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Monday, August 28, 2000

Shareef finally finds a stage

  LAHAINA, Maui -- He has been called the best player nobody knows.

 The Vancouver Grizzlies' Shareef Abdur-Rahim finally is getting his slice of the spotlight as a member of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Forget that he was a fill-in because Grant Hill couldn't come because of an injured ankle. Abdur-Rahim will take the honour just the same.

 "This is bigger than any all-star team or all-NBA selection," the 6-foot-9 forward said yesterday after the U.S. team's second day of training camp. "This is a big accomplishment. I'm just trying to work hard and test myself against the best players in the world."

 There have been precious few moments to savour since he was selected No. 3 overall by the Grizzlies in 1996.

 Since that June day, Abdur-Rahim has played on a team that has won precisely 63 games and lost a numbing 233 times -- a somewhat less-than-glistening winning percentage of .270. He has seen several coaches parade in and out the door. Late last season he watched in dismay as the team changed ownership and ousted Stu Jackson, the general manager who had drafted him.

 All the while, all Abdur-Rahim did was score. And score. He has averaged better than 20 points per game his entire career. Last season he averaged better than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game to join an elite group of NBA players.

 At the time of the ownership shuffle, things turned decidedly unpleasant for Jackson. There was a period last season while the NBA did its due diligence with the new owner, and the two regimes -- one incoming, the other outgoing -- overlapped, forcing Jackson into the position of administrative eunuch. Regardless of his record as general manager, the position was humiliating and it was Abdur-Rahim who came to his aid by threatening to demand a trade if Jackson was fired.

 The threat turned idle, in large part because Jackson made it clear that while he appreciated Abdur-Rahim's support, his only star-calibre player also had a responsibility to live up to his contract no matter what happened.

 "(Abdur-Rahim's support) wasn't important for me personally, but it was somewhat expected," Jackson, who is now the NBA's vice-president of operations, said yesterday.

 "He's very much an independent thinker and his relationships with people in his life are based on loyalty. I think he picks his friends and the people he associates with the way you pick fruit. He's very careful but he's very loyal, so it was somewhat expected.

 "But at the end of the day, I thought Shareef would be very professional about it. He's paid to play and that's what he'll do -- play."

 Abdur-Rahim said yesterday he still is bitter at the organization over the Jackson matter.

 "It's very disappointing," he said. "There are a lot of people who I would have hoped would still be there, and they're not."

 For now, he will savour the attention he hasn't had as a member of the Grizzlies. Interestingly enough, he does not blame Vancouver, or playing in Canada, for his lack of recognition.

 "No, I don't think it's the (Canadian) border," Abdur-Rahim said. "I think it's the winning. We haven't won. All these (other) guys who are here, they've brought their teams places. Look at Gary (Payton), he went to the final. Look at Jason (Kidd), his team has gone to the playoffs. Vince (Carter) has got his team to the playoffs.

 "The two guys who are unrecognized are me and Antonio McDyess, and that's because we haven't won. All that stuff comes from winning."

 The knocks against Abdur-Rahim have been his ability to make his team better and his commitment to defence. Jackson thinks the Olympic experience will help Abdur-Rahim in both regards.

 "He needs to continue to grow defensively," Jackson said. "Even (yesterday), I noticed he was thinking a little bit more to pass first, which, for a player of his ability, is terrific. If he can ever start making the players around him better, he's going to be recognized as a very, very good player."

 Finally.