingston.