Massenburg's Raptor rapture Ex-Terp on rebound: After a slow-starting NBA career and a detour to Spain, Tony Massenburg has found a home in Toronto's starting lineup.

January 18, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- It's an hour before game time, and the frontcourt players of the Toronto Raptors are having a trash-talking good time. They're playing a variation of the old schoolyard game called knockout, in which one point wins. In this version, the scoring is allowed only in the low post, where strength is key.

Which is fine with Tony Massenburg, who carries such a well-chiseled 245 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame that his teammates call him "Hercules." A couple of dribbles here, a few pivots there and Massenburg has muscled 7-0 center Zan Tabak directly under the basket. The finishing blow is a thunderous dunk, and Tabak suffers major embarrassment by challenging the move.

You remember Massenburg, right? At the University of Maryland during the 1985-86 season, Massenburg was just the third freshman to start at center for coach Lefty Driesell, playing alongside Len Bias. In his five years at Maryland (he was redshirted his second season), Massenburg endured the tragedy of Bias' death and the NCAA investigation that followed.

Now, more than five years after being picked by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 1990 draft, Massenburg, 28, apparently has found a home in the NBA with the Raptors. He recently won a starting spot after missing the first 26 games with a broken right foot. And last Wednesday, he had one of his best games as a pro, scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in a loss to Indiana.

"This is all I can ask for, and I'm pretty happy with my situation," said Massenburg, who is averaging 9.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 24.5 minutes a game. "I'm playing, the coaching staff and organization have some confidence in me and that's something I've never had in the NBA, with the exception of last year with the Clippers."

It's rare that the Los Angeles Clippers get credit for jump-starting a player's career, but they did just that for Massenburg. Before last season, Massenburg's NBA career consisted of 53 games, four teams and a lot of 10-day contracts.

"The situation coming into San Antonio was that I had too many people in front of me," Massenburg said. "Coming out of Maryland, I didn't know about competing on this level, because I had never played on this level. Sure, I had questions about myself, playing against the best players in the world. But after a couple of days, I knew I could do it."

But he didn't do it in games. The Spurs waived him a month into his second season, and he wound up suiting up for four teams (18 games) that year. Not content with just being on an NBA roster, Massenburg took his game to Spain in 1993.

"I didn't give up on the NBA. I just went to Spain so I could play," Massenburg said. "That's something I hadn't done in the NBA -- I hadn't really played in two years. You don't get better by not playing, no matter how hard you practice. Playing is key."

While in Spain, Massenburg caught the attention of the Clippers, who signed him as a free agent. He wound up starting 50 games for them last season, averaging 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. But he had mixed feelings.

"The losing got me down, because in Spain I played for one of the top teams," Massenburg said. "But at the same time, I had to realize that I was still trying to go further in my career, and I had to use the opportunity for what it was worth."

The Toronto staff saw enough of Massenburg to make him the second pick of the expansion draft. He won a starting spot before breaking his foot in the preseason, a starting spot he now has regained.

"He hustles, he rebounds, he plays great low-post defense, he's our Buck Williams," Toronto coach Brendan Malone said. "He's a physical player, a consistent player, a blue-collar worker."

And he's another Maryland player to emerge in the NBA, joining Walt Williams and Joe Smith. Only Massenburg's arrival took awhile longer.

"I think it says that the program is finally rebounding from Lenny's death," Massenburg said. "The press has stopped putting the program under a microscope and not questioning everything that happens. With the exception of my first year, the other three years were bad, bad times."

And the Maryland team has rebounded. Just like Massenburg's NBA career.

"I'm finally at a point where I'm playing," Massenburg said. "All I'm doing now is something that I've always done. I'm just happy I have the chance."

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