He's the best NBA player hardly anyone has seen, having spent five years in the obscurity that came with being a member of the Vancouver Grizzlies. That franchise is now in Memphis, but Shareef Abdur-Rahim is in Atlanta, playing for the Hawks.
It has been a long journey back to his hometown for Abdur-Rahim, who left Atlanta six years ago. He spent one college season at Cal-Berkeley before going to Vancouver, where he averaged more than 20 points and eight rebounds for his career but rarely was seen on anything but the team's local telecasts.
"I knew he could score in the low post, and I knew he could rebound, but I didn't honestly know a lot more about his game," Hawks general manager Pete Babcock said last week. "You never know about a guy until you're around him every day, and Shareef has been a real leader."
While it has yet to translate into wins - the Hawks were 0-2 going into last night's game against Miami - Abdur-Rahim is confident that the draft-night trade that sent him to Atlanta for No. 3 overall pick Pau Gasol, forward Lorenzen Wright and guard Brevin Knight will turn into a happy homecoming.
In one regard, it has already been. Abdur-Rahim's parents rarely got to see him play in college or in the pros. Now they're at every game. Abdur-Rahim has become involved in community programs, including one in which he will donate $25 to a local food bank for every rebound he gets.
"I'm from here. I feel a need to be involved," Abdur-Rahim said before Thursday's game against the Washington Wizards. "For everything to come together the way it did and for me to wind up back here, I look at it happening for a reason. God wanted it to happen."
Abdur-Rahim has been a practicing Muslim since childhood. His father, William, is an imam, or minister, at a mosque up the street from Philips Arena. As one of a handful of Muslims in the NBA, Abdur-Rahim believes it his responsibility to teach others about his religion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"That's all you can do," Abdur-Rahim said. "You have people who don't know anything except what they see about those who attacked us, who are using the religion in the wrong way. I think people want to learn, and if I can help them understand things better, then I should."
Abdur-Rahim is also trying to teach some of his younger teammates about life in the NBA, about how it takes more than showing up for practices and games to become one of the league's best players. Aside from leading the Hawks in points and rebounds, he might also lead them in hours on the job.
"He's everything he's supposed to be. He works as hard as anyone I've ever seen," said second-year guard DerMarr Johnson, whose own work ethic has jeopardized his NBA future. "That's good for me to see. He's never been on a winning team, and I think that gives him some motivation here."
A number of preseason prognosticators picked the New Jersey Nets to make the playoffs and possibly move ahead of their more publicized neighbors from across the Hudson River, the New York Knicks, in the Atlantic Division standings.
Having not been one of them, it was heartening to know that there were still plenty of seats on this bandwagon. But considering New Jersey's first two games, it's getting to be very crowded on the bus, if not quite at the Continental Airlines Arena.
Only about 8,000 fans came to watch the Nets come from 18 points down to beat the Indiana Pacers in Tuesday's season opener, with most opting to stay home and watch the Knicks take on Michael Jordan at Madison Square Garden or the Yankees play Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
The Nets followed it up by holding off the Celtics in Boston after building a 25-point lead.
Before losing at Charlotte on Friday, point guard Jason Kidd had led his new teammates to the franchise's first 2-0 start since 1997-98 - the last year the Nets were in the playoffs. In essence, Kidd has been everything that Stephon Marbury was not.
In other words, the kind of mature floor leader whose teammates get better rather than bitter playing with him. Kidd had near triple doubles in each of the first two games and played spectacularly down the stretch against Boston.
Not that Kidd is selfless. "I want the ball when it's time to make a basket," Kidd said after making four of them and passing off to Kerry Kittles for a three-pointer in the 95-92 win over Boston.
Said second-year Nets coach Byron Scott, "Jason's our catalyst. He can take over the game, whether it's by making big shots, big free throws or big plays on the defensive end, and he did them all tonight."
If the Nets have been one of the biggest surprises in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat isn't far behind.
Most figured that Alonzo Mourning's kidney condition would prevent him from being the player he was two years ago and that Eddie Jones might not return to his All-Star level after off-season shoulder surgery. With veterans Tim Hardaway, Dan Majerle and Bruce Bowen departed, prevailing wisdom had the Heat fading like one of those Biscayne Bay sunsets.
This once-shining franchise might still disappear - a loss on Friday to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers wasn't a good sign - but the play of Mourning and Jones has been encouraging, to say the least. In beating the Toronto Raptors on opening night, Mourning finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in 33 minutes.
"It's not like I forgot how to play the game of basketball," Mourning said. "The thing that's not there is the conditioning. The skill level is still there; I didn't lose that. I think we can make some noise. I really feel that way. It's a season of ups and downs; we just need to establish some consistency."
Mourning took a shot at those who suggested his career might be over or, at best, on a fast downhill track.
"I know what I'm capable of doing," Mourning said. "You all must have forgotten how I play."
Jones has been a little slower to come around after missing the entire exhibition season following surgery to repair the shoulder he dislocated late last season. Though he shot only 6-for-15 from the field, a 25-footer gave the Heat a 94-90 lead after Vince Carter cut Toronto's deficit to one in the final minute.
"I want to be able to get the ball in my hands and create something for this team," Jones said. "I don't mind being the goat. If it goes in, great; if it doesn't, OK. I'm going to put myself into position to make plays for this team."
Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.