With a Yale pedigree and a former diplomat for a grandfather, Chris Dudley is no typical NBA player.

The New York Knicks center probably has never heard this question, posed to Tim Duncan during the NBA Finals: "Do you consider the paint your own territory, your own domain, an area where you feel you can do whatever you want?"

For Dudley, the paint has always been the spot on the floor above which his often futile free throw attempts have soared. He has never averaged double-digit points in his 13 seasons in the league, held back by the uncontested 15-foot shot he has struggled mightily to master.

Now, Dudley's dogged pursuit of competition and a championship ring has led him to the most difficult job in basketball these days. While Patrick Ewing sits on the bench in a suit with a torn Achilles' tendon, Dudley must stand in that paint, between Duncan and the basket, and hope for the best against the San Antonio Spurs.

"I admire Chris Dudley for a lot of reasons," Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said today as his team prepared for Game 2 against the Spurs. "The main one is his professionalism. He always is ready, plays hard, thinks team first."

The Knicks need Dudley now, maybe even more than they needed Ewing to fight through his Achilles' injury until the tendon finally gave way in Game 2 against the Indiana Pacers. They need him on the floor, because at 6 feet 11 he is their best defensive weapon against the Spurs' twin towers, Duncan and David Robinson.

Dudley hasn't made even half his free throws in a season since 1995-96 with Portland. He is shooting -- the term used loosely -- 46 percent in his career.

Now, he has a badly swollen, hyperextended, possibly bruised right elbow, further imperiling his quirky foul-line delivery.

And yet he continues to do what he has done since Cleveland made him the 75th pick in 1987, the sixth Yale player picked in the NBA draft. He plays when he's needed, as well as he can, however banged up his body might be.

"It's something I've just had to become accustomed to," Dudley said. "It's been like that all year really, and the end of last year, too -- when Pat had some injuries. I've just had to be flexible, just tried to stay ready at all times."

With a degree in economics and political science, Dudley was ready for more than basketball when he left Yale. His parents, uncle and grandfather all went there.

He got his middle name, Guilford, from a grandfather who was an ambassador to Denmark under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Rather than pursue diplomacy, politics or macroeconomic theory, Dudley decided to make his living playing a game that involved depositing a round ball in a 10-foot-high basket.

"They were fired up," Dudley said of his family. "It was just going to college, it was kind of the idea of don't put all your eggs in one basket. As long as I took care of the education, they were very supportive of basketball."

The 34-year-old center chuckles when asked to recount jokes he's heard from teammates or opponents about his Yale education or ineptitude at the foul line.

"The best one?" he asks, indicating that the jabs have been numerous. "I don't hear much about either one from my teammates."

Judging from the looks of his 8-month-old son, Charles, there could be another Dudley roaming the paint. Dudley is often seen toting the enormous child around the court before or after games. Young Charles already tips the scales at nearly 30 pounds. "He's a real bruiser," Dad said.

CAPTION: Chris Dudley, left, had hands full with David Robinson in Game 1. Dudley has a degree in economics, political science.