The fluid, automatic jump shot hasn't come back yet. The reflexes aren't as quick, the cuts not as short, the instincts not as uncanny.
Phil Chenier, at 30, is no longer a star. He's been reduced to a spot player, the guy who goes in to give the regulars a minute's rest.
Chenier isn't complaining. His confidence is high, he feels good and he is playing in the National Basketball Association, which was out of the question six months ago. Now a Golden State Warrior, Chenier will play against his old friends and teammates Friday when his new team faces the Bullets at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
Chenier, once the main offensive weapon of the Bullets, started having back problems four seasons ago and he has had two major operations, the last only a year ago.Almost everyone assumed his basketball days were over.
"After my second operation my first goal was just to get healthy and back into shape," Chenier said. "There were some times I was in so much discomfort that I didn't think about playing again. I would get discouraged because I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I also didn't want to get my hopes up but some days I felt better and all of a sudden the desire came back. I started playing out at UMBC. I played every day and didn't have any problems. I felt timid at first but the more I played the more I felt I could play.
At the suggestion of former Bullet teammate Elvin Hayes, Warrior scout Pete Newell contacted Chenier a month ago and everything fell into place. He is now on his second 10-day contract. The Warriors will have to make a decision Monday whether to release Chenier or sign him for the remainder of the season. Coach Al Attles said he hasn't decided, but he has been pleased with Chenier so far.
"Phil is coming along," said Attles. "Obviously he's not the Phil Chenier of two years ago but if he comes anywhere close to that, he'll be fine. We aren't really counting on him for this year anyway. We're thinking more about the future. We need another scorer in the back court and he could be it. We like what we've seen so far. Phil is smart out there on the floor and it's just a question of whether his physical ability will come back to match that."
Chenier had his best game with the Warriors Wednesday in their 115-100 victory over Portland, scoring six points in 11 minutes. That may not sound that impressive, especially for someone who once scored 53 points in a single game, but to Chenier it's only the beginning.
"My footwork needs work," Chenier said. "I used to be able to come off a pick and turn in one motion and shoot, but I can't do that as well now. I've made improvements on it, though. Pivoting and getting off the shot quick are the places I can see the biggest difference. My shot seems to be good when I can get myself together, but you don't always have time to do that. Defensively, i'm still backpedaling kind of slow, but things are coming."
Chenier is still being paid by the Bullets, but after this season he's on his own. He said he had some visions of making a comeback with the Bullets but decided that it was best "to let it be over with them. With my heart I thought about the Bullets but with my head I didn't."
Chenier sees enough progress in his game so that returning to stardom isn't merely a fantasy. "I just have to start at the bottom," he said.
Chenier is the fourth guard with the Warriors now, playing behind high-scoring Lloyd Free and rookies Billy Reid and Lorenzo Romar. John Lucas was reinstated to the Warrior roster Monday and Attles said he will have to work his way back up.
Chenier has adjusted to not being able to go out and do what he wants on the court anymore. He says the fact that he has been a star in the league and knows what it's like to be virtually unstoppable has made him work extra hard on every phase of his game as he attempts his comeback.
"Before, I knew that when I went to my strength there was very little my opponent could do to stop me. Now it's different. But I understand why so I think it gives me a psychological advantage. I know exactly what I need to work on."
Being with the Warriors has made Chenier's comeback attempt all that much easier.He still lives in Columbia, Md., but his mother lives in nearby Berkeley and Chenier is staying with her and, "I have a lot of friends and relatives who have really been supportive. This was just the best place for me to be."