Is Joe Kleine Walking Through that Door?

June 27, 1997

They've got their "dream backcourt." They've got their future All-Star forward. Now, the Celtics need to visit the Rent-A-Center store.

Coach Rick Pitino was quite candid Wednesday night about the team's rather glaring weakness in the middle. He might also have noted that there is a hole at power forward, although the coach says Antoine Walker - who really is a small forward - will man the position for now. And with yesterday's decision not to contest the aborted trade of Dino Radja to Philadelphia, he can't yet be erased from the picture, either.

But the center spot is still every bit as vacant as it was the day Eric Montross was sent to Dallas. Since then, we've seen Pervis Ellison, Radja, Brett Szabo, Marty Conlon, Alton Lister, Frank Brickowski, Steve Hamer and even the 6-foot-9-inch Walker as the man in the middle. We'll see someone else next season, probably more than one person.

"We have to go out there and sort of do what the Chicago Bulls have done with their philosophy," Pitino said Wednesday night after making his first-round selections. "They had three players where they utilized 15 fouls uh, Rick, it's 18 in the NBA. We've got to make the strengths in other areas."

The Bulls have gotten by with a Center by Committee for the last two years, using Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and the Designated Graybeard (James Edwards, Robert Parish). Chicago did bring in mercenary Brian Williams for the playoff run, but he's not returning. Having utilitarian types manning the middle is fine when there's an overabundance of talent at the other spots.

That's the case with the Bulls. Pitino is hoping that's the case in Boston. He feels he has three of the five bases covered with Walker and draft picks Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. If you count Eric Williams at small forward, then possibly he has four of the five spots covered, though Williams could go in a deal for a legitimate NBA center. There's also a chance free agent forward Rick Fox will be back.

Ellison and Radja are the only players over 6-9 under contract for next season. That's small by NBA standards, and if you want to run, you have to rebound. And if you want to rebound, you've got to have some size.

Last year, the Celtics faced the same dilemma without the accompanying stars. M.L. Carr went with the Brittle Veteran Approach (Brickowski, Lister) and eventually resorted to Walker when the predictable ailments occurred. Already, the Celtics were working out big men yesterday at Brandeis - journeymen Tim Kempton and Chris Jent were among those scheduled to be there - and, by October, you can be sure a functional NBA center will surface.

Given the way the NBA is headed - the consensus top centers, save Shaq and Tim Duncan, are 31 or older - Pitino may not feel a desperate need to fill the middle with anything more than your serviceable center from Central Casting. There will be several of those available next Tuesday when free agency opens for the summer. The question is how much Pitino wants to spend, and for how long, to hire a temp.

Here are some of the names you may hear. They're all available as of Tuesday:

Mark West: He turns 37 in December. Played 70 games for the Cavs last season, starting 43.

Oliver Miller: Talented, but always overweight and not well liked.

Andrew DeClerq: Played 71 games for the Warriors last season.

Joe Kleine: He can set picks for Mercer, if not much else. Good locker room presence, which Pitino wants. Played 59 games for three teams last year.

Chris Dudley: Forget it. He's out of their price range.

Derek Strong: Not really a center but has played one on television.

Duane Causwell: Fallen out of favor in Sacramento, where he played in only 46 games last year.

Patrick Ewing: Hey, he played for Rick before. The Celtics have the $ 1 million exception. What's $ 49 million between old friends?

Bill Wennington: He knows how the Bulls work.

There are others as well. Pitino is not only looking for size, he's looking for age. Don't be surprised if the one free agent on his own roster who signs for another year is Conlon, who's 6-10, played for Pitino at Providence and has been around the loop. He was justifiably horrified at what went on last year, which should make him an automatic re-signee.

"We've got to get considerably older now," Pitino said after the draft. "We've got to bring in some wise veterans who can help this basketball team."

Conlon certainly qualifies. So would someone like Kleine, who might be amenable to a one-year deal. Or Dan Schayes.

Depending on what is eventually done with Radja, Pitino will have some cash to spend. Rent-A-Center is now open for business.

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