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Old warhorse Larry Bird can't resist urge to sit in on Celtics' practices

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. LOUIS -- The following warning goes out to all Magic Johnson fans, and all those who can't read enough about the Los Angeles Lakers star and his return to the Lakers:

In an effort to get NBA fans up to speed as to what's going on around the league this fall, there will be no further mention of what's-his-name for the remainder of this column. This is not meant as a slight to No. 32, but merely as a brief timeout. Management guarantees there will be plenty of mention of Mr. Johnson in later columns.

So what's happening in the NBA? Plenty.

* No doubt about it, the Boston Celtics will miss Larry Bird this season. But it's not as if the Boston landmark has packed his bags and returned to French Lick, Ind., never to be seen again.

"He's still around, he still comes to practices, and sometimes in a familiar pose -- he's just sitting over there," coach Chris Ford quipped last week on a conference call with NBA writers, referring to back troubles which forced the Boston great to retire. . . . Unfortunately for the Celtics, Kevin McHale can be seen on the sidelines with Bird. The 6-foot-11 power forward joined the team in workouts last week, but his chronically bad ankles keep his future in doubt.

* New York Knicks coach Pat Riley is experimenting with Tony Campbell and Charles Oakley as starters, with former Los Angeles Clipper Charles Smith coming off the bench. . . . Bo Kimble's future with the Knicks is precarious at best, yet if back troubles continue to haunt Rolando Blackman there may be a spot for him.

"I don't feel any pressure on myself at all," Kimble said last week in Los Angeles. "I've got three years guaranteed on my contract, I'm coming in and just giving maximum effort. I don't even think about not making it. I know I'll make it, if not here then somewhere else."

* So far so good for No. 1 pick Shaquille O'Neal. The 7-foot center from LSU has been getting raves wherever he goes. . . . Milwaukee center Moses Malone, 37, may have seen his magnificent career come to a close because of a herniated disk in his back. Malone is out for the season, leaving ex-Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy a choice between Frank Brickowski and Alaa Abdelnaby at center.

* Anthony Cook of the Denver Nuggets tore tendons in his knee and will miss the entire season. . . . First-round picks still unsigned include Charlotte's Alonzo Mourning (No. 2), Dallas' Jim Jackson (4), Sacramento's Walt Williams (7), Milwaukee's Todd Day (8), Seattle's Doug Christie (17) and Boston's Jon Barry (21). . . . Poor Mavericks. Unless Jackson makes an immediate impact, and even if he does, they should be the worst team in the league.

* Cleveland's acquisition of former Knick Gerald Wilkins was a great pickup. Nobody stops Michael Jordan, but Wilkins bumps and bothers him as well as anyone.

* Miami Heat coach Kevin Loughery wants to start power forward Grant Long and bring newly-acquired John Salley off the bench. Problem is, Long remains unsigned, and neither side appears ready to give in. Loughery is also without second-year point guard Steve Smith, who is rehabilitating after arthroscopic knee surgery. . . .

* Dan Issel, the former Nuggets great who is making the jump from broadcaster to head coach, is implementing a modified passing game and has switched Reggie Williams from small forward to shooting guard. . . .

* Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich is caught in the middle between feuding Hakeem Olajuwon and club management.

"I just stay focused on basketball," said Tomjanovich, who has a good relationship with his star center. "It [the feud] is not something that's part of our daily lives. We don't talk about it." . . . Despite a summer when Rockets management talked with virtually every team in the league, Olajuwon probably won't be traded until after the team is sold, and the new owners likely won't be as keen to move him.

* Jerry Tarkanian's transition from UNLV to the San Antonio Spurs has been made tougher by injuries to starters Terry Cummings and Willie Anderson, and more importantly, by the absence of a true point guard. Vinnie Del Negro and Lloyd Daniels, neither a natural point guard, are slated to fill the quarterbacking duties.

* Former Spurs point guard Rod Strickland, meanwhile, loves his role in Portland as part of a three-guard rotation with Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. . . . Strickland, who signed with the Trail Blazers as an unrestricted free agent, believes the incident two years ago when he broke his hand outside a San Antonio bar and was lost for two months was what sent him out of favor with Spurs brass.

"That was the turning point of the whole situation. I think after that they just had bad feelings for me," he said.

* If you're wondering why the defense attorney for James "Slim" Bouler would want Jordan to testify that Jordan lost $57,000 gambling with Bouler in a three-day weekend last October, it's because the defense wanted to make the case that Bouler "earned" large amounts of money as a gambler, not as a drug dealer. Bouler was convicted of money laundering, but acquitted of more serious drug-conspiracy charges.

* Phoenix Suns coach Paul Westphal is leaning toward starting Danny Ainge at shooting guard and keeping Dan Majerle in his familiar role as sixth man.

* How far the Seattle SuperSonics go this year may come down to how far third-year point guard Gary Payton can take them.

"I just sense a maturity to Gary Payton. I don't think I would have assigned that word to him last year," coach George Karl said.

* Former Golden State assistant and new Sacramento coach Garry St. Jean wants to play the same up-tempo style employed by Don Nelson's Golden State Warriors. "We think that style is condusive to our team, I think we can win with it, and I think it's a style the players like and the fans enjoy," St. Jean said.

* Weighty issues: Is it just me, or has there been an unusual amount of attention placed on players' weights this fall? With John Williams and Stanley Roberts new in town it may be natural to think in pounds rather than rebounds, but the Clippers aren't the only ones getting tired of answering questions pertaining to their players' poundage.

For instance, in Phoenix, the Suns first-round draft pick is Oliver Miller, a talented 6-9 center from Arkansas whose stock dropped precipitously after ringing in at 312 pounds at the NBA combine in June. Although he's lost a bit since -- he won't say how much -- Miller is not exactly Mr. Svelte, either.

"All anybody wants to talk about is his weight. The problem is, he can play," Westphal said. "Before our first [preseason] game people were dubious about how he looks, but on the first play of the game, he took a rebound and got out and led the break. I'm not saying he wouldn't be a better player if he lost some weight, but to focus on his weight would be a disservice to him."

It really all depends on the player. In Orlando, No. 1 choice O'Neal is only too happy to report he's been lifting weights and has bulked up to a lifetime high 302 pounds, and nobody's suggesting he would look better with a 32-inch waistline. Teammate Dennis Scott, meanwhile, probably will spend his career fighting the calorie cap. Like the Clippers' Williams, excess weight is suspected to be partially responsible for career-threatening knee problems.

In the "it happens every year" category is Benoit Benjamin of the Seattle SuperSonics, whose notoriously lackadaisical approach to training camp has irked more than a handful of coaches in his seven seasons. Taking Benjamin's history into account, Sonics coach Karl believes his overweight big man is coming along fine.

"Ben's the only guy [on the Sonics] that's a little bit behind, but from what people have told me, he's as far [in shape] as he's ever been at this point in the year."

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