A DIFFERENT JERSEY
The last time the Nets had a better record than the Knicks, New Jersey’s leading scorer was a young center named Mike Gminski, and the NBA’s rookie of the year was a young center named Patrick Ewing.
After 15 years of struggling through cellar-dwelling seasons and relative media obscurity, a busy off-season and successful summer have the Nets poised to make a run at the Knicks’ position as the New York-New Jersey basketball powerhouse.
Veteran NBA watcher Marty Blake won’t directly compare the two teams, and he’s not exactly going out on a limb when he tells us, “I see more wins for the Nets than they had last year.” After all, the Nets got Jason Kidd and three good-looking rookies. But Blake, the league’s director of scouting operations, praises Net prexy Rod Thorn, saying, “I think Rod did a terrific job, and the Nets have definitely improved at a number of positions.”
Blake gives special kudos for two of the lesser lights the Nets acquired: Todd MacCulloch and Brandon Armstrong.
“I think the Nets signed a hell of a player in MacCulloch,” Blake says. “You get a center once every 20 and a half years. And I’m not talking about Shaquille O’Neal. I’m talking about a center who’s breathing.”
Two of the Nets’ three first-round draft picks were well-known Pac-10 players: Arizona forward Richard Jefferson and Stanford center Jason Collins. But the best draft pick may have been Pepperdine guard Brandon Armstrong. The trio led the Nets to a 5-1 record in Brian Shaw’s Pro Summer League, which featured rookies and free agents from 10 NBA teams, and the biggest surprise may have been Armstrong, whom scouts described as “fundamentally sound” and “a terrific shooter.”
The Knicks did little this off-season besides age, and their only deal has raised eyebrows: They dealt Glen Rice for Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley, leaving them with Eisley, Mark Jackson, and Charlie Ward. “They’re going to have to do something with their point guards,” says an Eastern Conference scout. “They have three veteran players there, and there’s no way you can play them all.”
WWF’S MCMAHON SLAMS INVESTORS
Earlier this month came the news that World Wrestling Federation chairman Vince McMahon had his bonus cut 30 percent, from $1.3 million to $900,000. Don’t cry for him—his salary rose from $855,769 in 2000 to $1 million in 2001, and he also gets $850,000 a year from his “booking contract” with the WWF.
If you’re an investor, go ahead and cry. Last week, the company announced that McMahon sold 1.9 million shares of WWF stock—about one twentieth of his family’s holdings—to a mutual fund for a mere $25 million. The news came the same day that the WWF, which sank more than $1 million into its failed XFL venture, reported less-than-stellar earnings. As of Friday, the stock was trading at about $12 per share—half of its 52-week high. If you feel like storming into the WWF’s next annual meeting—that’s 10 a.m. on September 21 at 1501 Broadway—leave your folding chairs and garbage cans at home. The WWF warns in its official SEC filing that this is a business meeting, not an “entertainment event,” and that “no superstars will be in attendance.”
And don’t expect former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker, a member of the WWF board of directors, to try to punish Vince at the meeting by putting him in a headlock. Weicker, like all other WWF outside directors, will get $25,000 just for showing up.
LEITER SMITETH ONE
If you were at Shea this past Sunday for Jewish Heritage Night, you may well have thought the Messiah had finally arrived, what with the miracle of Mets pitcher Al Leiter not only making solid contact—twice!—in one game as a batter, but actually stroking a single and scoring a run during New York’s 6-5 win over the Giants. Leiter, who entered the game 1-43 for the season, later thanked all gods of every religion for having Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz throw him fastballs. “What I don’t get is, as bad a hitter as I am,” said Leiter, “why they still throw me slop all the time and make me look even worse.” Leiter now has a legitimate prayer of equaling his hit total for last year: three (as in 3-58). Not that the ever competitive lefty doesn’t keep trying to better himself at the plate. “I get tips from everyone, even my mom and my niece,” said Leiter. And what does his niece tell him? “She says, ‘You stink!’ ”
Speaking of feeble hitters, the Shea faithful who might have discerned a slight uptick in the batting fortunes of Todd Zeile might be interested to learn that the first baseman has just started using a different-sized bat, borrowed from teammate Robin Ventura. In his first game with the Ventura model, Zeile hit a home run—his seventh, tying him with (all together now) Mike Hampton for the season. Acknowledging that he felt he’s been “a click behind” most of the season, Zeile said he hoped that using a bat one half inch shorter and two ounces lighter would help him be quicker with his swing. There was one more advantage, noted Ventura, leaning over from his locker next to Zeile’s: “It’s a pretty bat, too.”
Contributors: Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, Howard Z. Unger, Billy Altman
Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy