There's no mistaking Smits' big improvement One-time object of boos is a Pacers fan favorite


INDIANAPOLIS -- Rik Smits may bear a slight resemblance to fellow NBA big man Shawn Bradley, but any similarity between )) the Indiana Pacers star and the New Jersey Nets' underachieving center isn't evident on the court.

Still, not everyone sees the difference. Recently at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., a man walked up to the 7-foot-4 center and said, "This is unbelievable. Can I have my picture taken with you?"

Smits obliged, and the man put his arm around him, struck a pose and said proudly: "This is going to be great. When I get back home, I'm going to tell everybody I got my picture taken with Shawn Bradley!"

Clearly, this was no Kodak moment.

Smits has had no problem with being mistaken since arriving in the NBA from Marist College in 1988. People knew who he was early in his career, when Smits just hoped the boos that greeted him at Market Square Arena didn't follow him on his public outings. He was thought of as an underachiever. And clumsy.

Now, on a normal day out, Smits gets mobbed.

Combining a soft shooting touch with a fluid athleticism that is being required more of big men, Smits has developed into one of the league's top centers. The Pacers have come within a game of reaching the NBA Finals the past two seasons, and Smits is just as much a reason for the team's success as shooting guard Reggie Miller.

"It seems like more and more Rik is developing into a better basketball player," Pacers coach Larry Brown said. "I think he's to a point where he knows he's good, and it just adds to his confidence."

The only thing that has kept Smits from being an All-Star is that he plays in the same conference with Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning. With Mourning missing much of the first half of the season with an injury, there is an outside chance that this could be Smits' year.

"In the back of your mind, you think about it, and it would be a nice honor," Smits said. "If it happens, I'd feel great, but that's out of my control, and all I can do is just go out and play. My only goal, our team's only goal, is to win a championship."

Growing up in the Netherlands, soccer was the sport of choice, and Smits didn't play basketball until he was 15. The coaching staff at Marist heard about the man who would be later known as the "Dunking Dutchman" and, sight unseen, issued him a scholarship.

He was the conference player of the year his last two seasons at Marist. His size and agility intrigued NBA scouts, and he was drafted second in 1988 behind Danny Manning.

"I didn't even know what the NBA was when I got here, and while at Marist I saw maybe two or three games live," Smits said. "In my senior year, people kept saying I would be drafted really high. And while I didn't know what to expect, when I went as the second pick, I said, 'I'll be OK.' "

He averaged 11.7 points and 6.1 rebounds on the way to being named to the All-Rookie team and improved both averages his second season. But his scoring, rebounding and minutes declined in his third year, drawing the wrath of the fans. A whipping boy was born.

"It was tough," Smits said. "The fans got down on me; the coaches got down on me. It was like I couldn't make a mistake. Plus I was battling a lot of injures that really limited me."

Smits credits the improvement of his game to Brown's arrival before the 1993-94 season.

"Larry just came in and turned things around because he was very positive," Smits said. "He didn't put a lot of pressure on me. He said it was a team game and that we had to win together. He instilled a lot of confidence in me."

Brown noticed that Smits wasn't as agile as the player he had seen at Marist and suggested that Smits lose weight. The previous coaches had demanded he bulk up to 296 pounds.

Smits, who now plays at 265 pounds, has improved statistically each year under Brown, with career-high averages last season in scoring (17.9) and rebounding (7.7). His impressive performances against Ewing and O'Neal during the playoffs the past two seasons have added to his stature.

Before the season, Smits had surgery on bone spurs on his left ankle, and the Pacers were below .500 in his absence. He's playing with injuries so bothersome that Brown said "he shouldn't even be out there."

But Smits has helped put the team in second place in the Central Division with a 23-14 record that, while good enough to be within striking distance of other division leaders, is 10 1/2 games behind the Chicago Bulls.

"It's frustrating, especially with last year when we found out just how important the home court is," Smits said. "We may have gone to the Finals had we had home court against Orlando."

And should the Pacers get to the Finals, Smits' celebrity might grow. Smits loves flea markets and used to go without any problems. Now if he shows up, he has to be prepared to sign autographs.

And he'll oblige most requests. Just don't call him Shawn Bradley.

Bullets today

Opponent: Indiana Pacers

Site: Market Square Arena, Indianapolis

Time: 2:30 p.m.

Radio: WTEM (570 AM), WWLG (1360 AM)

Outlook: The teams meet for the first time this season. The Pacers have won seven straight at home against the Bullets. C Rik Smits (19.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and G Reggie Miller (20.5 ppg) lead the Pacers, who have won five of their past six and eight of 10. Washington ended a three-game losing streak Friday. F Juwan Howard returns after a one-game suspension. G Calbert

Cheaney (sprained right ankle) did not make the trip.

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