PHILADELPHIA -- Talk to Shawn Bradley face-to-face, which requires the Philadelphia 76ers' 7-foot-6 center to be seated, and you notice the reddened, disfigured nose that was broken in two places last month after a collision with teammate Derrick Alston.
He opens his mouth to speak, and stitches dangle inside and outside his bottom lip. That's nothing new, for Bradley has received 23 stitches to his chin, lip and face in various injuries this season.
Yes, Bradley's a basketball player. But he looks more like a guy who's been in a boxing ring.
"I can't even kiss my wife," Bradley said earlier this week, "because of all the stitches in my mouth."
It's been that kind of year for Bradley, who will help lead the Sixers against the Washington Bullets tonight at the Baltimore Arena.
He was selected with the second pick of the 1993 draft (behind Chris Webber and before Anfernee Hardaway). He was not Manute Bol. He was a 7-6 center with skills, a player to build a franchise around. And the Sixers opened the vault for him, paying him $44.2 million over eight years.
After a dislocated left kneecap forced him to miss the last half of 1993-94, Bradley appeared healthy this season. But his play has been disappointing; he played just eight minutes in the Sixers' 92-80 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday and is perhaps the league's most costly reserve.
"There are some improvements, and I think he has to continue to work hard with what he's doing," Sixers coach John Lucas said after Bradley scored 17 points in a loss to the Detroit Pistons Monday. "When he's on the floor, he's effective."
The problem this season has been keeping Bradley on the floor. And it's not because of injuries. Bradley has fouled out of 13 games; the Miami Heat and New York Knicks are the only teams with more disqualifications than Bradley. He commonly is called for over-the-back fouls or for throwing a hip while setting a screen. More times than not, the foul will result in a small tantrum by Bradley.
"It's just a mental focus," Bradley said. "Granted, I'll make two or three solid fouls a game. Most people do. The other fouls are questionable, the reach-in fouls that sometimes they call and sometimes they don't. It's not that the refs are inconsistent, it's just the way the game is."
And it's a sign that Bradley has yet to earn much respect in the league. He weighs 245 pounds, but 245 pounds on Bradley does not have the same impact as 245 pounds on 6-7 teammate Clarence Weatherspoon. For the most part, Bradley is unable to hold position in the post, and gets pushed around. Last week, Bradley scored one point against Shaquille O'Neal.
"Shaq's tough," Bradley said of the Orlando center. "You got me at 245 and another guy at 280, and Shaq's going to do the same thing to him.
"I'd like to add another 20 pounds, but I can't do it overnight, and people better not expect that. Because if I did, it will mess me up. I have to work hard in the summers. I put on a solid 15 to 20 pounds over the summer [working out with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney], and if I do that the next few summers, I'll be OK."
Right now, it's really a question of whether Bradley's psyche can survive that long. He's been replaced by rookie Sharone Wright as the team's starting center. When Bradley does check into games, he's greeted with loud boos that continue every time he misses a shot or commits a foul.
In other words, he's booed often.
"They get on me, but I try to turn it into a positive," Bradley said. "It gets to me, and that's where my maturity as a basketball player is going to have to come. I need to be mentally tough to block all that out. If I have rabbit ears, then it'll get to me."
Owner Harold Katz joined the critics last month.
"What [Bradley] has been doing doesn't [warrant] the money I'm paying him," Katz said. "He wanted the money, and now he has to perform."
Bradley said that there's a certain amount of pressure on him with his huge contract.
"When you get drafted and sign a large contract, people expect results right away," Bradley said. "We said when I first signed that it's going to be a two- to three-year process and we'll work hard. I'll continue to work hard, and if I do that, good things are going to happen."
The good things that Bradley will provide will be on the defensive end. His 2.9 blocks per game rank third in the league, and he alters many other shots. But last season teams tried to go around him; now power players are trying to play through him. He may block shots, but, as evidenced by his face, he pays a price.
"My father matured into his body in his late 20s," said Bradley, 22. "Hopefully, I'll mature into my body by 25 or 26."
Good D, but little O
The offensive end of the court is another story. Bradley often sets up on the weak side of the court beyond the three-point line while Wright and Weatherspoon work inside. Hardly any of the team's offense works through him, and four times during the past 14 games, he has failed to score a field goal.
"I'm not an offensive threat on this team, and I won't be for a while," Bradley said. "My role is to be a defensive player, and that's what I try to do. Whatever offense comes to me is a plus."
He did hit six of seven-field attempts on Monday, scoring 17 points. And he scored 28 earlier this season. But those games were against the Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers, teams not known for their center play.
All Bradley is asking from the fans in Philadelphia is a little time.
"My performance, as far as numbers, is up and down," Bradley said. "But I'm trying to work hard, trying to become a better player and trying to make this a better franchise. And I'm going to continue to do that until I accomplish my goal as an individual and as a team."
Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers
Site: Baltimore Arena
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 20/WTEM (570 AM), WWLG (1360 AM)
Outlook: The Sixers (11-25) ended a nine-game losing streak with a 92-80 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. Philadelphia has won just three of its past 17 games and is 2 1/2 games ahead of the last-place Bullets. G Dana Barros (19.0 ppg) and F Clarence Weatherspoon (18.3 ppg) lead five players who average in double figures for the Sixers. The Bullets, who ended a 10-game losing streak on Monday against Chicago, play for the second time this season in Baltimore. The Bullets lost to Cleveland, 96-94, at the Baltimore Arena on Nov. 25. Philadelphia is 1-0 in the season series, having overcome an 18-point deficit for a 98-97 win over the Bullets on Nov. 9.