Is Ron Mercer Already a Second Tier 2-Guard?

Is Ron Mercer Already a Second Tier 2-Guard?

 February 3, 1999

WALTHAM - The first thing you have to do is see the man walk. This is important stuff. You will never understand how incredibly hip Ron Mercer is until you study his gait. Well, it's not actually a gait. It's a strut. It's a smooth stroll that gives you a sudden hiccup, just to see if you're paying attention. It almost reminds you of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in "Stir Crazy." But those were exaggerated cool steps. Mercer does not overindulge in the reservoir of cool. He's a natural. Nothing forced.

Maybe years ago in Nashville, his hometown, he stole that walk from his father, uncle, or cousin because he thought it looked good. That's OK. It now appears to be an original. As you know by now, the way Mercer walks is already a conversation piece. "It's a normal walk for me, but people look at me all the time and ask me if something is wrong with my foot or if something is wrong with my ankle," he said yesterday. "It's just the way I walk." So if you happened to be near Parker Hill Avenue in Mission Hill Monday and saw Mercer walking into New England Baptist Hospital, you witnessed the tremendously cool trot-in-slow-motion of which we speak. Right? "Oh, [ Monday] was a limp," he said. "It was just a big limp."

 The people who wonder what exactly is up with the 22-year-old Celtics guard's walk would have had an argument Monday. Something wrong with a foot? No. Something wrong with an ankle? No. Something wrong with the right knee? Very. Something wrong with the Celtics? Certainly. When Mercer fell on teammate Bruce Bowen during Monday's practice and sprained his medial collateral ligament, he changed his day and the day of, oh, several thousand people. As twisted as it sounds, you know you've arrived as a beloved New England athlete when strangers fret about your sore feet (Larry Bird), fractured finger (Drew Bledsoe), and ailing hip (Cam Neely). And you know they like you when they notice your walk and wonder about your sprained knee. Instead of walking toward his car to go home Monday, Mercer limped toward another car that would take him to the hospital for an MRI. We can't confirm this, but during that time, we believe that Rick Pitino was in an intense prayer session, pleading for a sprain rather than a tear ("When I found out it was a strain, I was very happy," Pitino said).

The coach tried to remain calm when initially talking about the injury, but you know he was a wreck when all the cameras were turned off and all the people with notepads had gone away. And let's not forget the fans. A man from Albany, N.Y., called me at 11 p.m. Monday saying he wouldn't be able to sleep until I told him Mercer was OK. (My first thought: Yo, man. Who do you think I am, Trapper John, M.D.? Second thought: Keep this guy on the line as long as possible, withholding information until he falls asleep. Third thought: Try Nyquil. Final thought, an imagined dialogue with spouse/girlfriend: "Sweetheart, I'm just really distracted right now. I can't stop thinking about Ron Mercer . . . ")

 The fan from Albany may be more passionate than most, but at least he understands something that should be clear to everyone: No Mercer for a month translates to no fun for the Celtics. Pitino said yesterday that the 6-foot-7-inch Mercer could be missing anywhere from two games to a month. Mercer was more optimistic. He said he will test his knee tomorrow and then determine his status for Friday's opener. "There is a lot of time between now and Friday," he said. "I'm going to try and shoot for Friday and Saturday." It also shouldn't surprise you that Mercer said he will not force anything. If he's ready, he'll play. If not? "I'd rather miss two games than the whole season." If you are predicting 25, 26, or even 30 wins for the Celtics in this 50-game season, you had better hope you see Mercer on the parquet wearing shorts that have a Celtics logo rather than pants that have a fashion designer's logo. As much as this team needs Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, and Paul Pierce, it cannot survive without Mercer.

That is not a criticism of the men who will sub for him when, or if, he can't play. Fact is, not many pro shooting guards do what Mercer does. And in a few years, you may not be able to find five guys like him. Michael Jordan (a mean walker himself) is officially retired. So take a look at the remaining top shooting guards in the NBA. There's Mitch Richmond, who will be 34 in June. There's Reggie Miller, who will be 34 in August. After them? You could include Eddie Jones, Latrell Sprewell on his best days, Michael Finley, and Mercer. Players like Mercer are rare. That's why the Celtics will sit down this summer and sign him to a long contract extension. That's why the Denver Nuggets sat down last summer and popped themselves upside the head for not drafting Mercer in 1997. That's why the Celtics had Mercer at Brandeis at 10:30 yesterday morning, icing and massaging his knee, hoping that will be enough to get him back on the court in time to face the Raptors Friday. Or, at least, in time for their games in Florida Monday and Tuesday. The Celtics don't want him to rush back. Seeing The Walk will be convincing enough.

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