'Old' NBA stars flash new respect. Hakeem, Wilkins Isiah meet the the kids

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SALT LAKE CITY - With the retirement of superstars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who dominated pro basketball in the '80s, the NBA torch has been passed to Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, and the New Breed, featuring first-time All-Stars Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson and Danny Manning.

Together, they represent the wave of the future, but the Old Guard will not go quietly.

Three proud over-30 veterans - Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins - are at today's All-Star Game to prove they can still hold their own with the new kids.

Hakeem: No attention needed

Olajuwon, 30, and chosen an All-Star for the eighth time, sits at a ballroom table talking with several reporters. Across the room, a media horde three rows deep surrounds O'Neal, 20, and already being hailed as the next Wilt Chamberlain.

The scene seems to amuse Olajuwon, who leads NBA centers in almost every meaningful category, averaging 24.7 points, 13 rebounds and 4.2 blocks as the cornerstone of the Houston Rockets.

"He's the new kid on the block, and he's made a big impact on the league, so it's only natural he draws a crowd," said Olajuwon.

"But we're not in the business of comparing and competing. If you get caught in that trap, someone is always bigger, stronger or faster.

I'm not fighting for attention. My generation of players is fading. We have to make room for young bloods like David Robinson and Shaq."

But in head-to-head battles against these 7-foot upstarts, it is usually Olajuwon who finishes on top.

"What is important to me," he said, "is that after nine years in the NBA I am still able to compete on a high level."

Oddly, while Patrick Ewing is deified by the New York media, Olajuwon's inspiring contributions in the Sun Belt go almost unnoticed.

It seems only when he is complaining about a contract, demanding a trade or upbraiding the Rockets management for failing to improve the team that he attracts national headlines.

"I always speak my mind, but I've put all that negative stuff behind me. I'm only moving forward," said the native of Nigeria.

Pride drove Olajuwon to work in the off-season on improving his already impressive repertoire of offensive moves.

"It's just trying to find variations on the same spin moves I've perfected from different areas of the court," he said. "It's my way of keeping up with the youngsters. I can't ever let them believe they've found ways to stop me. When that times comes, then I'll step aside."

Dominique: Finally, respect

For years, Dominique Wilkins was the quintessential All-Star, labeled a "Human Highlight Film" who could create the most mind-boggling shots and seemingly attain more hang-time than Jordan.

But the whispers about Wilkins was that he was a one-dimensional player interested only in his personal stats while scoring over 20,000 points the past decade.

His former coach, Mike Fratello, now an NBA sports analyst, once said "With 'Nique, what you see is what you get."

When the Atlanta Hawks, who drafted him as an undergraduate out of Georgia in 1983, failed to become one of the NBA's elite teams, it was easy to finger Wilkins as the culprit. He became the subject of repeated trade rumors, but today, at 33, the acrobatic forward is suddenly being called the consummate team player.

"I used to think when you passed 30, you were heading out the door," said Wilkins. "I had my youthful fling with my Ferrari and Porsche. I wasn't ready to settle down and take on responsibility. Then I met Julius Erving, and he became my role model. I realized I had to change my ways on and off the court."

The metamorphosis of Wilkins began last year when he expanded his overall game before suffering an Achilles injury that sidelined him the last half of the season.

Wilkins was back in uniform at the start of the current season, but a fractured finger sidelined him in December. Since rejoining the team on Jan. 14, the Hawks have become a solid playoff contender.

"He's accomplished the things we've asked of him," said Hawks coach Bob Weiss, pointing to Wilkins' improved rebounding, passing and shot selection.

Said Wilkins, "If people now are learning to respect the way I play, I just say, it's about time. I always felt I was a complete player, but there were a lot of things I didn't understand.

"Maturity has brought out some things in my game that maybe weren't there before.

Isiah: Constant refinement

L The impish grin belies his age, 32, and his inner toughness.

Isiah Thomas, appearing in his 12th straight All-Star Game, is not about to let upstarts like Tim Hardaway or Terry Porter upstage him.

"I win the vote, I pack my bags and I came to the game," he said without false modesty. "You don't get any free rides in this league. You've got to keep producing.

"Truthfully, I never thought I'd outlast Magic and Bird in this game. But when I first came into the league [1981], the fans bought my act, and they're still buying it, and I find that kind of flattering."

But the act is constantly being refined to keep in step with the younger competition.

Long before the realization came to Wilkins, Thomas learned that there was more to the game than beating your man "one-on-one," or making an incredible move to excite the fans into exchanging high-fives.

After years of studying the self-sacrificing ways Magic and Bird led their teams to repeated titles, Thomas took command of Detroit's Bad Boys and led the Pistons to consecutive championships in 1989 and 1990.

"Every night I'm facing a guy who is at a disadvantage defensively," said Thomas. "I know I can take him and there's nothing he can do to stop me. But you've got to fight the urge. Once you start thinking basketball is an individual sport, that's when you're in trouble."

In recent years, when it came time to name the top NBA guards or being selected to an Olympic team, Thomas would find himself taking a back seat to Magic, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and even backcourt mate, Joe Dumars. But his relationship with his audience remains firm.

"The fans never fell out of love with me," he said. "Only the media did."

These are hard times in Detroit, both economically and on the basketball court,but Thomas refuses to let the Pistons just fade away.

"I'm not the kind of guy who sees my team is not that good and says I want to change teams. I want to make my team better so I can beat your team. I'm just interested in helping the Pistons win."

Olajuwon, Wilkins and Thomas. Three tough, old pros, who have learned to respect the game as much as the game respects them.

NBA All-Star Rosters

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. Eastern Conference

Starters: F Larry Johnson, Charlotte; G Michael Jordan, Chicago; C Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando; F Scottie Pippen, Chicago; G Isiah Thomas, Detroit.

Reserves: C Brad Daugherty, Cleveland; G Joe Dumars, Detroit; C Patrick Ewing, New York;F Larry Nance, Cleveland; G Mark Price, Cleveland; F Detlef Schrempf, Indiana; F Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta.

=/

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Western Conference

Starters: F Charles Barkley, Phoenix; G Clyde Drexler, Portland; F Karl Malone, Utah; C David Robinson, San Antonio; G John Stockton, Utah.

Reserves: G Sean Elliott, San Antonio; G Tim Hardaway, Golden State; F Shawn Kemp, Seattle; G Dan Majerle, Phoenix;F Danny Manning, L.A. Clippers; F Chris Mullin-x, Golden State;C Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston;G Mitch Richmond, Sacramento; G Terry Porter, Portland.

) x-injured, will not play.

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