Coleman plays new position with newfound energy

Charles Barkley once thought that Derrick Coleman was so talented that he could be "the greatest power forward in the league." The "greatest power forward" has made just one All-Star appearance in his career.

Paul Silas once said that Derrick Coleman was a player who would "go through a wall for you." Coleman was later stripped of his captain's title by Silas with the Charlotte Hornets -- before eventually being traded to the 76ers.

Fans of the New Jersey Nets once thought that Derrick Coleman -- the top pick of the draft in 1990 and the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1991 -- would raise the team from the depths of the East Rutherford swamp. But Coleman is remembered instead for being a malcontent and the utterer of one of the most famous lines in Nets history: "Whoop de damn doo."

Derrick Coleman never became the player he was supposed to be. Nevertheless, Coleman has emerged as perhaps the most important player for the 76ers in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Pistons.

Coleman is playing a position -- center -- that he would prefer not to play. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace is a player Coleman would rather not face.

So all Coleman did in Sunday's Game 4 victory was score 14 points and grab 15 rebounds while dominating the inside against the NBA's best defensive team. The Detroit native was impressive again in Game 5 (23 points, 11 rebounds), but was called for goaltending late, which allowed the Pistons to claim a 78-77 win.

"I enjoy playing here," said Coleman, who's a man of few words these days. "I just enjoy coming home, period."

Coleman has raised his level of play in the playoffs, averaging 15.5 points and 11.0 rebounds during this second-round series. That's a big increase from his regular-season numbers of 9.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.

"Coleman has been consistent throughout the series," Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said. "I was with him his first four years in the league (with the Nets), and I felt that this was his most consistent season. He's a force. We're going to have to deal with him."

Carlisle should know, from his years in New Jersey, that Coleman typically raises his game in the playoffs. In his three playoff appearances with the Nets, Coleman's playoff numbers were always better than his regular-season numbers. During the 1993 playoffs, Coleman, in his second season, averaged 26.8 points, 13.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

Through two rounds of this year's playoffs, Coleman has played with a passion not seen from him in many years. Two of the most memorable moments of the first round against New Orleans came when Kenny Anderson and Baron Davis were gliding to the hoop in what they thought were fast-break baskets, only to be run down by Coleman, who blocked both the shots. On Sunday, Coleman ran down Richard Hamilton on the fast break and blocked his shot, receiving a standing ovation for his effort despite being called for a foul on the play.

"I've never seen Derrick play this hard my whole career," said Sixers forward Tyrone Hill, who will miss the rest of the playoffs because of a calf muscle tear. "It just shows how bad he wants to win. He knows his clock is ticking. He knows this might be his last shot at reaching the Finals and trying to win it all."

"He's playing like he's 25," Allen Iverson said of the guy who has emerged as his protector. "He's handling himself like a professional and it's good to see, because he is so hungry."

"If you're 35 and you've been playing this game all your life and the ultimate goal is to win an NBA championship and you haven't got it done yet, then it makes you wake up because time's not waiting on anybody," Iverson added. "Just like it's my seventh year and I thought coming into the league I would have won at least three or four championships by now. But it's hard. It's hard. I take my hat off to anyone that's ever been part of a championship team because it's hard."

Coleman never became "the greatest power forward in the league." He never got close. But he is proving to the Sixers, at his advanced age, that he is willing to go through a wall for this team.

And if the Sixers advance? They would face the Nets in the conference finals, an organization that once was willing to build around Coleman. It's a bit premature for Coleman to comment about the possible matchup, with so much unfinished business against Detroit. But if we were to predict what he'd say about playing against the team that drafted him, our guess is his response would go something like this:

"Whoop de damn doo."

Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.