The Rookie of the Year in the National Basketball Association this season is probably not going to come from the New York Knicks, although center Bill Cartwright is not without his admirers.
In the league's Publicity Race, Cartwright trails both guard Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and forward Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics by a substantial margin.
Magic makes the kind of passes where lights flash, bells ring, and rockets explode, while Larry's consistency has gotten him most of the credit for the Celtics' remarkable turnaround this year. Johnson and Bird are, indeed, human catalysts.
But Cartwright -- the Knicks' 7 ft. 1 in. passport to instant respectability and their cornerstone of the future -- may actually be better than either of them. Among other things, Bill leads New York in scoring, rebounds, and minutes played.
"As good as Johnson and Bird are," explained Knicks Coach Red Holzman, "they can't get you the ball consistently or control both backboards. Cartwright can. In fact, once this kid realizes how good he is, there won't be much that he can't do.
"Right now the referees aren't giving him much of a break when there is contact between him and other player," Holzman continued. "Like most rookies, he's getting a lot of fouls called on him this year that won't be fouls next year. And when this happens, watch him take advantage of it."
Part of the reaon more hasn't been written about Cartwright is that the Knicks, since early in the season, have been an under-500 team. Holzman simply doesn't have the supporting cast to showcase Bill the way LA can back Johnson and Boston the Birdman.
Interviewing Cartwright is mostly an exercise in futility. He handles a lot of questions by simply shrugging his shoulders, which might come across on television but can handcuff a typewriter.
After you get past polite, soft-spoken, reverent, brave, etc., to describe him, there isn't much left. Two things I did notice about him, though. His feet come in yards and his kneecaps are more the size of hubcaps.
"If Cartwright continues to improve, I think we can build a winner around him ," Holzman said. "He's got some things to learn, but when he learns them you're going to see a lot more consistency in his game.
"All teams need a big man in the middle who can rebound, and Bill has the size to play with any opposing center in the league," Red continued. "He takes up a lot of room under the basket on defense, and he has the stamina to play 40 minutes a game."
Physically, Cartwright look a lot like Bob Lanier of the Detroit Pistons. He's wide through the hips; his feet seem to grow roots when he gets the position he wants under the boards; and if anyone risks hanging on his shooting arm on its way to a layup, the next thing he feels will be iron.
To me, a player's intangibles are always more inporttant then his statistics. But for those who would like to compare the scoring figures of Cartwright, Johnson, and Bird, here they are: Cartwright -- 22.9 average, with a high of 37. Johnson -- 18.5 average, with a high of 31. Bird -- 18.9 average, with a high of 36.
Around the NBA, there is enough division among coaches, scouts, and players concerning the relative abilities of Bill, Magic, and Larry to start a small war.
But for what it's worth, Coach Bill Fitch of the Celtics picks Cartwright No. 1, and Bird, at least the last time I talked with him, agreed.