Richmond is King amid NBA royalty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHOENIX -- Going into his second NBA All-Star Game last night, Sacramento Kings guard Mitch Richmond was merely hoping for was a better showing than his off-performance in last year's game.

"Last year I didn't shoot the ball well," said Richmond, who hit five of 16 shots in his All-Star debut last year. "I just wanted to play well."

Richmond played well enough to emerge as the star of stars last night, hitting 10 of 13 shots to score a game-high 23 points and win the Most Valuable Player Award in the Western Conference's 139-112 victory at America West Arena. Richmond is the first nonstarter to win the award since 1981, when Nate Archibald was honored.

Richmond didn't even think he was going to make the All-Star team as a reserve. The seven-year guard didn't finish in the top 10 in voting for West guards, despite a 22.6-point average that is eighth in the league.

"I hoped the coaches in the Western Conference would give me the opportunity to play, just because the team is playing well and I'm having a great year," Richmond said.

If the coaches and players in the West had their way, Richmond would have been an All-Star starter. After an eight-point first half, Richmond hit six of seven shots in the second half in a game that lost its drama when the Western Conference stars built an 18-point lead late in the first half.

"Mitch plays like that all the time. That's why Sacramento has such a good record [25-20]," winning coach Paul Westphal said. "I don't think any of the players are surprised that Mitch Richmond had that kind of night."

Still, Westphal tried to get Phoenix's hometown hero, Charles Barkley, a shot at the award. Midway through the fourth quarter, Westphal called for Barkley to re-enter the game, even calling a 20-second timeout to get him on the floor.

But aside from hitting a three-pointer -- his only shot in the fourth quarter -- Barkley didn't even look to score.

"I was lucky to get the MVP one time," said Barkley, the 1991 winner as a Philadelphia 76er. "If I got one more, it would just clog up my house.

"[At the end] they were passing the ball to me, and I wasn't expecting it," Barkley added. "I was trying to get it to Mitch."

In all, it wasn't the prettiest of All-Star Games, with the West team romping over an East team that featured five first-time All-Stars. Shaquille O'Neal scored 22 points and Orlando Magic teammate Anfernee Hardaway and Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen added 12 each to lead the East.

Unlike a year ago when O'Neal hit just two of 12 shots and cried conspiracy afterward, the 300-pound center pretty much had his way around the basket.

He hit nine of 16 shots, but his performance might be remembered best for his three-point attempt that caught nothing but air, a surprisingly meek attempt for a man so strong.

"It slipped," O'Neal said afterward.

Dikembe Mutombo also went deep on a three-point attempt in a play designed by Westphal. Hakeem Olajuwon did hit a three-pointer. But San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson did not get tempted to join the fray.

"It's not my game," Robinson said. "I guess they weren't afraid of embarrassing themselves. Maybe I should have gone out there, too."

Other stars of the night: Seattle guard Gary Payton had 15 assists and three steals, offsetting his 3-for-10 shooting. He also played some defense, a rarity in All-Star competition.

"That's my game," Payton said. "If I'm playing, I've got to play 'D.' "

Hardaway recorded 11 assists and five rebounds, to go along with his 12 points.

"We wanted to win, but it was one of those things where nobody could focus in on winning," Hardaway said. "But this was my first All-Star Game, and it was great to do this for the first time. Now I'm ready to go home, this [weekend] has been pretty tiring."

Another first-time All-Star, leading vote-getter Grant Hill, got the East off to a 12-8 lead with two dunks. But by the end of the first quarter it was the more experienced West All-Stars who were taking control. Seattle forward Shawn Kemp scored all 11 of his first-half points in the opening quarter, leading the West to a 31-28 lead.

When the West opened the second quarter with a dunk by Mutombo and a layup by Payton, it never looked back. Up by 16 at the half, the West loosened its defense and the East briefly got back in the game.

Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller, a runner-up to Miami's Glen Rice in the Long Distance Shootout the night before, connected on two three-pointers to spark an opening 15-7 run. And after O'Neal scored on a layup with 5:57 left, the East was within 79-71.

But the West outscored the East 18-4 to close the third quarter and took a 104-81 lead into the fourth.

After the first half, the MVP front-runner had to be Karl Malone, who scored 13 of his 15 points late in the second quarter as the West ran away with the game. Days earlier, he had said he wouldn't play because of a sore ankle.

"I felt fine," said Malone, who was threatened with a suspension if he did not attend the game. "The fans seemed a little bit more laid-back. Maybe it wasn't the kind of game the people want, because there wasn't a lot of flash."

Which probably makes Richmond's choice of MVP appropriate in that his game lacks flash, but is very effective. Two years ago, Richmond, who has never averaged less than 21.9 points, was selected an All-Star but could not play because of an injury. Last year he played, but wasn't effective. Last night he was MVP.

"I've been watching this game for years, and you always dream of yourself being out there [accepting the award]," Richmond said. "But it's just overwhelming. I don't think it will hit me until later.

"It feels good for me to represent Sacramento the way I did," Richmond said. "I never dreamt of this, to be able to take the MVP trophy home from the All-Star Game. It's unreal."

The word on Richmond is that he doesn't get the respect he deserves. Maybe with the public he doesn't. The All-Star vote showed that. But among players, it's a different story.

"I keep hearing about how underappreciated he is," Barkley said. "He's not underappreciated; he's an All-Star."

And last night Richmond was the best.

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