Gene Wojciechowski

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Tuesday, March 18
 
Brand, Battier try hard not to lose it

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN the Magazine

So Elton Brand is sitting in a cozy little soul food place near LAX and absolutely no one stops by the table to talk Clippers basketball. What's there to say? "Hey, Elton, think y'all will finish above .350 this year?"

Maybe that's why one of the cooks is wearing a Lakers cap, and why Brand can walk around town as if he's in the witness protection program. After all, the world champion Lakers have first-name guys: Phil ... Shaq ... Kobe ... even Oscar nominee Jack. The Clippers have Penny Marshall and the kid from "Malcolm In The Middle."

Elton Brand
Elton Brand was averaging 18.4 points and 11.2 rebounds before suffering a stress fracture in his left leg.
Barring an astounding turnaround in the final weeks of the season, the Clippers will have their usual seat at the annual NBA lottery selection show. Clips general manager Elgin Baylor (just three playoff appearances since he took the job in 1986) has been there so often he could drive to the studio with a jersey pulled over his head.

In short, the Clippers are an NBA punchline. Again. Real estate magnate Donald Sterling, generally regarded as the worst owner in the league, treats player negotiations as if he's buying a condo building in Century City. Here's the price: take it or leave it. That partly explains why former overall No. 1 pick Michael Olowokandi has basically ditched the team and is counting the nanoseconds until he becomes an unrestricted free agent at season's end.

In all, the Clippers have eight players who will be unrestricted (Olowokandi, Cherokee Parks, Eric Piatkowski, Sean Rooks) or restricted free agents (Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and, ta-da, Brand). It didn't have to be this way. Sterling could have signed Olowokandi and Brand to extensions back in August. Instead, the contract plugs get pulled, uncertainty reigns, injuries occur, the losses pile up, another coach gets canned. You know, the usual Clippers chaos.

Meanwhile, the classy Brand is trying to figure out his next move. He could sign a one-year qualifying offer from The Donald, gut out another season of likely Ls and then become an unrestricted free agent in 2004. Or he could sign an offer sheet from another team, but then sweat out the possibility of the Clips matching the price, which means he'd be stuck with this group for a while. Or Sterling could do what he should have done last summer -- that is, sign the centerpiece Brand for market or near-market value and try to salvage this mess. (Don't count on Option 3.)

"It's too early," says Brand of his plans. "I'll definitely look at those options at the end of the season. You never know. Mr. Sterling might have a change of heart."

You should have seen The Donald in the locker room after the Clippers beat Milwaukee at the Staples Center last month. Trailed by a handful of suits, Sterling started making the rounds and began with forward Odom. There were hugs and pats and Sterling cooing, "I'm proud of you. I'll never let you down. You're wonderful."

Donald Sterling
Donald Sterling, right, must decide whether he wants to pay Elton Brand, left.
Odom, ever mindful of the trade deadline the next day and Sterling's reluctance to retain big-ticket players, lobbied the owner to keep the Clippers intact. Sterling smiled and then asked, "Where's Baby Shaq?" That would be Brand, who spit out his toothpaste and extended his hand as the boss approached the sink.

Brand didn't do any lobbying. "It's not the time or the place," he says.

Later, Sterling finds coach Alvin Gentry, grabs his wrist and holds it for several minutes as he asks about Gentry's wife and family. Creepy.

The next day at practice a local beat reporter asks Gentry if the team has made any trades. "Nah," says Gentry, "we couldn't work that thing out with Shaq."

Two days later they lose to the dreadful Atlanta Hawks. Gentry is fired shortly thereafter. Brand suffers a stress fracture in his lower left leg.

"I'm 23 years old," says Brand. "My time will come."

This is typical Brand. He endured two dreadful seasons with the Chicago Bulls. He's endured more of the same with the Clippers. Ask him if he ever dreads going to work and he can't shake his head fast enough.

"It's not in me," he says. "It's not in my makeup. It's an honor to play in the NBA. Growing up, nobody from my hometown (Peekskill, N.Y.) ever made it to the professional ranks. When you looked at colleges, you looked at Buffalo, Albany, Albany State. When I said I would look at Duke and North Carolina, people laughed. They said, 'You better start looking at the local schools.' So I'm honored to be in this league. It's a blessing to play in the NBA. I'll play with all 29 teams ... 30, with Charlotte coming in.

"Shane is in the same boat I am."

That would be former Duke teammate Shane Battier, who is in his second season with the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have a shorter but comparable history of futility. But at least now they have Jerry West as their hoops architect, Hubie Brown as their teacher and a new arena under construction for 2004.

Battier is no 20-and-10 player like Brand, but Brown loves him and coaches around the league say he'll have a long pro career. Battier is a worker bee. He can play four positions. He can guard your best scorer. He can lead. He doesn't bitch.

Shane Battier
Like Brand, Shane Battier has been rebuilding a franchise.
"Look at this," says Brown, pointing to Battier's numbers on a recent Grizzlies box score. "Every column is filled. He'll have a turnover, but very few -- just to show he's human. He does all the intangibles. He's special. A special person."

You have to be special to handle the rebuilding project in Memphis -- to deal with the trade rumors that sometimes include Battier's name.

"I wasn't na´ve coming to this franchise," he says. "I knew we'd probably lose a lot of games just because we didn't have the talent to compete my rookie year."

The Grizz are better than last season's team, but these days everything is measured in baby steps. Battier can live with that -- for now.

"One of the things that keeps us [former Dookies Brand, Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Battier] going is that we feel we can turn around a situation," Battier says. "We know we can be part of something pretty good. I know for me personally, I really don't get down. When I came to Memphis I didn't look at it as a place that had only won 23 games in its sixth year. I looked at it as unbelievable opportunity to come in, start basically from the ground up and turn it around. You don't often get a chance to do that, in sports or life. It's a different type of challenge."

Battier is getting married this summer. He'd like to be part of the Memphis hoops renaissance, but that's up to West and Brown.

"If they put me somewhere else, I'll try to help my team win," he says. "That is the reality that we're in. I look at it as an industry. You may be transferred to L.A. You may be transferred to the San Francisco office or the New York branch. One of the ways you can look at it is, I'm employed by the NBA. The NBA is my employer. I just happen to be in the Memphis branch right now."

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espnmag.com.





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