Rookie Flip Is No Flop

February 12, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

It's draft night, 1993, and the fans have flocked to the Orlando Arena to celebrate. Some hold "Welcome, Chris Webber" signs and many are to a point of being giddy while discussing how a front line that includes Webber and Shaquille O'Neal would match up against any in the NBA.

But unbeknown to most in attendance, a surprise visitor had flown cross-country the night before and thrown the scenario out of whack.

The cheers that greeted the drafting of Webber by the Magic 20 minutes later became jeers after the team traded him to the Golden State Warriors for Anfernee Hardaway -- the visitor who worked out for the Magic brass the night before. At the time in Orlando it was an unpopular move that was met with boos and chants of "Hardaway who?" But going into All-Star weekend, fans of both franchises are happy about the trade.

At the break, Webber is averaging 17.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the Warriors and is providing a presence in the middle that Golden State has lacked.

"Basically, he changes the whole look of our team," Warriors forward Chris Mullin said. "Here's a guy who not only can post up, but he can take the ball on the break. He does a little bit of everything, and we're real excited."

In Orlando, Hardaway, who assumed the starting point-guard position for the Magic last week, is averaging 15.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists, while making fans forget the boos directed at him on draft night and during the preseason.

"Obviously, we had the big Webber-Hardaway debate here with our fans at draft time," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "I would venture to say the fans realize now that the pick we made was the right one."

Tonight the two will be on opposite teams for the first rookie all-star game, at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Sixteen rookies -- including Washington Bullets guard Calbert Cheaney -- will participate.

But it will be Webber and Hardaway, the front-runners for Rookie of the Year honors -- who will command most of the attention.

"I'm honored to be in the game, being it's the first," Hardaway said. "I think it's going to be a game to remember."

Ask Hardaway about the boos that greeted him when he first appeared in a game before the home fans, and you sense a

change in his outgoing demeanor.

"I've never listened to fans," Hardaway said. "People say, 'You're making $68 million, and you can't make a jumper.' What I make is nobody's business. I worked my way to this position, and I've earned it. It's not like there was anything given to me."

What he has given the fans in Orlando is a chance to make amends for their early criticism, with his production making him one of the most popular players on the team. Capable of playing both guard positions and small forward, Hardaway opened the season as the backcourt mate to Scott Skiles. But at 6 feet 7 and comparisons to Magic Johnson, the Magic drafted him with the idea he eventually would be the starting point guard.

"At the beginning of the year he was a little more tentative, trying to do everything that we wanted by the numbers," Hill said. "He's reached a point where he's at a real good comfort level knowing when he can utilize all of his one-on-one skills within the framework of what we do offensively."

The Magic had intended to draft Webber. O'Neal even called Webber right after the lottery order was announced, congratulating him and telling him to "get ready."

But Hardaway had other plans. He, too, wanted to play alongside O'Neal -- especially after the two played together during the filming last summer of the movie "Blue Chips." After an unimpressive workout with the Magic a week before the draft, Hardaway called the team and volunteered to fly cross country for another session. His perseverance paid off with a show the night before the draft.

"We were agonizing about what to do," Magic general manager Pat Williams told reporters in Orlando after the draft. "I've been in this league 26 years, and I saw some things [during the workout] that were just unbelievable."

So the trade was made, which made the Magic -- and the equally persuaded O'Neal -- happy.

"He knows exactly when to get me the ball, and I like that," O'Neal said. "He's already shown that he's going to be a great player in this league."

Hardaway's ability to pass and to post up smaller guards -- like Magic Johnson -- makes him perhaps the closest thing since Johnson retired. Plus Hardaway, despite being a skinny 200 pounds, has the ability to be a defensive stopper.

It's hustle that brings cheers for Hardaway during introductions. Still, Hardaway realizes who's the man in Orlando.

"I'm an unselfish player and a person who knows that Shaquille is the star and I have to take the back seat," Hardaway said.

"I do it happily because I'm one of his biggest fans."

Webber also was looking forward to playing in Orlando with O'Neal, which would have taken the pressure off of the top rookie pick.

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