No one's laughing now about a date with Nets


It's the basketball equivalent of nature vs. nurture or chicken vs. egg. Namely, which is harder for a team: getting to the top or staying there?

Put down New Jersey Nets coach Byron Scott as a definite vote for the latter.

"Sustaining it [is tougher]," Scott said. "That's always the toughest challenge. Any time you come from where we came from last year to get to where we got to, to get to the Finals, and then the next year, it's always tougher because nobody is taking you lightly.

"Everybody is expecting you to be good, to be the best team in the East, and they kind of mark their calendar when you come into town."

The Nets are running ahead of the 52-win pace that earned them their first Atlantic Division championship last season, as well as a first trip to the NBA Finals. They're doing it despite playing most of the season without center Dikembe Mutombo, the focal point of an offseason trade that sent forward Keith Van Horn to Philadelphia.

New Jersey, the former Eastern laughingstock of the league, has taken flight. The Nets have done it with an infusion of new talent, including forward Richard Jefferson and center Jason Collins. More than a few people have taken notice.

"This franchise is booming, and that's sort of a blueprint of what we look at in Washington," Wizards coach Doug Collins said before the Nets beat them, 86-78, last Wednesday. "We notice how quickly things can change if you do due diligence in your job and those kinds of things.

"Byron did a wonderful job last year. Last year, they were kind of riding a high. They came running out of the gate. They come back this year and now, all of a sudden, when you look at the Nets on your schedule, it takes on a whole new meaning. They don't sneak up on anybody anymore."


The Milwaukee Bucks are the only team this season to complete a month unbeaten on the road, winning all six games away from the Bradley Center in January. Name the last NBA team to go undefeated on the road in a month. Here's a hint: It was a Western team that made the playoffs last season.

Ref enforcement

Expect commissioner David Stern to spend a lot of time at All-Star Weekend answering questions about the conduct of on-court league officials in light of seven-game suspensions given to Portland's Rasheed Wallace and Utah coach Jerry Sloan for recent run-ins with referees.

Though Sloan and Wallace crossed a line on conduct, referees apparently exacerbated things by engaging the volatile coach and player, continuing a trend that players and coaches have paid attention to.

"[Referees] think people come out to see them," grumbled a veteran NBA player. "You used to be able to talk to them, but not anymore."

Kwame concern

Though Kwame Brown appears to be a hot property around the league, it appears unlikely that the Wizards will deal him before the league's trading deadline Feb. 20. But that doesn't mean they are entirely happy with his play or progress.

For public consumption, all connected with the Wizards profess their love or at least a strong like for Brown, the first overall choice in the 2001 draft and the first player to be taken with the initial pick straight out of high school.

But if you read between the lines, you can feel a touch of exasperation in Brown's good-one-game, lousy-the-next performances this season.

Just last week, in effusively praising the Phoenix Suns' high school phenom Amare Stoudemire, the Wizards' Collins sent out some not-so-subtle signals that he'd like to see something approximating consistency in Brown's play and work habits.

"They'll throw the ball in there to him [Stoudemire], but the majority of stuff he gets on energy and effort, running the floor - you know, all the things that I preach," Collins said.

Collins said he told his friends in the Suns' organization that, based on his roller-coaster ride with Brown, they would experience "the ups and downs" of drafting a high school player such as Stoudemire, who went ninth in last June's draft.

"Have I eaten my words?" Collins said. "Everything I've heard about him is, he works exceptionally hard in practice, that he gets there early and loves to play extra against the guards, playing one-on-one, that he sits down and watches a ton of tape, and that he wants to learn.

"When you have that attitude and that kind of skill, there's only one way to go. Phoenix is very blessed that they have a young player who has grasped it that quickly."

Tarnished owner

The Boston Globe recently obtained a copy of a deposition taken from Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling last May in a lawsuit the club filed against former coach Bill Fitch.

The document provided startling evidence that Sterling might be the most clueless owner in all of sports.

The Clippers sued Fitch after the 1997-98 season, when he had two years left and $4 million guaranteed on his contract, claiming that he wasn't looking hard enough for another job. The suit was eventually settled, but no terms were announced.

However, in the deposition, Sterling, an attorney, said that he not only didn't decide to sue Fitch, but that he also wasn't consulted and didn't have input on the decision. He said that he didn't know what a guaranteed contract was.

Wait, there's more. Sterling, who is reported to be one of the NBA's cheapest owners, said he had no input on player signings, on the salary cap or other financial matters.

Even better was Sterling's admission that he didn't know who his player personnel director was or who Bob Weiss was.

Weiss just happens to be the coach who preceded Fitch; he sued Sterling when the Clippers stopped paying money he was owed after he was fired.

Sterling also couldn't remember the last time the Clippers were in the playoffs, but then he's not alone on that.

No one else can, either.

Quiz answer

The Seattle SuperSonics were 6-0 on the road last February.


"There's no black pair of shoes, no brown pair of shoes, no blue pair of shoes. You bring one pair. And you better know how to make one suit go a long way." - San Antonio guard Steve Smith, on how to prepare for the Spurs' nine-game, 23-day road trip.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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