Cheaney, McRae: Bullets' over, under bets Achieving opposites await pro challenge

July 07, 1993|By Alan Goldste | Alan Goldste,in Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- Washington Bullets draft choices Calbert Cheaney of Indiana and Conrad McRae of Syracuse, who were introduced to the media yesterday, offer a dramatic contrast in fulfilled expectations.

Cheaney, a fluid 6-foot-7 forward who became the sixth pick in the 1993 NBA draft, arrived at Indiana in 1989 with a minimum of fanfare. He was the least publicized of a stellar freshman group that included two Parade All-Americans in guard Greg Graham and forward Lawrence Funderburke and Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" in guard Pat Graham.

Only constant prodding by assistant Ron Felling persuaded Bobby Knight to offer a scholarship to Cheaney, who, in time, would surpass his more-publicized teammates.

"I was fortunate that I didn't face the same kind of pressure as [senior guard] Damon Bailey, who was known all over Indiana as a basketball phenom when he was 13," said Cheaney, who was voted College Player of the Year as a senior after becoming the Hoosiers' all-time scorer. "It allowed me to grow as a player and develop my game."

McRae, a 6-10 power forward, was chosen by the Bullets with the 38th pick after the team used an earlier second-round selection to claim 7-7 Romanian Gheorghe Muresan.

That McRae lasted that long in the draft, in which big men were at a premium, underlined concern by NBA scouts that the Brooklyn native is an under-achiever.

He arrived at Syracuse with great expectations as a worthy successor to Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman after being voted a Parade and McDonald's All-America at Brooklyn Tech.

But for various reasons, including his suspension by the NCAA his junior year, it was not until his senior season that he began to fulfill his potential.

His impressive rebounding and shot-blocking at the pro camps in Portsmouth, Va., and Phoenix made him a worthwhile gamble lTC for the Bullets, seeking an intimidating presence in the frontcourt.

For more than three years at Syracuse, McRae heard the critics label him soft, uninterested and overrated. He was constantly criticized and prodded by coach Jim Boeheim, who said: "Conrad is an outstanding kid who never understood until his senior year that you've got to work hard. He never paid the price. He didn't push himself his first two years."

When McRae said he had little chance to play his first two years while playing in the shadows of Coleman and Billy Owens, who would become high lottery picks, Boeheim countered, "Conrad used that as an excuse. He made the mistake a lot of players make, not looking down the road and being ready when his chance came."

Just when he appeared ready to seize the opportunity as a junior, he was suspended by the NCAA, which said Syracuse had recruited him illegally with the help of New York talent scout Rob Johnson.

"The NCAA gave me 48 hours to transfer to another school and not lose a year of eligibility," McRae recalled. "I talked to Maryland and Kentucky, but I was going to lose some credits. I thought it was crazy. I hadn't done anything wrong, but the NCAA was telling me to get out of town, or else."

So McRae hired a lawyer and sued the NCAA, which, in time, reinstated him without penalty.

"That whole situation helped me develop as a person and player," he said. "It taught me to deal with distractions and remain focused on what I had to do."

As a senior, he missed the season opener, again suspended by the NCAA for participating in too many summer leagues. But by the end of the year, he was drawing praise, even from Boeheim.

Now he has to impress an even tougher critic in Bullets coach Wes Unseld, an over-achiever as a 6-7 center who became a Hall of Famer.

Unseld is not concerned that McRae never averaged more than 12.3 points as a collegian. He is more interested in him bolstering one of the NBA's weakest defenses by playing the role of an enforcer.

"They expect me to be mean," McRae said. "They think I'm that way because I come from the streets of Brooklyn. But I don't set out to be intimidating. I won't pull a knife on anyone. But I might take his wallet," he added with a laugh.

NOTE: General manager John Nash is optimistic Cheaney and McRae will participate in the team's three-day minicamp at Bowie State starting next Wednesday.

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