LOS ANGELES -- The assistant coach known as Big Hank -- Olden Polynice doesn't remember his last name -- came up with the nickname.
Polynice was 16 and playing for a New York City summer-league team known as Riverside Church. Kenny Smith, now with the Houston Rockets, and Bruce Dalrymple, who later went to Georgia Tech, were teammates. Polynice was a 6-foot-8 center whose play at times was so soft that he regularly got dunked on and elbowed in the face. So Big Hank labeled him "the gentle giant."
No one around the NBA would believe that now.
Polynice, now 7 feet and the Los Angeles Clippers' starting center since they got him in a trade with the Seattle SuperSonics a year ago, plays with the finesse of a cement mixer. Sometimes, he acknowledges with a laugh, with the common sense of one, too.
"When I play, I don't have time to think about people," he said. "I got in [Patrick] Ewing's face once, and it wasn't until later I said, 'What am I doing? C'mon, Olden, you're carrying this a little too far.' But I saw a conflict between one of my teammates and my instinctive reaction was to go over. I know one day I'm going to do that and get laid out."
He is surprised it hasn't happened already. He has had scuffles with Sidney Green of the San Antonio Spurs, Danny Ferry of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Otis Thorpe of the Houston Rockets and gone face to face with Benoit Benjamin and Ewing. He chastised teammates Gary Grant and Ron Harper for helping up fallen opponent Michael Adams, and another time got into a postgame locker-room shouting match with Grant after accusing him of taking a defeat too lightly.
Polynice doesn't need Big Hank to remind him that it wasn't always like this. His high school coach, John Carey, remembers him as a fundamentally sound player who had yet to blossom and got the attention of recruiters largely because of his size.
The turning point, Polynice recalls vividly, occurred during his freshman year at the University of Virginia. He had played poorly at first but came on and eventually made the starting lineup. His first start was against George Washington center Mike Brown.
"He was soooo big," Polynice said of Brown, now with the Utah Jazz. "I've never been so scared. That fear makes you tough. That's what happened, and from then on, I never lost the spark."
The tough-guy approach was later encouraged by Rick Mahorn, an adversary who said that if you can intimidate opponents, they're easier to play. Polynice took it to heart, and though he denies he tries to intimidate, physical play became his trademark.
"That's his game," said James Edwards, a sworn enemy for years before coming to the Clippers this season as Polynice's backup. "Setting picks, knocking people down when they come down the lane -- the intimidator."
Little of this post-Virginia development has happened by chance. Polynice is committed to looking at times as if he should be committed.
His psych-up ritual starts with the drive to the Sports Arena in his Porsche 928, jet black with black-tinted windows. The music is hard-edged, rap or reggae, and loud. The bass adjustment is turned to full-bore. Polynice opens the sun roof and cracks the driver-side window to let some of the sound out and save his ear drums, but he wants his cavities to rattle.
"He opened the door one time and it was blasting," teammate Loy Vaught said. "I've never ridden to the game with him, I'm glad to say. I'd be deaf if I did."
The closer the game gets, the more Polynice changes -- "It's two personalities. I switch over."
His left ankle always gets taped before the right and a T-shirt, more comfortable than the jersey, usually stays on until during the coach's pregame talk. By then it's almost tip-off.
"I'm pumped up," he said. "Rebounds, rebounds and more rebounds. It's like I've got to get the first rebound of the game."
Polynice's game has changed in other ways besides his mental approach since he was the eighth pick of the 1987 draft. His court behavior is actually more sedate than it used to be. He toned down after Bernie Bickerstaff, his coach with the SuperSonics, told him to forget the showboating. In the Olden days, he used to run up-court after a basket, pantomiming the throwing of dice at a craps table.
Playing to the crowd, though, is still an obvious part of his game. The fist pumping, the towel waving, the rapid arm lifting to get fans to stand before a timeout or to punctuate a rally. All positive parts of Polynice, he says.
Others aren't so sure.
"He'll rub it in you when his team gets ahead," said Bob Kloppenburg, a Seattle assistant coach now and when Polynice played for the SuperSonics. "You could see where players resent that. He's just immature, really. But I liked him because he always played and practiced hard."
Polynice likes the image of the emotional hard hat. The problem it has created, he figures, is that few give him credit for his talent. He is seen too often as a thug, but overlooked are his being good enough to start on a playoff-caliber squad, good enough to finish sixth in the league in field-goal percentage last season, good enough to be averaging more than eight rebounds a game.
Rebounding is the one part of the numbers game he has concentrated on. Figuring that eight or nine a game are not a true indication of his abilities, Polynice made a commitment at the halfway point of the season to get that first rebound, yes, but then get a bunch more as well.
The result, starting with Game 42, Jan. 23 at Houston, has been eight double-digit rebound games in 15 games. Two of those were for 17 rebounds, one shy of his career high, and each in only 27 minutes of action.
That's grunt work worthy of attention. But Polynice is not so sure he gets his due, playing as he does among such flashy players as Ron Harper and Danny Manning.
"Because a lot of stuff I do isn't on the stats," he said. "You've got to look at the overall picture. One of the things I've always said is, just because a person doesn't score 20 points doesn't mean he's not contributing. A lot of those guys who get all those points, it's because of me setting picks."
To hear Polynice talk, there is a lot about him that people don't realize, not even his teammates. He's five weeks into writing a screenplay he hopes to turn into a movie, though he has never had anything published before. He also writes poetry. His one art that has been publicized is painting, and he says he paints everything from canvas to clothes.
"When I was in New York, it was graffiti," he said.
On the court, though, the marks he leaves behind are different, ones that Big Hank wouldn't recognize. Now, there's no sign of any gentle giant.