Joe Kleine in Search of a Role

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July 21, 1991
Joe Kleine, Olympic gold medalist, lottery pick and six-year NBA veteran, is fighting for his professional life and has decided to knock heads with NBA wannabes this weekend at Celtics rookie camp.

No one has to tell the big redhead last season was a bad one. He had a slow start, lost his spot in the substitution pattern and never regained it. For the first time in his life, he saw DNP-CD (coach's decision) next to his name. Unless something drastically changes, he could be headed for more of the same in 1991-92.

"I've done everything I can this summer to prevent it from happening again," Kleine said. "What happened to me last year is business in the NBA. Instead of crying about it, I'm trying to do something about it." 

Kleine had served as a more-than-serviceable backup to Robert Parish when Chris Ford took over the coaching reins and began fiddling with the lineup. For starters, Ford wanted Ed Pinckney, who was on the verge of extinction, back in the rotation. He also experimented with moving Kevin McHale to backup center when Larry Bird was in the game at power forward, and he liked what he saw. Bye bye, Joe.

That's not to suggest Kleine was denied chances. A new, uptempo style was a major adjustment for the big center, who is a physical, half-court banger, not a guy who fills the lanes on the break. Big Joe began the season getting whistled for a moving screen every time he tried to set a pick, and it all went downhill from there. In particular, his rebounding skills diminished greatly.

With McHale thriving in the pivot again and project Stojko Vrankovic in need of some NBA minutes, the inevitable followed: Kleine became trade bait. There was talk with Orlando about acquiring its 22d pick in the draft, and with Miami about its early second-rounder. But DNP-CD's have a way of dwindling your value, and there were no takers.

Kleine has monitored it all with mixed feelings.

"It's a very funny situation for me," he said. "I want to play. Something would be wrong with me if I didn't. You start thinking about other places if that isn't going to happen here, but then you realize how special it is to be part of the Celtics. Ideally, you try to play and play for the Celtics. That's what I want."

Kleine is acutely aware that Vrankovic is on the second year of a two-year pact, and if he doesn't play any more than he did last season, there's a good chance he'll go home to Yugoslavia.

So, he expects the trade wheels will stay in motion. In fact, because his wife, Dana, is pregnant with their second child, the joke in the Kleine household is that the trade will be coming soon. The last time Kleine was traded, from Sacramento to Boston, Dana was in labor.

"People always say to me, 'Wow, that's neat - you were traded and had a son all in the same day,' " said Kleine. "I tell them, 'Try in the same half-hour.' "

Kleine was in the delivery room with Dana when he was told he had an important phone call. It was Kings boss Jerry Reynolds, telling him to pack his bags.

"I came back into the delivery room and Dana said, 'Oh no, Joe, have you been traded?' I told her, 'Nah, that was just Jerry calling, seeing how you were doing.' "

After Daniel Kleine arrived safely into the world, his father disclosed that he would have to be on a plane to Boston in the morning.

This time, Dana's due date is the first week in September.

"I figure that's the week the deal goes down," said Kleine, chuckling.

It remains to be seen if there still is a place on this team for Kleine. The odds are clearly against him, but he's going to rookie camp, to the LA Summer League, too, and he's bringing his work ethic - and sense of humor.

"I told them I was anxious to come to rookie camp," he said, "but only if they'd let me play."

In the end, the Celtics may wave goodbye to Big Joe, one of the most popular players on the team, but it won't be easy. In fact, he's trying to make it as difficult as humanly possible.

Sixers mean business

Who knows if the moves are good ones, but the Sixers are working hard toward being the most active NBA team in terms of offseason transactions.

They began by declining to pick up the option on Rick Mahorn's contract, thus clearing some money to sign Charles Shackleford, a talent with a suspect past. Even more suspect, however, is his ability to concentrate while he's on the basketball floor.

Still, it was a move that made sense, particularly since Eastern Conference rivals Boston and Detroit were mulling the same move.

Next, the Sixers gambled and signed Mitchell Wiggins, the former Houston Rocket guard whose drug woes are well documented. Philly almost pulled the trigger on the same deal last winter, but there was some disagreement on when and where a drug test should be administered, and the Sixers backed off. They are convinced now that Wiggins is clean. If he can stay drug free, he'll put points on the board.

But the best news of all for Philly is that Johnny Dawkins showed up at rookie camp last week and scrimmaged on alternate days - without a knee brace. The Sixers figure he's only 65-70 percent, but the fact remains he is far ahead of schedule, and with a healthy Dawkins, Philly takes a giant step toward threatening Boston as the top Atlantic Division team.

Dawkins has been holed up in Durham, N.C., for the past eight months doing rehab, and he taped a picture of Bernard King on his refrigerator for inspiration.

"I don't go in there without seeing his face," said Dawkins.

Dawkins said he'd like to play without the brace on a permanent basis, but has been advised for now that if he feels tired or is unsure of the competition, the protection would be a good idea.

In the meantime, owner Harold Katz has warned fringe players such as Dave Hoppen and Kenny Payne that he's eaten contracts before and he'll do it again if he doesn't see production.

That "get tough" approach carried over to rookie camp. Free agent Jerome Harmon of Louisville called and told the Sixers he'd be a day late because of a commitment to Seattle. The Sixers' response? Don't bother coming at all.

He didn't land Lanny

Remember we told you to keep an eye on whom Minnesota coach Jimmy Rodgers chooses as his assistants? Rodgers, you recall, wanted former Celtic assistant Lanny Van Eman, while the front office wanted him to take video coordinator Dave Pritchett. Sid Lowe, the former North Carolina State star and a broadcaster last season, was already a given. Well, Rodgers didn't get Van Eman, but he didn't take Pritchett, either. The compromise was Jim Brewer, the Timberwolves' director of player personnel who will serve in a dual role. Van Eman, meanwhile, was named head coach of the CBA's Rockford Lightning last week . . . Rodgers had a few interesting invitees to his rookie camp, among them veteran Albert King, who toiled for the CBA's Albany Patroons last season, former N.C. State forward Lorenzo Charles, best known for his winning hoop in the NCAA championship game against Houston (think Lowe had input into this?), and Michael Ansley, Orlando's former second-round pick. Felton Spencer also showed up, but unsigned draft choice Luc Longley remained in New Mexico . . . The new trend is for unsigned draft choices to come to camp. The most celebrated has been UNLV's Greg Anthony, who took out his own insurance and showed up at New York's camp. That triggered a visit from John Starks, a restricted free agent sans contract who started to realize the Knicks' backcourt (Anthony, Mark Jackson, Mo Cheeks, Trent Tucker, Gerald Wilkins) was getting awfully crowded. Starks also might have been persuaded by the comments of assistant general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who said he was "disappointed" when Starks did not appear on the first day . . . LaBradford Smith, Washington's first-round choice, also went to camp unsigned, as did Golden State's Shaun Vandiver. But Vandiver's seemingly clean bill of health has attracted a lot of attention overseas, and he also is mulling over two Italian offers . . . Reggie Theus is off to the Ranger Varese team, inking a three-year deal worth $ 1.5 million a year. Theus is a perfect fit in the Italian Leagues: He scores tons of points, plays no defense, wears a lot of silk, has a charming smile and is an endorsement wizard. The Nets are not all that sad to see him go: His departure opens up minutes for Yugoslavian guard Drazen Petrovic, who showed up to rookie camp on coach Bill Fitch's request to work on his defense . . . A major shakeup is in the works in the soft drink world. Michael Jordan is poised to make the jump to Gatorade, seemingly leaving Coke in the lurch. But fear not: David Robinson is ready to rake in the millions just for the taste of it . . . The Pistons continue to shop James Edwards and Mark Aguirre and are taking a long look at Australian center Mark Bradtke. Bradtke started ahead of Longley in the World Championships and Goodwill Games, but before you get too excited, realize that he was in Portland's camp last season and got the ax.

Reading and writhing

You have to wonder about those Italian newspapers. They got Lakers center Vlade Divac in hot water again by quoting him as saying he would like to play in Italy after this season because it's his "favorite country." That sent Divac's agent, Marc Fleischer, on another damage control mission. Fleischer is correct when he says those journalists are unreliable. Remember when Brian Shaw was in Rome? Not only did they switch his statistics with Danny Ferry's so Ferry would look better, they also quoted him extensively without ever talking to him. Come to think of it, next time Brian is unhappy with his American press coverage, it might be a good thing to remind him of . . . One of the reasons Tom Garrick is not surfacing at any rookie camps (including Boston's) is the slight tendinitis in his knee. He would rather make an impression at 100 percent . . . Ron Rothstein has replaced Dick Harter as the Pistons' color man for next season, prompting speculation he might be in line as Chuck Daly's successor. Rothstein was an assistant with Detroit under Daly and is widely recognized as the defensive wizard that put Detroit's relentless style in place. Those close to the team say Daly's respect for Rothstein has not wavered, in spite of the latter's unpleasant stay in Miami as head man . . . John Battle signed with Cleveland last week under a "creative financing plan." Now all the Cavs have to do is unload Hot Rod Williams. Battle's agent said his client did have some talks with Boston, but it wasn't going to happen. No. 1, the Celtics don't have the money under the cap, and No. 2, Ford is not a Battle fan . . . Fitch says he likes his guys to be feisty. He won't have to worry about second-round draft choice Von McDade, who was charged with disorderly conduct Wednesday for an altercation during a pickup game. Seems that McDade objected to a foul called by former Wisconsin-Milwaukee teammate Brian Dranzik and went after him. Dranzik, a 7-footer, required three stitches. McDade, who stands 6-4, was not injured . . . In spite of their stunning first-round exit in the postseason, Phoenix has sold out its season tickets for the first time in the club's 23-year history . . . Patrick Ewing's arbitration hearing is tomorrow. They keep talking about whether he's one of the four highest-paid players, and nowhere has Magic Johnson's name appeared. If I were the arbiter, I'd tell Ewing to go home and bring Magic in to see what I could do for him . . . Oh yes, that's right, Magic restructured his deal to help the Lakers sign Terry Teagle. A has been playing with a broken bone in his foot for nearly five years." Oh, so that's what was wrong . . . Congratulations, Dee Brown. Now that camp has officially begun, you are no longer officially a rookie.

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