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Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Shareef will prefer playing second fiddle

By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com

He had 27 points and 10 rebounds in his last game as a Hawk. Those are nifty numbers for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, but not ones that especially stand out. That's what he does. If you've got him on your rotisserie team or in your fantasy league, he's a keeper.

What was unusual was that those points came in an Atlanta victory, a victory over Dallas -- Dallas! -- before the usual folding-chair-only crowd at Philips Arena on Monday night.

When the game was over, so was Abdur-Rahim's stay in Atlanta.

He had wanted desperately to make it work when he "came home" 2½ seasons ago. He had been a high school sensation in the Atlanta area, a one-year-and-out star at California, and a numbers-poster for a bad team and a bad situation in five lean years in Vancouver.

But it didn't work for Abdur-Rahim in Atlanta, just the same way it didn't work for him in Vancouver. He maintains the dubious distinction of being the best NBA player still waiting to see what playoff basketball is all about. That's 586 games over 7½ seasons without so much as a sniff at the postseason.

This deal, however, not only has a chance to end that streak, but also a chance to make Abdur-Rahim content, even if his numbers go down.

One NBA executive who had been hot on Abdur-Rahim's tail over the past month or so came to the following conclusion after doing his share of due diligence: Shareef is a scorer, a terrific guy, a non-trouble maker, a popular teammate, and, last but certainly not least, a guy who would rather be No. 2 on his team. In other words, he's like a lot of terrific talents, whether you're talking about current players like Grant Hill or Scottie Pippen or Hall of Famers like James Worthy and Kevin McHale.

Some guys need to be the caddy. They're good -- maybe even great -- even in their own right. But their greatness also comes from recognizing where they should stand in the pecking order. McHale always understood that in Boston. Worthy did the same in Los Angeles, Pippen the same in Chicago. Hill, to his everlasting dismay, discovered that in Orlando just when his foot went Royal Doulton on him.

Abdur-Rahim has always been the No. 1 guy, invariably on a No. 28 or No. 29 team. What else can you do but put up numbers in hopeless situations like those? Yes, he teamed with Mike Bibby in Vancouver, but it was clear that Abdur-Rahim was still the main guy. When the 2000 Olympic team needed some late help, the man they called was Shareef. Now that was the perfect situation for him -- he may have been No. 8 or No. 9 on that team.

The Grizzlies even went so far as to max him out, further embellishing his reputation. And when he was finally moved to Atlanta -- in a deal for a draft pick which turned out to be (gulp) Pau Gasol -- it seemed time at last for Shareef to lead the way. He was going home -- the Wheeler High alum -- to finally see if he not only could get the Hawks into the postseason, but to get them to the point where they might actually win a best-of-seven series, something they haven't done in decades.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Finally, Shareef Abdur-Rahim won't have the burden of lifting a franchise out of its doldrums.
It didn't happen in Year 1. The Hawks then went out and got Big Dog Robinson and it didn't happen in Year 2, also known as the Year of the Rebate. He became "Abdur-Rebate" or "Abdur-Refund" as the Hawks failed to make the playoffs, generating refunds for their half-dozen or so season-ticket holders.

This season was even worse. The Hawks were sold in September -- and the deal still isn't final. Wars have been waged and won in less time. While the final papers wait to be signed, the Hawks moved into a slash-and-burn mentality, typical of corporate America. You're selling? It's not buyer beware. It's seller, please strip to the bone. Robinson was dealt for a player who can't play and whose only value was an expiring contract (Terrell Brandon.) And now we have Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff headed to Portland for two players (Rasheed Wallace and Wesley Person) whose deals are up at the end of this season.

Think the new owners will work hard to re-sign either one of them?

Not making it work in Atlanta remains one of Abdur-Rahim's many professional disappointments. After Monday night's deal was finally confirmed, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "That's the biggest thing, from the standpoint of coming home. I don't think it ever went the way I envisioned it. I wanted to help Atlanta have a winning team. That never materialized. That's something I don't feel good about."

The beauty of this latest relocation from Abdur-Rahim's standpoint is that he gets to join a team legitimately in the playoff chase, albeit in a conference loaded with talented big guys he only had to face twice a season. (He did all right against the talented big guys from Dallas, however, outscoring all of them on Monday night in posting his 26th double-double of the season.) The Trail Blazers had moved to within a game of .500 when the deal was made; however Wallace had been a big part of their resurgence during a stretch that saw them win seven of eight games. They are the team version of the anti-Shareef; they have a playoff streak that precedes the salary cap and lottery.

The other advantage for Abdur-Rahim is that, despite his flossy numbers and his inflated salary, he won't be given the Moses role in Portland. (Then again, given that he's a Muslim, that's probably a bad comparison.) No one in Portland will be giving him the ball and saying, "Lead us to the playoffs, 'Reef." That should be welcome news to Abdur-Rahim.

Portland already has Zach Randolph, who is about to close the deal on Most Improved Player unless Carlos Boozer overtakes him. They have veterans like Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson and Dale Davis. They've added the talented but occasionally lost Darius Miles. And Abdur-Rahim comes with Ratliff, who, by the numbers anyway, should be a big help.

In other words, Abdur-Rahim should be able to fit in and not be viewed as a No. 1 option and a No. 1 outlet. He brings needed class and dignity to an organization whose players lately have exhibited little of either. He brings scoring and rebounding, two skills that are valued anywhere and everywhere.

If he can be seen for what he is and what he wants to be, his long playoff drought may indeed come to an end. And given what we've seen of the strong personalities in Portland, that may be the least of Abdur-Rahim's concerns.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.