Until last Thursday night, the Milwaukee Bucks' assistant coaches took great pleasure in teasing their boss, Don Nelson, with box score reports on the exploits of Manute Bol of the Washington Bullets.
"He had eight blocks last night, Nellie," Garry St. Jean would say one night.
"Another seven, Nellie," Mike Schuler would relate another day.
Nelson needed no reports last week. He was an eyewitness when Bol blocked a team-record 12 shots against the Bucks, scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Bullets' 110-108 overtime victory.
Now Nelson, last season's NBA coach of the year and the Bucks' director of player personnel, says he wishes he hadn't changed his mind about drafting the Bullets' 7-foot-7 rookie center, who will make his second start tonight at Capital Centre against the Utah Jazz.
"I liked him from the start, to where we really were going to take him in the first round (of last June's draft)," said Nelson, who instead selected 6-8 guard/forward Jerry Reynolds of Louisiana State with the Bucks' first round choice. "In the end though, I was sure that he would hurt himself . . . With all of the 270-pound centers we have in this league, I didn't know if he would get broken in two somehow."
That seemed to be a common attitude around the NBA whenever Bol's name came up and is a significant reason he was taken in the second round, with the 31st pick.
The Bol body talk lasted from the time he announced his intention to leave the University of Bridgeport and turn pro until about the time he rejected three field goal attempts by New York's Bill Cartwright in the Bullets' first exhibition game.
Now, Bol ranks third in the league with more than three blocks per game. Given his average of 14 minutes of playing time per game, that would project to an astounding 10.8 blocks each 48 minutes. No wonder Coach Gene Shue says, in the absence of injured Jeff Ruland, "We have to have Manute on the floor in order to survive."
In each of the Bullets' eight games since Nov. 26, Bol has averaged 23 minutes, six shots and six rebounds. In only two of those games has he blocked fewer than six shots.
Now that Bol seems to be becoming a factor, some around the NBA are starting to wonder what they can do to survive.
But not everyone is convinced. And some of the Bullets are concerned.
Shue said Bol's physical well-being is a concern. "I'm worried about him; that his bones are so fragile," Shue said last night in a radio interview.
Bol's eight-game stretch began Nov. 27 at San Antonio. The fact that the Bullets and Spurs won't play again this season made it easy for Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons to voice some skepticism.
"When we saw him in the preseason I said he had a chance to become one (a force), but to me that will only be confirmed if he's starting and they're winning," Fitzsimmons said. "If he starts and blocks a lot of shots and they lose games, then maybe he's not."
Fitzsimmons barely pushes 5-8 on a good day. Some of his players, who stand more than a foot taller, are more aware of the havoc Bol has started to wreak.
"I've seen a lot of shots changed that normally don't get changed," said the Spurs' David Greenwood. "Guys are shooting rainbows, like they're trying to hit the ceiling."
Added Spurs forward Mike Mitchell, "It just doesn't matter what you do out there. I was trying a lot of different things when we played against him but if the floor gets smaller and smaller when he comes around, there's nothing you can do."
Fitzsimmons thinks one way teams will begin to neutralize Bol is to isolate players one-on-one against him, "make him cover them alone from the outside," he said.
Another method, he said, will be "to expose the Bullets in the zone that they play with Bol. If he continues to block shots the way that he's been doing, I think the officials will begin to take a closer look at where he's playing. Right now I think they're just as fascinated by him as everyone else is."
Not so, said referee Paul Milhalik. "Why should I care how many shots he's blocking or where he stands when he's doing it?" he asked. "I don't care what he's doing -- as long as it's legal. And when it's not, I'll be there."
There seemed to be something outside the spirit of the rules in last Thursday's game against Milwaukee when Nelson chose to intentionally foul Bol to put him on the free throw line. That strategy was stopped by the clock and the fact that Bol made six consecutive free throw attempts during one stretch.
Nelson remains undaunted, however. The two teams meet twice within the next month and by then the Bucks will have figured something out. "There are some things we haven't tried that I know would be effective against him," Nelson said.
Then, he paused.
"Not that I know exactly what those things are yet."