Looking out for No. 1 Muggsy Bogues: His future in Charlotte uncertain, the former Dunbar star says he must focus on doing what's best for himself and his family.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As often happens with Muggsy Bogues, the play evolved in a flash. First, he stripped Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the ball. As Abdul-Rauf tried to chase him down and block his layup, Bogues flipped an over-the-shoulder pass to teammate Rafael Addison for a dunk.

The sellout crowd at the Charlotte Coliseum erupted.

"Just like old times, Muggsy," one courtside fan said above the din.

"You're baaacckk," yelled another.

Bogues smiled, not only at the fans who were cheering this sequence in Friday night's victory over the Nuggets, but also at the irony of his own situation. It did seem like old times, those good times for Bogues and the Hornets the past few seasons. And, for that moment, things seemed to be right back where they were.

But something has changed for Bogues.

It took the first injury of his basketball life, as well as what he says was media-driven criticism by the fans last summer for his subpar performance in last year's playoffs, to turn this eternal optimist into a hard-core realist. The 5-foot-3 kid from Baltimore who beat the odds to become a full-fledged NBA star is clearly at the crossroads of his career.

"It was a big turning point for me," Bogues said of the leg injury, which forced him to miss the final week of the regular season last spring and affected his play in Charlotte's first-round playoff series vs. the Bulls.

"It made me stronger," Bogues said. "It made me sit back and think about some things. In a way, it helped. But in a way, it didn't help, because I was away from basketball."

The severe bone bruise and torn cartilage would require arthroscopic surgery and several months of rehabilitation, forcing him to miss the first 45 games this season.

It has been a little over a week since Bogues returned to the Hornets, who play host to the Washington Bullets here tonight. But the team Bogues returned to and the role he is now being asked to play are far different from last season. He had been the starting point guard on a team that won 50 games and seemed ready to make a run for an NBA title. He is now a 31-year-old reserve on a 25-25 team searching for an identity.

Talk about a helpless feeling. Not only did Bogues watch as the Hornets traded unhappy, soon-to-be free-agent center Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat, but he also sat back and saw several point guards come and go. There was former Hornet Kendall Gill, reacquired over the summer from the Seattle SuperSonics. There was Khalid Reeves, who came in the Mourning deal. And, finally, there was Kenny Anderson, who arrived Jan. 19 in a trade from the New Jersey Nets for Gill and Reeves.

"It was tough, seeing the team go through as many changes as we did," said Bogues, who remains one of two original members -- along with backup shooting guard Dell Curry -- still playing for the 8-year-old franchise. "During the course of the summer, I was taking a lot of criticism because the way the season ended.

"Before the playoffs [an opening-round loss to the Chicago Bulls in which Bogues shot 31 percent], I was having one of my best seasons. I felt I wasn't getting a fair shake at times because the people didn't know the situation [with the injury]. With the trades -- losing the franchise player [Mourning] -- and the team trying to find solutions, there was nothing you could do about it. Then seeing them bring in one point guard after another, I started to feel unappreciated."

It wasn't only because of what Bogues had done on the court for the Hornets: twice being named the team's Most Valuable Player, being the NBA's only guard besides the Utah Jazz's John Stockton to have at least 600 assists in each of the past seven seasons and missing just 15 games as a Hornet before the injury.

It was also for what he did off the court: the countless personal appearances he made for the team, the community charity events he showed up at, unannounced, and the way he had his contract restructured when the team first signed Mourning.

"Whatever they wanted, I did," he said.

Bogues doesn't appear bitter. He still has more than two years left on a six-year contract that's worth a reported average of $1.7 million annually. He has turned his David-vs.-Goliath image into a healthy stream of national endorsements, as well as a book and soon-to-be-finished movie about his life. He will appear in two movies this summer, including a cameo appearance in one starring Whoopi Goldberg.

But with Anderson's future in Charlotte uncertain -- the former Georgia Tech star will be highly sought after as a free agent at the end of the season -- Bogues isn't quite sure about his own. They are represented by the same agent, Washington-based power broker David Falk, so at least Bogues should know what's going on.

"Right now, my first priority is to take care of myself and my family," Bogues said of his wife, Kimberly, and their two children, 9-year-old Brittany and 4-year-old Tyrone II, as well as 13-year-old Tyisha, who lives with her mother in Baltimore. "I love Charlotte. It's been a good place for me and my family. I would love to finish my career here. But I have to do what's best for me.

"I'm concerned about my knee. If we were doing extremely well right now, I'd probably not be back right now. I'd be building it up to 110 percent, instead of coming back at 80 or 90. I know that the team needed me to help them make the playoffs. But in a way, I'm being selfish. I want to play."

What's best for Bogues now is to get healthy. In the four games since he was reactivated -- not coincidentally, three of them victories -- Bogues has shown only short blasts from the past. They usually have come in the first half, before his left knee begins to stiffen and his cuts become limited.

But even playing 15 minutes a night is, for both Bogues and the Hornets, better than not playing at all. That's how much Bogues was playing until coming out after seven minutes in Sunday's win over the Milwaukee Bucks because of stiffness in the knee. Bogues didn't practice the past two days, but is expected to play tonight.

"It's definitely to our advantage, having Kenny Anderson and Muggsy Bogues," said Hornets forward Larry Johnson, Bogues' best friend on the team. "The way we play, we're going to need fresh legs out there."

Said Curry: "When we put Muggsy in there and take Kenny out, we don't lose anything."

Though Hornets coach Allan Bristow said he isn't looking toward next season, it seems likely that Charlotte will keep Bogues regardless of what happens with Anderson. Bogues is certainly not considered damaged goods, but his size, age, salary and the time it took him to recover from his injury at least will make other teams think twice about his long-term value.

And, for the time being, Bogues is concentrating on helping the Hornets make a run at the playoffs. Considering all the doubters Bogues has silenced over the years, this seems only a minor obstacle for the former Dunbar star. "I'm just glad to be back on the floor again," he said. "I'm just glad the good Lord gave me the strength to be back this season."

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