Basketball belligerence mars NBA playoffs; super Sycamores?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As if we don't already see enough footage of fights (mostly hockey) on the late-night sports news, now we are being subjected to a fairly steady stream of basketball bouts and near-fisticuffs. A distasteful outbreak of chippiness has reared its ugly head in the National Basketball Association's playoffs, with the worst recent example being the several exchanges that marred Wednesday night's Atlanta Hawks-Detroit Pistons game, which the Pistons won 104-96 to take their series 4-1 and advance to the Eastern Conference finals. There they will meet the winner of the Boston-Milwaukee series, which resumes tonight.

Fines for the various fracases that have dotted the playoffs certainly will be meted out in virtually every case, but monetary punishment, unless really substantial, may not keep the lid on the problem. Its roots really lie in the excessive physicality the league permits throughout the season. Push just comes to shove more often in post-season games, because more is at stake, emotions are running higher, and the same players confront one another in a succession of games, sometimes causing frictions to carry over.

Employing a third game official might help in detecting some of the rough stuff that causes tempers to reach a boil. And certainly ejecting or suspending the warring players would get everyone's attention. Basically, however, the problem needs to be nipped in the bud by clamping down on the hand-checking, leaning, and bumping that has become part and parcel of NBA play. Big-name Sycamores

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Bird and Olajuwon, two of the best names in basketball, will appear on the same roster next season. In this case, though, we're not talking Larry and Akeem, but their younger brothers, and the team is neither the Boston Celtics nor the Houston Rockets, but the Indiana State Sycamores.

Eddie Bird has already been at his brother Larry's alma mater for a year, and Taju Olajuwon plans to enroll at the Terre Haute campus next fall.

Eddie, a 6 ft. 6 in. forward who played intramural ball this year, had to sit out his freshman season because he didn't meet certain academic requirements. His eligibility is virtually assured, though, in view of a 2.9 grade-point average his first semester.

According to the school's sports information department, Taju didn't want to be in a fishbowl alone, and knew Eddie would help to divert media attention. Other factors possibly influencing his choice of college were a desire to stay out of brother Akeem's long shadow, a chance to play in basketball-happy Indiana (an experience related to him by his Houston high school coach, a Hoosier), and the presence of another Nigerian, Olufemi Akinola, on the Indiana State team.

Taju and Eddie may not be a match for their brothers, but they could ignite a program locked in reverse virtually ever since Larry departed in 1979. The Sycamores, who were 33-1 in Larry's senior season and lost only to Michigan State in the NCAA title game, are coming off their their worst record, 9-20, during the lackluster post-Bird era.

Taju Olajuwon might be the real key to a turnaround. If he grows several more inches, a possibility given his massive hands, he could change from a 6-7 forward into an Akeem-the-Dream-like, seven-foot center. But even if this doesn't happen, the Sycamores once again will have a team with marquee value. Touching other bases

Here it is mid May and Martina Navratilova still hasn't won a tennis tournament in 1987. That's incredible given her 89-3 match record of a year ago and her five-year monopoly of the No. 1 women's ranking. She has lost to four different players in as many events, a sure sign of a general decline in her play and growing confidence on the circuit that she's beatable. Of course, she hasn't exactly lost to a bunch of no-names. Her defeats have come at the hands of Chris Evert, Hana Mandlikova, Gabriela Sabatini, and Steffi Graf, who is enjoying a sensational season and is top ranked. Navratilova's struggles to get untracked really aren't that surprising. A couple of coaching changes have altered her support group, and it's simply unrealistic to assume she'd remain as fiercely motivated and focused as she's been the last several years. Martina cautions against writing her off, though, especially with the year's first Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, set to begin May 25. She'll be very tough to beat in majors, and says, ``...to get me off the top they'll have to take it from me, beat me at Wimbledon and the US Open. I'm still the champ until they do that.''

Basketball coaches at every level are fond of preaching that you play defense with your feet, which means that strategic positioning is more important than attempts at harassment. Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers is a classic case in point. During the NBA's regular season, other players blocked more shots and made more steals, but, in the opinion of the news media, nobody packaged the whole spectrum of defensive skills better than the 6 ft. 6 in. swingman, who switches between guard and forward. Those assigned to cover the NBA voted Cooper, a master at restricting an opponent's movement and limiting his ability to get the ball, the league's best defender.

Brian Bosworth, the maverick linebacker, could have played one more year at Oklahoma. Instead, he's worked things so he could graduate and turn pro early. This week he announced he was making himself available in the National Football League's ``supplemental draft,'' which most likely will be held in early June. A player's chance of influencing where he winds up seems greater in this draft than in the regular version, held several weeks ago. Bosworth bypassed the big draft, where the Indianapolis Colts, a team he doesn't want to play for, had the second overall choice. In theory any of the NFL's 28 teams could wind up with a chance to pick ``the Boz'' in the supplemental selections, but he will ask Green Bay, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Houston, and 12 other teams not to take him. His preference would be to play for the Los Angeles Raiders, because, as he puts it, ``I like their attitude.''

Johnny Most, the radio voice of the Boston Celtics for 35 years, leaves no doubt about his loyalties. The Celtics are knights in shining armor, opponents quite often crybabies and maulers. Chick Hearn has cultivated a very different style, equally colorful but down the middle, during 27 years with the Los Angeles Lakers. Both play-by-play men have become institutions with their listening constituencies, but what would happen if they switched audiences? A caller to a Boston sports talk show recently suggested finding out during the NBA championship series, if both teams get that far. The idea is intriguing enough to make a grand experiment, either for an entire game or a half. Each announcer would offer his new listeners fresh insights and perspectives, and in Most's case, a chance to see how his unashamedly pro-Celtics style would play in ``enemy'' territory.

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