With 6:17 left in the first quarter at Capital Centre Saturday night, Philadelphia guard Maurice Cheeks was chasing his man on defense. At 6:16 he found himself on the waxy hardwood, grimacing, wracked with pain, suffering a mild concussion. Cheeks had run into a blind pick, a roadblock, set by Washington center Rick Mahorn.
As a trainer guided Cheeks to the dressing room, Mahorn stood placidly by his bench, hands on hips, waiting for play to resume.
At 9:51 of the third quarter, the other starting Philadelphia guard, Andrew Toney, found his progress similarly halted by the same 6 feet 10, 235 pounds. Again, a 76er was lifted from the floor, led to the dressing room -- this time with a shoulder injury -- and, again, Mahorn stood by waiting.
And in the fourth quarter, a third 76ers guard, Clint Richardson, ran into the same iron screen. This time Mahorn was called for a foul.
Richardson survived the play with only a knot on his head, but it was that third play that "sickened" Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams the most. "We sent the films to the commissioner's office, and you can see (Mahorn's) elbows flared with forearm shiver implications. It could have clipped Clint's head off."
Of his elbows, Mahorn said, "I'm protecting myself out there. You take a hell of a shot, it's a lot of impact."
Following the Bullets' 100-97 victory, Philadelphia's coach, Billy Cunningham, met briefly and sullenly with the press. He was furious at Mahorn.
"I think at some point, he's going to get his," Cunningham said. "I've been in this league long enough to know when someone's out there to hurt somebody.
"I hope the league does something about it before someone is in critical condition."
Williams said, "In one night we almost had three guards very seriously injured, and these are just more incidents in the three-year history of this guy. It was a terrifying thing to see. Frightening."
Philadelphia forward Bobby Jones said, "If the league lets that kind of thing go, it'll be like football. We'll have to wear helmets."
Cheeks and Toney were less inclined to make any accusations after the game. They had to do all they could just to recover.
"I've never been hit like that," said Cheeks. "I'm dizzy. I'll probably be dizzy for a while."
"I never had time to see (the pick), so I don't know whether it was legal or not," said Toney.
For his part, Mahorn said, "Billy shouldn't get angry at the picks. The picks (on Cheeks and Toney) were legal. If their offensive men won't come out and call out the picks, it's their own fault. I'm not rough. I'm just doing my job. A lot of people say it's dirty, but when the man says set picks, you set picks."
The "man," Bullets Coach Gene Shue, serenely sipped a beer after the game and said he could not understand what had irked Cunningham so.
"I know it looks rough, but I've taken a lot of those picks, so has Billy," said Shue. "The fault was with (76ers center Moses) Malone. He should be calling out the screens. Billy knows that.
"Look. Rick Mahorn is a piece of steel. If you want to run into a piece of steel, go ahead."
A dirty player or a steely infighter -- it all depends on where you sit, or for whom you play. But deserved or not, Rick Mahorn is rapidly gaining a roguish reputation in the NBA. Saturday night's events were in no way isolated.
In 23 games this year, Mahorn has sent 14 opposing guards to the floor, and in every case a timeout was required.
The night before the Philadelphia incidents, in a game against the Detroit Pistons, Mahorn set a similarly flattening backcourt screen on guard Isiah Thomas. So infuriated was Thomas that he struggled off the floor, chased Mahorn down the court and hit him in the back of the head with his forearm. The two squared off, and only the intercession of the coaches, officials and, perhaps, divine providence, prevented a brawl between the bearish center and the whippet guard.
Days later, Thomas still was disgusted. "It doesn't concern me about how people feel about (Mahorn) or even what happens to him. I'd rather talk about pleasant things," he said. "That wasn't the first time and it probably won't be the last."
Mahorn angered yet another team this season, when he screened New York Knicks guard Ed Sherod and sent him sprawling.
"He's hurting players," said Bill Cartwright, the Knicks' center. "They're more or less cheap shots. They aren't picks close to the basket, but in the backcourt, and he's leveling people. I don't know if he's out to hurt people, but he is."
In 1980, the Bullets drafted Mahorn in the second round from Hampton Institute, a Division II school in Hampton, Va. In his rookie year, he played only about 14 minutes a game, but last year after the retirement of Wes Unseld, he became the Bullets' starting center. He rapidly developed a reputation as a good scorer (12.2 average), a strong rebounder (11.5) and, in some circles, an unforgiving enforcer.
Last season, Mahorn committed 349 personal fouls, trailing league leader Steve Johnson of the Kansas City Kings by only 23. In his first year as a starter, Mahorn played an aggressive -- some say dirty -- brand of basketball. He seems to frustrate and infuriate his opponents on a regular basis.
Robert Parrish was thrown out of a game for trying to punch Mahorn.
Artis Gilmore squared off to fight Mahorn twice.
In a January game in the Spectrum, Mahorn swung his elbows out wide on a rebound, catching Lionel Hollins flush in the face, knocking out two teeth and breaking his nose.
Mahorn said the Hollins incident was "unintentional," but Williams called it a "disgrace."
"He just rearranged Lionel's face," said Williams.
In an interview with The Boston Globe last March, the chief of the NBA's officiating staff, Darrell Garretson, said, "He's developing some reputation . . . I've seen him play good honest defense with four or five fouls. But he's heading for trouble . . . almost assured of causing some kind of problem down the line."
Trouble did come. The NBA fined Mahorn twice last season -- once for fighting, once for elbowing -- for a total of $1,500. Several teams complained and sent tapes to the NBA.
Now trouble has come again. After Saturday's Philadelphia game, Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien's office has a new complaint and a new set of videotapes to examine.
Gordon Stirling, the NBA's vice president of operations, said, "We're aware that (Mahorn) has a reputation, but he's a big guy, and there are some players who play harder than others, not necessarily dirtier than others."
Stirling also said that a number of NBA coaches have suggested that the screens Mahorn sets -- blind picks in the backcourt designed to free his guards -- should be banned. He said the issue would be discussed during the league's all-star break meetings or at the end of the season.
In the meantime, Mahorn has his defenders.
"Rick is doing the job that he's put out there to do. It's elementary, first-grade basketball to call out picks," said Wes Unseld, the Bullets' vice-president and Mahorn's role model. "Rick got his reputation from Darrell Garretson, and he (Garretson) should have known better. Ricky is a raw player, he doesn't have fine talents yet. But I must have set 10 picks like that a game."
"Dave Debusschere and Willis Reed used to set some vicious picks, so this is nothing new," said Spencer Haywood. "It's the nature of the game."
Hank Ford, Mahorn's coach at Hampton Institute, said, "In college Rick was primarily a scorer, but now he's doing what the Bullets need . . . The reason some colleges passed on Rick in the first place was that he was primarily a football player . . ."
Mahorn, who only started playing organized basketball in his senior year of high school, admits that he is "learning the game slowly," but he seems truly unfazed by the accusations of foul play.
"I'm not out there doing anything dirty," he said. "There's been a lot of players who have set picks in the past. I guess they think I'm supposed to wait 10 years before I start setting picks. You never heard anybody say this about Wes Unseld or Lonnie Shelton."
Williams has told the press, and the NBA, that Mahorn is "a player with a violence problem."
"That's his opinion," said Mahorn. "Is it violence that I'm committing? I'm not a violent person. What am I supposed to do?"