Everybody's going gaga over Googs

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 27, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Googs posters. Googs wristbands. Googs T-shirts. The marketing push doesn't have to stop there. The Bullets can combine two crazes in one and hold a Googs Pacifier Night, the perfect promotion for a player whose nickname is on the lips of most gurgling infants.

Googs. Who would have imagined? Only five months ago, the Bullets were booed by 2,000 fans at the Capital Centre when they made North Carolina State's Tom Gugliotta the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft. Googs was right: They were saying "Googs." The guy's a scorer, a rebounder, a passer -- and a prophet, too.

Eleven games into his NBA career, he's already the most popular Bullet. It's quite a turnaround -- considering the fans' initial preference for Maryland's Walt Williams, considering Gugliotta's summerlong flirtations with virtually every club team in Europe.

After missing nearly all of training camp, he signed his seven-year, $17.5 million contract on Oct. 19. Since then, Googs has gone from reviled to revered, from holdout to hero. The Bullets can't believe it. For once, they did something right.

"Our slogan this year was, 'You Gotta Love This Game,' " Bulletpresident Susan O'Malley says. "Now it's, 'You Gotta Love This Guy.' "

Googs Fever. It reached epidemic proportions in the Bullets' lasgame at the Capital Centre, when Gugliotta had 39 points and 15 rebounds in a 126-109 victory over Utah. It hits Charm City tonight, when the Bullets play Minnesota in their first of four games at the Baltimore Arena.

Already, we've heard Larry Bird comparisons, not just from writers, but NBA players. Googs, at 6 feet 10 and 240 pounds, is one inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than Bird. He's the same type of complete player, but this is where the line between hype and hysteria gets blurred.

General manager John Nash says the better comparison is to Indiana's Detlef Schrempf, two-time winner of the NBA Sixth Man Award. The difference is, Gugliotta already is his team's fourth-leading scorer and leading rebounder, averaging 16.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

Of course, the Bullets (4-7) aren't a very good team, but with Gugliotta, Harvey Grant and Pervis Ellison, they've at least got three quality frontcourt players. Equally important, they're finally establishing a youthful identity, after years of building around aging veterans like Bernard King.

Gugliotta, 22, is at the center of all this, and let's not ignore the obvious: It helps that he's white. With Bird retired, the NBA's leading white stars are Chris Mullin and John Stockton. The Bullets haven't had one since Jeff Ruland, and he wasn't exactly Dream Team material.

Would there be as much fuss if Googs were black? Probably not. But the point is moot, because the kid can play. Gugliotta is the biggest surprise of a spectacular rookie class that includes three other former ACC stars -- Williams, Christian Laettner and the injured Bryant Stith -- not to mention Shaquille O'Neal.

"This is the marquee player you dream about, someone you can build around, someone who can be with the franchise five, 10 years," O'Malley says. "I always thought Pervis might be that kind of player, but he's been here two years and hasn't caught fire like Googs has in three days."

O'Malley, remember, pushed for the Bullets to draft Williams, the flashy Maryland star from Prince George's County. But the 6-8 Williams would have played small forward and forced the 6-9 Grant to play power forward. With the 6-10 Ellison at center, all three might have been out of position.

Gugliotta gave the Bullets an opportunity to get bigger, and he was a better all-around player than Stanford's Adam Keefe or Notre Dame's LaPhonso Ellis. O'Malley admits the marketing side pressured Nash to take Williams, but Nash says, "We're the ones that had to live with the pick."

"It really wasn't a consideration," Nash says. "A guy is only going to sell tickets if he can play. And even if he can play, he'll only sell tickets if the team wins. Charles Barkley didn't sell tickets in Philadelphia last year. That's one of the reasons the Sixers traded him."

The Bullets have a similar example in King. His remarkable comeback stirred interest in 1990-91, but the team finished 30-52 and attendance increased only 2.7 percent. King's season was a one-shot deal. Gugliotta's career won't be.

Who would have imagined? Only five months ago, Bullets coach Wes Unseld angrily defended the choice of Gugliotta over Williams by saying: "We're not running a popularity contest. We're trying to win games." Now, with Googs, the Bullets might actually do both.

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