Ask three-time MVP Magic Johnson who holds the key to the Los Angeles Lakers' renewed title aspirations and he doesn't hesitate a second.
"Vlade Divac," Johnson said before Saturday night's game against the Bullets at the Capital Centre. "The Western Conference is more competitive than ever this season. Besides us, Portland, Phoenix, Utah, San Antonio and even Houston can make a run for it.
"Check these teams out. They either have an outstanding center or point guard. Except for the Jazz and Suns, who use their centers mainly for defense, they all have big men who can score. The Spurs have David Robinson, the Rockets have Akeem Olajuwon, and the Trail Blazers have Kevin Duckworth. That's why we need Divac to provide consistent offense."
But Magic concedes that he is disturbed by the Yugoslav's lack of consistency.
"A lot of European stars have great talent, but they just don't play with the same level of intensity as the Americans," Johnson said. "If we're going to go to the finals this season, Vlade has to rise to the occasion."
More Magic: If Magic Johnson keeps up his current pace, he is expected to eclipse Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the NBA's all-time leader in assists. With 21 games left this season, he needs 192 more to pass Robertson's career mark of 9,887.
But Johnson regards Robertson as a role model. "When I look at his Oscar's record and see that he averaged "triple-doubles" (points, rebounds and assists) for his career, it's mind-boggling," he said.
"But that is not the only reason I respect him. It's what Oscar did with his life after he was through playing. He's been a very successful business man. He and 'Dr. J' [Julius Erving] should serve as examples for everyone in the league. They both prepared for their future. And I'm trying to do the same thing."
Not-so-"Poly-nice": Olden Polynice, acquired from Seattle in a swap for fellow center Benoit Benjamin, has tried to give the Los Angeles Clippers a tougher attitude. During a recent game with Denver, Polynice stopped teammate Ron Harper from helping rival guard Michael Adams to his feet.
"I told Ron to get away from him," Polynice said. "When you knock someone down, don't help him up. Teams have been coming in and taking advantage of the Clippers, and that's got to stop."
No Bull market: A feud reportedly is building between Chicago general manager Jerry Krause and superstar Michael Jordan, who wants a say in how the Bulls spend their money. Jordan apparently is not that keen on the Bulls' offering Yugoslav star Toni Kukoc a multiyear deal worth over $3 million a season.
Bulls coach Phil Jackson tried to call a summit meeting between Krause and Jordan at a Chicago restaurant, but Jordan told Jackson to mind his business "for his own good."
Sign of the times: Alluding to Saddam Hussein's face-saving attempts after his quick capitulation, a sporting-goods store in Los Angeles carried a sign that read: "If this is Baghdad's idea of a victory, they'd flip over the Clippers."
* Fountain of youth: With close to 13 NBA seasons behind him, Reggie Theus, 33, averaging a team-high 19.6 points for New Jersey, says he has no plans to retire.
"I stay in shape because of an intense off-season program," he said. If you take care of your body, it takes care of you. The game has gotten easier because of my experience. I've gotten smarter as I've gotten older. As long as [coach] Bill Fitch gives me time on the dance floor, I'll keep playing."
NBA-bound: Georgia Tech sophomore flash Kenny Anderson seems certain to opt for the pros. He is already choosing an agent to represent him in contract negotiations.
"If I'm projected between the first and fifth pick in the lottery, I have to leave," said Anderson, who is viewed as the college game's top playmaker. "I'm not desperate for money, but I feel I can really help my mother, who had to raise four kids on her own."