Neither Manute Bol nor Bernie Bickerstaff fits the NBA's definition of an "impact" player, but they'll be the ones upon whom much of the interest is focused tonight at 7:30 when the Washington Bullets play host to the Seattle SuperSonics at Capital Centre.
For 12 years the Bullets' No. 1 assistant coach, Bickerstaff was planning his move to the Northwest when Washington selected Bol in the second round of last June's draft. But Bickerstaff's initial reaction to Bol, who is 7 feet 7, has been the same as almost everyone else's: "He sure is long, isn't he?"
Over the past week, Bol has shown he's also rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with. Yesterday, Coach Gene Shue said he will make Bol part of the team's regular rotation.
"He's just unbelievable. Every time he plays he just gets better and better," said Washington's Jeff Ruland following the Philadelphia 76ers' 115-110 overtime victory over the Bullets Wednesday night.
In the opponents' locker room, praise of Bol's 27-minute performance that featured eight rebounds and six blocked shots was just as strong. "It's like trying to shoot over a building," said guard Paul Thompson. "Usually, a player needs about 15 feet to get off a shot (against an onrushing center), but with Bol you have to go out to 20. He just keeps on stretching out his body.
"It's amazing that a guy can have that sort of impact by just standing there."
In the Bullets' last four games, Bol has averaged 20 minutes playing time, a lot of it in key closing minutes. He has 25 rebounds and 22 blocked shots in that span. Entering the game against Philadelphia, he was tied for 10th in the NBA with two blocks per game. Prorated over a full 48 minutes, Bol would average nine-plus rejections per game.
It's that kind of production that has convinced Shue that Bol deserves to be on the floor regularly.
"He certainly has merited a spot in the rotation, at least for now, because of the way he's played," said Shue. "He's been quite, quite good and that speaks well for the team."
So far, Bickerstaff has been pretty good, too. After a brutal early season schedule in which the squad played 17 of its first 24 games away from home, Seattle was closing on .500 with a 9-10 record and wins in five of its last six games until losing, 100-97, last night at Cleveland. In those six games, the SuperSonics averaged 120.7 points and won four of them by at least 19 points.
According to Bickerstaff, one of the toughest things about being a head coach is making the final cuts after the preseason. But there have been at least two moments in the season that have been equally tough.
One was the decision to put leading scorer Tom Chambers on the bench after second-year forward Tim McCormick returned from a leg injury. Chambers is an immensely gifted veteran with a reputation for petulance, so the move could have presented problems if Chambers had balked publicly. He didn't, and since that time the SuperSonics have an 8-7 record.
Now the first player off the bench, Chambers has maintained a 19-point-per-game average. The move gives the SuperSonics more offense, which was lacking earlier in the season, most noticeably in a 90-73 loss in Denver Oct. 31.
That was the other test for Bickerstaff, who says, "I learned a few things about our team that night. We couldn't just use all-out pressure. There's no way to expend that kind of energy and sustain it for 82 games. You have to pick your spots, (but) it didn't dawn on me until that night.
"Offensively, all the work we had done on defense hurt us when we had the ball because we just hadn't put as much into that part of the game."
That hasn't been a problem recently.
"During the exhibition season, we only won one game. Then we lost those first three on the road. But we had prepared the team for it," said Bickerstaff. "We knew we had to stay with what we were doing. There were never any signs of panic and I think that helped bring us together."
To Bickerstaff, cool is of the essence. Thus, no matter how much it may mean personally, the homecoming to Washington is couched in terms of just one contest in a five-game trip.
"It's an intriguing trip for us," he said. "I think we're a good defensive team, but playing a squad like the Bullets will be a good barometer of how good we are."
But can it be just another game when it is against a team he worked with for 12 years?
"Well," Bickerstaff said, "there have been a lot of people in Washington who've indicated that they're going to come out, but my wife has been the broker for all of that. There'll be some mixed emotions in terms of being back in Washington, but just until game time. Then the only emotion is to win.
"I do want the Bullets to know, though, that all my friends are paying customers."