During the initial days of the NBA playoffs, Jim Petersen of the Houston Rockets was about as much in demand by the media as say, teammates Granville Waiters or Hank McDowell. That is to say, there was little or no demand at all.
The nation's media demanded audiences with Akeem Olajuwon or Ralph Sampson. But not a second-year player who, not so coincidentally, was also a distant third on the list of famous Minnesota centers behind Milwaukee's Randy Breuer and Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics. In fact, McHale had been the main pitch man during the Golden Gophers' recruitment of Petersen.
But as the Rockets' postseason action heated up, it became more apparent that Petersen was carving out a rather sizable niche for himself, on the court and off. When Olajuwon was ejected from a Western Conference semifinal game against Denver, then fouled out along with Sampson in another, Petersen served as a more than adequate replacement.
During the conference final against the Los Angeles Lakers, Petersen was actually the Rockets' most effective defender against the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After one impressive performance, Petersen related a tale from his rookie season.
"There I was, playing against Abdul-Jabbar, one of the all-time greats," he said. "I tried crowding him down low. He got the ball and stuck an elbow in my chest. As I was falling down he put a sky hook into the basket." The story wasn't completed until Petersen added the punch line: "I guess I got my revenge for that today."
The fact that Abdul-Jabbar remembered absolutely nothing about the incident only enhanced the story. But even as Petersen has become a big favorite with the media, Houston Coach Bill Fitch -- another man who knows how to spin a good yarn -- has been far more appreciative of Petersen's on-the-court contributions.
If not for Petersen, it could be argued that the Rockets wouldn't be in the position they're in today, facing the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA championship series. In the team's 111-96 Game 5 victory Thursday night, he entered the game for Sampson, who had been ejected for fighting, and promptly muscled his way to 12 rebounds, in addition to scoring six points.
Petersen didn't regard his effort as any great surprise.
"Ralph and Akeem have both been hurt and I've had a chance to start and get used to that kind of exposure," he said.
Petersen twice was pressed into extended active duty. The first stint came in early February when Olajuwon went down with a knee injury. Starting 14 games, Petersen averaged nine points and eight rebounds. A month later, Sampson suffered a severely bruised back in a fall at Boston Garden. Once again Petersen filled the breach, starting six more games with an average of 13 points and six rebounds.
He played in all 82 regular-season games and more than doubled all his rookie year statistics, scoring in double figures 19 times and averaging 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Still, even after last Thursday's win, Petersen was not satisfied. "I missed a lot of shots [going three for 12] that I wish I could have back," he said. "Before the game we all felt that the team could play better than we had shown. I know that I can, too."