9.24.2008

Green Ready for the Outhouse

1981-82 Boston Celtics

It's a tale of woe entitled "From Penthouse to Outhouse." It's the story of a basketball team that once finished in the playoffs 12 straight seasons, one that was a champion as recently as 1978, and one which now faces life without its three best frontcourt players on a club that could win only 39 games despite their presence.

The Washington Bullets should stimulate program sales, if nothing else. The Opening Night opponent for the Celtics is a strange collection of former achievers (Spencer Haywood, John Lucas, Jim Chones) and present achievers (Kevin Grevey and Greg Ballard), flanked by a collection of someday-down- the-road achievers. They are coached by a man of boundless good cheer, a man who could dispense optimism to a Haitian boating expedition. Every reputable predictor in the land has chosen this team as the fifth-place finisher in the Atlantic Division and a definite entrant in the Ralph Sampson or Whoever Sweepstakes taking place next spring. Really, now, are things this bad down in D.C.?

"Time," says Gene Shue, the coach of this maligned team. "We need time. If we could just get to the point where we could do certain things well quickly, we'll be all right." By that he means that while he may have more talent on hand than outsiders suspect, by the time it gets molded into something that could properly be described as a basketball team, the snow might be six feet deep.

Shue is only too well aware of the fact that he is being viewed around the league as captain of the Titanic. "They probably think we're lousy," he says. Indeed, one of the best things the Bullets have going for them is the built-in overconfidence factor of the opponents.

Well, who are these masked men, anyway? They are people named Mahorn, Davis, Holland, Ruland, Johnson, Collins and Witts (more on him later). As a team they would be favored to win the NCAA championship. The NBA title is something else.

The most important member of this young (none over 24) septet is Ricky Mahorn, simply because he is the new Washington starting center. As a rookie in 1980-81, the Hartford (Weaver High) product, drafted after a fine career at Hampton (Va.) Institute, averaged 4.8 points a game in 52 games. Suddenly, the muscular 23-year-old is a starting NBA pivotman.

Exhibition returns indicate that Mahorn will not be intimidated by the assignment. He is unlikely to become a big NBA scorer, but he has the body and apparent determination to be an acceptable rebounder, and he has shot-blocking potential. Moreover, he understands the concept of anchoring the team defense. He may, in fact, be the most verbal defensive center since Dave Cowens. No teammate will be complaining about not having a pick called out by Ricky Mahorn.

"Mahorn," lauds Grevey, "is a rugged player, a Wes Unseld-type player. By talking the way he does on defense, it makes the job easier for the guards. Mahorn has assumed the leadership role for himself."

Shue has been very pleased with Mahorn. "He's had a very good camp," claims the mentor. "He's the type of player who is going to do winning things." Of Mahorn's defensive verbosity, Shue comments, "all last season, when he wasn't playing he was learning, doing what he should. He's been told over and over what he should be doing, and he's doing it."

But Mahorn isn't blessed with enormous supporting power, especially in the area of rebounding. Enter Haywood, a player who is fast becoming one of those legendary, isn't-it-too-bad-he-never-saw-the-light? figures. "He could really help if he rebounded for us," claims Shue, "and I think he will." Haywood, for his part, maintains that he now has seen The Light and that he realizes nobody will believe him until they see some numbers posted on the board.

The likely starting lineup will consist of Mahorn in the middle, the sweet-shooting (but light-rebounding) Ballard in one corner and, probably, 6- foot-6 rookie Charles Davis of Vanderbilt, an efficient, but inexperienced, player in the other corner. Grevey, a starter on the 1978 championship team, and Lucas will be the guards. Key backups will be the veteran Chones (a surprising nonstarter), second-year jet Don Collins, guard Brad Holland, first draft pick Frank Johnson, Haywood, and the shocker, Garry Witts.

Each year there emerges from the hundreds of candidates attending the training camps a surprise player or two, someone who packed his bags and headed for camp as a lark and who instead finds himself wearing a uniform on Opening Night. And so we give you a kid from Holy Cross named Garry Witts, who was the 103d man picked in the draft. Witts - wow, he made the NBA and Ronnie Perry didn't - is a 6-6 swingman who has stuck, however briefly, as a guard. It is partly circumstantial, since the battle for the 12th spot came down to Witts and a 6-2 guard named Ed Odom. Shue felt he had enough squirts, leaving Witts, who had played well, on the club. But it was an honor earned in a legitimate fashion nonetheless.

This is a project team, and some people think it is therefore Gene Shue's type of team. "We're not fluid offensively," Shue admits, "but defensively we've made great improvement." Adds Grevey, "We'll have to work together to do anything, since we don't have any unstoppable forces."

Not unlike the Celtics, the Bullets have their own tradition, their own cherished memories. Theirs is a legacy of Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin, Hayes, Unseld and the unfathomable Earl Monroe. If the pessimists are correct, the old names will be discussed this year over the nightly postgame beers in preference to the new ones.

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