When Miami Heat guard/forward Billy Owens looks around the team these days, it's almost in disbelief, compared with last season.
"You look over now and we have a great coach," Owens said. "You look in the middle and we've got this big man who can control the game. It's like there are no excuses now."
That's what the addition of Pat Riley and Alonzo Mourning will do for a team. And so far there have been few signs of growing pains for the Heat, which got off to a 2-0 start for the first time in franchise history with Wednesday's win over the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets.
Riley was entering the season without the luxury of a dominant big man for the first time in his coaching career. He had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he began with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981, and he had Patrick Ewing in four seasons in New York. Now, with the opening night deal that sent Glen Rice, Khalid Reeves and Matt Geiger to Charlotte, the Heat is on track to become a force in the Eastern Conference.
"Very rarely in your life as a basketball coach or as a franchise do you have the opportunity to bring in a franchise player," Riley said. "He has answered my prayers, without a doubt."
Most teams expressed interest when it became apparent that the Hornets would trade Mourning, but his desire was to play in either New York or Miami. Mourning will benefit under Riley, and seems content with the idea of spending the rest of his career in Miami.
"I'm looking forward to playing for these fans for the rest of my career," said Mourning, 25.
And Mourning will break the bank, without a doubt. He turned down a seven-year, $70 million contract from Charlotte. Reports that Mourning signed a contract extension of four years, $44 million with the Heat are false. Rumors in Miami are that Mourning, after this season, will sign a seven-year deal worth more than $100 million -- which would be the biggest contract in league history.
To Riley, it's money well spent.
"If you want to be different and separate yourself from the pack," Riley said, "the first thing you have to do is separate yourself from the pack at the bottom."
Grizzlies get comeuppance
For a while it looked like the Vancouver Grizzlies would be the surprise team in the NBA. And then, on Wednesday, reality set in.
Final score from San Antonio: Spurs 111, Vancouver 62. The Spurs nearly doubled the score, and the Grizzlies tied the fourth lowest scoring game in NBA history. David Robinson scored 31 points in 21 minutes, and the Spurs had more points in the second half (67) than the Grizzlies had in the game.
One rip job for another
Want to avoid a fight with an NBA player? For starters, you might want to avoid describing them in print the way writer R. E. Graswich described Sacramento Kings center Olden Polynice in a season preview:
"Few NBA players can talk better games, but stick Polynice in a must-win situation and his game is 7 feet of silence."
So disturbed was Polynice that he ripped the writer's shirt open and scratched him after the Kings' opening night win over Minnesota.
"He called me over to talk about some things I'd written about him," Graswich said. "He was making some fair complaints and we were talking. Then he said 'I've got some people in this town who can [expletive] you up.' "
That's when Graswich began to walk away, and got clawed. Polynice issued an apology the next day.
"I feel stupid that I allowed him to get under my skin like that," Polynice said. "I felt like he baited me into it, but my actions were wrong regardless of whatever the situation was. I should have disregarded the whole thing."
Around the league
The Boston Celtics paid big dollars for Dana Barros to be their point guard, but he has been backing up Sherman Douglas. "I'd like to start, but I'm not the coach," Barros said. . . . Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon needs eight points tomorrow against Minnesota to become only the 21st player to reach 20,000 points. . . . Leon Wood, who played with six different teams in his six-year NBA career (most recently 1990-91 with Sacramento) is one of the replacement officials.
Quote of the week
From Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, offering yet more criticism of the replacement officials: "I just think it's not working. They're like Stevie Wonder out there."