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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

NBA REPORT

Players no different than in old days


NEW YORK — On second thought, I was wrong to make it appear coach killers DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans of the Sacramento Kings — who paved the way for Paul Westphal's recent ouster — are more full of themselves than self-absorbed slugs back in the day.

It only seems that way because today's athletes make movie star fortunes and their business is out on the street 24/7 in the twinkle of a tweet regardless of whether they lust to live in the limelight.

Coaching conflicts with players, altercations between teammates and lousy late night lifestyles weren't kept under wraps because people were better at keeping secrets eons ago; beat writers and columnists simply didn't report what they knew for fear of falling out of favor or exposing their complicity.

Exempting this lapse, I've always made a point to stop people from believing today's players are all that different from those in the past. I mean, other than being spoiled rotten at an earlier age, possessing lopsided loot to squander and getting indefatigably distracted by designer temptations.

No matter what locker room I've ever walked into, I've heard identical grumblings about touches, minutes, broken promises, lack of appreciation, ignorant coaches, trade demands and, of course, money, money, money.

One time, Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Clifford Ray and Chet Walker pitched a bitch about one or more of the above. And the Bulls were winning 47-54 games a year in those days.

For me, the biggest bonus of hitting the road is getting together with people who were tight-lipped when I covered them but now aren't shy about opening closets and cave doors.

In Oakland two weeks ago, I had dinner with Jim Barnett, the Warriors long-time TV analyst. The wild card guard (averaged 11.7 points over 12 years) and I hung from time to time after he and Neal Walk joined the Knicks for the final 30 games of the 1974-75 season. The exchange rate was Henry Bibby, greatly coveted by New Orleans Jazz coach Butch van Breda Kolff.

Today, a team would never chance using an outgoing player for fear he might get injured and ruin the deal.

Red Holzman, feeling fairly powerful in the wake of two successful championship crusades, gambled that Bibby might help the Knicks win an afternoon game at the Garden before cutting the umbilical cord.

During the first half, I discovered Bibby had been traded. I alerted his then-wife and filed what I had found out. Virginia notified Henry before the second half got under way. He played terribly. And the Knicks lost.

Later that day, on the charter to New Orleans, of all places, with Bibby on board, it came to Holzman's attention I had mucked up his game plan. He let me know, in the most articulate of unprintable terms, how he felt about it . . . and me.

I hadn't intended to write the above Bibby story. It spilled out on account of my get-together with Barnett, who shared a slew of anecdotes with me. The most relevant concerned Elvin Hayes and how he had emasculated San Diego Rockets coach Jack McMahon, ultimately getting him fired 26 games into the 1969-70 season.

Unlike Cousins, Hayes didn't enter the NBA as a potential superstar, he showed up as a bona fide beast. In his rookie year, the 206-cm forward averaged 28.4 points and 17.1 rebounds. His presence improved the Rockets from 15-67 to 37-45.

Still, the Big E's unwillingness to break a practice sweat and make a premeditated pass, incensed McMahon and teammates.

Naturally, problems intensified the next season as the third-year expansion team started 9-17. Rock bottom was reached at the outset of a game in which Barnett perfectly hit Hayes on the hands three straight times, and he fumbled each one.

"Jack called a timeout after the third turnover and wanted to know what the bleep Elvin thought he was doing," Barnett recalled.

"What do you care? You won't even be here tomorrow," Hayes snapped.

McMahon was expelled the next day. His replacement was Alex Hannum, a two-time champion as coach of the 1957-58 Bob Pettit Hawks and 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain 76ers, the teams that prevented the Celtics from running off 13 consecutive titles.

Folklore has it, the 206-cm Hannum threatened to dunk out Dipper if he didn't fall into line.

If anyone had the juice to get Hayes' respect and attention, it was Hannum.

Not.

Barnett said Hayes continued to cruise at practice. Hannum tried to motivate him in various ways but got nowhere.

Next, Hannum put pressure on him by making everyone else run. That didn't work either. So, Hannum cleared the gym. He ordered the team back to the locker room . . . except Hayes. Ten minutes later, the players were recalled.

"I don't know what happened," Barnett said. "But, from that moment on, Elvin ran his tail off and did what was asked."

Several days after eating with Barnett, I was at Staples Center talking to Stu Lantz, the Lakers' long-time TV analyst.

Out of nowhere, he brings up Hayes and McMahon. As it turns out, he and the Big E were Rockets' roommates during that period.

"We were tight," Lantz said, "but I felt terrible the way Elvin treated Jack."

By any chance, do you know what happened when Hannum spoke to Hayes alone, I wondered?

"Yeah, when we got back to our room that day, Elvin told me, 'He's crazy. He told me he was gonna kick my ass!' "

I'm not so sure it would do Cousins or Evans any good.

Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.


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