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Hornets straighten up, begin to fly right

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Things are settling down in Charlotte, where the young Hornets have recovered from their 1-2 start and regained their voices.

Of course, it was a little slow there for a while with the $84-million man, Larry Johnson, dragging his right leg around like Chester in "Gunsmoke."

Johnson hurt himself with a bit of typical exuberance, tomahawk dunking in a charity game, stressing a disk in his back. When he returned, his leg was so weak he could barely dunk. He went five games before he had one last week against the Boston Celtics. The Carolinas breathed a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, Alonzo Mourning, who sat out the week before the season to rest his sore knee, was getting himself back together and the Hornets were putting up numbers. They went into the weekend averaging 116 points, No. 1 in the league, shooting 53 percent, 44 percent on three-pointers.

As usual, no one was more impressed than they.

Said coach Allan Bristow, "We're probably the most potent offensive team in the league."

Most potent talkers, anyway.

Last spring, before falling to the New York Knicks in the playoffs, they told anyone who would listen that they were the gifted ones.

"We have more talent than New York does," said Kendall Gill, a former Hornet playing for Seattle. "We just haven't put everything together like New York has to this point."

Said Muggsy Bogues: "You look at New York and you constantly wonder how they got 60 wins."

Well, there was that NBA-best defense, which the Knicks applied to the Hornets in the fourth quarter of the series opener to break the game open.

nTC Said Bristow afterward: "Wore down? Are you kidding me? He [Knicks coach Pat Riley] was playing our game! Ask them if they got worn down. They're the ones that aren't used to this pace."

When the Knicks won Game 2, Bristow, still unimpressed, sneered: "Their defense, I think it plays on your minds."

To no one else's surprise, at least, the Knicks eliminated the Hornets in six games.

When not forcing money on its players, Hornets management seems concerned about the young, impetuous coaching staff. Owner George Shinn said he would like it if Bristow, 42, had an assistant older than T. R. Dunn, 37, and Bill Hanzlik, 35.

If this is a small sign of managerial impatience, the line of candidates to replace Bristow will be out the door. Speculation starts with two heavyweights, Kentucky's Rick Pitino and TNT's Doug Collins.

For the moment, Bristow is safe. Perhaps to mollify Shinn, he brought in retired warhorses Jack Ramsay and Dick Motta to help in training camp. But both have gone home and the kids are on their own again.

As the Clippers turn

Let's check in on the Los Angeles Clippers to see how the grand experiment is working out:

Bob Weiss' mission, should he choose to accept it or not, is to win so many games that Danny Manning gets swept off his feet and signs a long-term contract.

Manning is on the injured list with two cracks in a bone in his left hand.

The Clippers said his status was day-to-day when it happened Nov. 11.

Manning's agent, Ron Grinker, called a reporter the next day to announce that it was more like week-to-week or month-to-month, declaring that the Clippers doctor, Tony Daly, was not in charge and that Stephen Lombardo, Manning's personal orthopedist and the Lakers' physician, was.

The Clippers then announced that Manning had been re-examined by Daly, who had taken a CAT scan that came up "cloudy."

Manning then was put on the injured list, meaning he was sidelined for at least five games, although Clippers spokesman Joe Safety denied that Grinker was calling the shots.

"Ron Grinker doesn't run this club. He only runs his mouth," Safety said.

Safety may only be venting the Clippers' anger at Grinker, certainly an implacable foe, but they have little hope of splitting the player and his agent.

Grinker once represented Manning's father, Ed, and Danny grew up calling him Uncle Ron. Even Elgin Baylor, Clippers general manager, says he has never seen a closer agent-player relationship.

And, lest anyone forget him, or make the mistake of thinking that $4 million has bought his happiness, free-agent-to-be Ron Harper announced: "There ain't going to be no deal. Seventy-seven more games I'm playing here, and that's that."

Stanley Roberts might be in shape by Jan. 1.

John Williams might be in shape by Jan. 1, 2001.

Aside from that, the dream lives on.

Variation on an old joke

There was once a scorpion who asked a frog to give him a ride across a river.

The frog agreed, but made the scorpion promise not to sting him, or they would both perish.

Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog.

"Why did you do that?" asked the frog. "Now you'll drown."

"It's my nature," the scorpion said. "I'm Bill Laimbeer in an earlier incarnation."

Still stinging

One thing you have to give Laimbeer, he's consistent.

He doesn't only pick on little guys, or opponents, or guys he hasn't laid out.

Last week, Laimbeer was fined $5,000 and suspended for a game, worth another $16,085, for clotheslining none other than Karl Malone.

During a Detroit Pistons practice two weeks ago, Laimbeer hit teammate Isiah Thomas with a pick that broke one of Thomas' ribs. Laimbeer and Thomas are buddies whose wives ride to the games together.

"Those two guys are close friends," said Chuck Daly, their old coach. "I remember they were roommates one year in training camp and they broke up and got separate rooms. They're like lovers, those two."

Nevertheless, it was too late to start making exceptions, so last ,, week Laimbeer hit Thomas, playing with his broken rib taped, with another pick. As Laimbeer walked away, Thomas ran up behind him, punched him in the back of the head -- and broke a bone in his shooting hand.

Anyone who has seen Thomas shoot knows it can't make that much of a difference, but the Pistons said he would be sidelined for a month.

NBA players threatened to bury Thomas' house with congratulatory telegrams.

"In my opinion, he can't have picked a better guy to punch," Orlando's Scott Skiles said.

Said Boston's Robert Parish: "If you're going to break your hand, then you might as well break it on him."

Laimbeer, shaken, had to be talked out of retiring on the spot. Get this -- the big lug has a heart. Impervious to boos on the road, he has said he would walk away if his home crowd in the Palace ever got on him.

The next day, he and Thomas made up. The next game, Laimbeer entered late in the first period to a mixed reception and put together one of his great performances of the '90s, 26 points and seven rebounds. The crowd took him back.

The moral of the story: If you're a scorpion, you still are more popular than Bill Laimbeer.

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