The major concern of coach Bill Fitch and the New Jersey Nets after they posted the National Basketball Association's worst record (17-65) last season was the team's tendency to wilt under pressure, leading to an inferiority complex.
"When we came out of the locker room last year, we didn't feel we could win," Sam Bowie said. "Even when we were winning at halftime, there was a stigma that something disastrous was going to happen. It was a horror show."
Little has changed this new season for the Nets (1-4), who will entertain the Washington Bullets (1-3) at the Meadowlands Arena tonight.
They still are fumbling games away, and Fitch has castigated Bowie, the starting center, for being out of shape.
"For a big man, he eats too much junk food," Fitch told The New York Times after a lethargic-looking Bowie averaged only 8.0 points in his first five games.
"Fitch doesn't know what he's talking about," Bowie said. "I just played a few bad games, and he's blaming my diet. Maybe I ought to eat what he's eating."
What is eating Fitch is that his Nets can't shake their losing habit. Typical was Saturday night's loss at home against Boston -- they held a one-point lead going into the final quarter but managed only 12 points in the last 12 minutes and lost, 105-91.
More than anything, Fitch, who has five new players on his roster headed by Derrick Coleman -- the first player selected in the 1990 NBA draft -- wants to erase the Nets' negative attitude.
"The first thing I have to do before I can make this team a winner is to make the players hate losing," said Fitch, a second-year coach with the Nets, who had a 242-86 record as head coach of Boston from 1979-83.
"We're getting some pieces together, but we are still light years away from being world champions, and that's our ultimate goal."
Fitch began pointing in that direction by ridding his roster of players he deemed selfish.
"I couldn't believe it," he said, "but we had guys last year who were more upset about where they were sitting on a plane than losing all those games."
The first to go was shooting guard Dennis Hopson, the Nets' No. 1 pick in 1987, who, after three disappointing seasons, was traded to Chicago for a low first-round choice used to select Connecticut guard Tate George. Fitch also got rid of Charles Shackleford, the power forward now playing in Europe.
Now the Nets greatly resemble the Bullets, their Atlantic Division rivals also caught in a massive rebuilding job. Nine of the 12 Nets have three years' pro experience or less. The most veteran is Reggie Theus, 33, the most consistent scorer and shooter.
But it is the nucleus of Coleman, Bowie, point guard Mookie Blaylock, George and small forward Chris Morris that gives Fitch hope for the future of a long-mismanaged franchise that has not appeared in the playoffs since 1986.
Coleman, a multitalented, 6-foot-10 forward from Syracuse, is viewed as the major building block, even though team management has tried to free him from undo pressure.
"We didn't paint the picture that Derrick would be a savior, but that he would be an important part of the process of putting together a winning team," said Willis Reed, senior vice president.
Fitch was less cautious in his appraisal after Coleman scored 11 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots in only 25 minutes in a 100-81, opening-night loss to the Indiana Pacers.
"The biggest fear with a kid like this," Fitch said, "is that he isn't as good as everyone thought he was. But this kid is as good as people think."
But Fitch has resisted starting Coleman, who set a salary record for a first-year player -- a five-year contract worth $15 million. Instead, Fitch has used Jack Haley, a career 4.0 scorer, in the starting lineup.
"I'm not worrying about Derrick starting," Fitch said. "He's getting starter's minutes. Everyone knows that he is going to be one of my five guys on the floor in crunch time."
) Opponent: New Jersey Nets
Site: Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, N.J., 7:30 p.m.
@Radio: WTOP (1500 AM)
Outlook: The Bullets (1-3) have lost their past two games in the closing minutes, against New York and Milwaukee. The offense has been carried by F Bernard King, who is averaging 31.5 points. Rookie G A.J. English continues to show improvement, averaging 13 points on 45-percent shooting. G Darrell Walker enjoyed his best outing Friday night with 21 points and nine rebounds against the Bucks. The Nets, who had the worst record (17-65) last season, boast five new players -- veteran G Reggie Theus, obtained from Orlando, and rookies F Derrick Coleman, F Jud Buechler, G Tate George and G Kurk Lee of Towson State. New Jersey (1-4) recorded its only victory at home, over Miami. F Roy Hinson (knee) and F Stanley Bundy (ankle) are on the injured list.