- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

The big difference to Chris Wilcox between life in the NBA and college is the travel. "You can be going here one day and there the next," the Los Angeles Clippers rookie said.

"There" for Wilcox the other night was MCI Center and a game against the Washington Wizards, although it was more like "here." As opposed to surly crowds on the road and even at home, lots of friendly, familiar faces were on hand. His former Maryland teammate, Juan Dixon, plays for the Wizards. His former coach, Gary Williams, had a front-row seat. When he checked into the game in the first quarter, Wilcox got a warm ovation from fans who appreciated his contribution to the Terrapins' NCAA championship run last season. "I think I deserved it," he said. "Me coming off a national title."

Now Wilcox is coming off the bench. Wearing his braids and a red headband favored by many of the Clippers, he played 16 minutes against the Wizards twice his season average before fouling out with four points and four rebounds. Minus three starters, the Clippers scored eight points in the third quarter and fell behind by 30, headed for a 99-80 loss. Their record is 19-41. They have lost seven straight with five road games remaining before they return home. On Monday, they fired coach Alvin Gentry.

This has, of course, happened before with the most consistently maddening team in the league. Dennis Johnson, who replaced Gentry, is the ninth coach since the 1991-92 season, the last time the Clippers had a winning record. Lottery picks and coaches come and go, but two constants remain: general manager Elgin Baylor and owner Donald Sterling. The pair has presided over a franchise with the worst record in major professional sports since it moved from San Diego in 1984.

But for Wilcox, this is an eye-opener. More than the losing, it is losing compounded by inactivity nothing like what he envisioned when he decided to leave Maryland last spring after his sophomore season.

"If I could do it over again, I probably would have stayed another year," he said. "It's been kind of an up-and-down season, not getting a lot of playing time. It really kind of like put me down."

Wilcox said he has learned "you can't win 'em all," an all-time understatement.

"I'm used to coming from a winning organization," he said. "We're not winning, so it's kind of tough for me."

To try to get through it, Wilcox reminds himself why he is here. "I wanted to make the best decision for me and my family," he said. "My dream was to make it to the NBA."

Listed at 6-foot-10 and 221 pounds, Wilcox left Maryland with unquestioned athletic ability and raw talent. He also took with him inexperience and inconsistency, a lack of court awareness, maturity and a jump shot, plus less than stellar work habits.

"Personally, I think Chris should stay," Williams said the day after the Terps beat Indiana in Atlanta to win the national championship. "He's on the verge of becoming one of the top players in college basketball. If he stays a year, financially he would get back whatever he would sacrifice."

Wilcox said he would have remained a Terp had they not won it all, but they did, and that was that.

"It was time for me to go," he said. "I accomplished all my goals in college."

After he outplayed Drew Gooden and Jared Jeffries in the Final Four and impressed several teams during workouts, the Clippers picked him eighth in the draft. Wilcox is getting more than $6 million over three years, which allows him to take care of himself and his family. He shares a rented house with his mother, Debra Brown, who moved from North Carolina, and a friend named Carlos.

Recently, Wilcox has come to learn another fact of NBA life.

"It's starting to get out of hand, with people trying to come in like, 'I need this, I need that,' " he said. "It's kind of tough. Now you have a lot of friends. All of a sudden, it's like, 'You remember when you used to come to my house?' It's kind of frustrating that people hold that against you, that because you used to hang out with them, you owe them something."

Wilcox is playing more lately because starting power forward Elton Brand is hurt. But he has appeared in just 27 games overall, averaging about eight minutes. His production (2.7 points, 1.7 rebounds a game) is the lowest among the lottery picks. No one expected Wilcox, 20, to make an immediate impact, and so he hasn't disappointed.

"He's still young. He's still learning the NBA game," Baylor said. "We were looking at him for down the line."

Wilcox understands this, to a point. "I'm used to playing," he said. "But I came to the Clippers, and I have to play behind veteran guys. It's tough. But it's a learning experience, and it can only make me stronger."

After the Wizards game, his coach was asked where Wilcox is right now in terms of his development and the future.

"He fouled out, right? That's where he is right now," said Johnson, who was a tough and feisty guard in a long NBA career.

Then Johnson laughed and said he was teasing, trying to maintain some sanity amid the craziness.

"We're bringing Chris along," Johnson said. "He still has to do a lot of things. One, not reach so much. Two, learn how to box out a little better, and, three, he probably has to get a little more enthused about the game.

"I think he fell into a rookie thing where Chris may have settled on the spot that he's in. He's playing behind a lot of people. And for that, I think Chris needs to work a little harder at the practice part of it and show he wants to be out there. I'm not saying he doesn't, but for a younger guy, you have to show off a little bit more. If there's a ball floating around on the ground, you know what? You may have to go dive on it. If there's a rebound, you may have to jump a little higher. Things like that."

The general view is that Wilcox needs to improve his strength, his post moves, his jumper, his defense in other words, everything. "He has to work at it," Baylor said. "He has to want it, he has to be committed to it."

Earlier in the day, Williams said, "What Chris has to do is work hard. He can't be like those established pros who don't play much ball once the season is over."

The Terps are doing well without Wilcox. But what if he had decided to stick around?

"We've definitely thought about it," senior playmaker Steve Blake said. "Chris was a great player, without question. Who knows how good we could have been?"

Said senior guard Drew Nicholas: "I thought about that the other day. Man, if we still had No. 54 with an added year of college experience, it could be scary. But you don't know. Maybe someone else doesn't step up as much. But he would have been a big plus for us."

Maryland will proceed, as it has all season, without Wilcox. Meanwhile, Wilcox will try to make it through a difficult rookie year. But it hasn't been all bad. As he left the MCI Center locker room, he was wearing a huge silver chain with a white gold replica of a rim-hanging basketball player, No. 54, dangling at the end. It must have weighed a ton, a pricey piece of jewelry. Whether it is worth more than a piece of another national championship, or even trying to win it, remains to be seen.

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