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Thursday, November 3, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill Cartwright -- Elbowing Way To Top -- When Sonic Center's Around, Foes Have A Lot To Think About

Bill Cartwright, the dignified Sonic center, won't raise his voice to anyone. He won't because he can't.

His vocal box has been so damaged by opponents' elbows that he talks as if he has permanent laryngitis. Like Bill Clinton at the end of a campaign.

"I've had three good shots in the larynx, the last one coming last season (against Indiana)," Cartwright said. "It was fractured to the extent that it actually was reshaped. That's why my projection is not that good."

His head also has been a ready and steady target.

"I can't tell you how many times I've had my lip split open," he said. "One time I had 20 stitches over my right eye.

"I remember one game I had some blood above my lip and I brought the trainer over to take care of it. He said, `You've got to come out of the game.' I said, `Why, what's wrong?' He said, `I can see your teeth.' That's just part of the game."

There is a wealth of irony in this. For it is Cartwright who gives more than he takes. When the Sonics signed the 37-year-old center to a $2.5 million free-agent contract this summer, they also got a pair of Enforcer Elbows and a reputation that surrounds them.

"He got me one in Chicago (in 1991) and I wasn't real happy about it at the time. I'm know I'm not alone on that list," said former Sonic Jack Sikma, then with Milwaukee.

"That's just the way he plays, when he takes a strong pivot and keeps the ball high. The percentages are high that someday Bill's going to catch you."

Cartwright's elbow caught Hakeem Olajuwon in the eye in 1991, forcing him to miss 25 games. Hakeem has since decided to wear protective goggles.

"I don't think he has control of how he uses his elbows," Olajuwon said. "He's an awkward player, not agile like most centers. He doesn't know how to avoid injuries to others."

Cartwright also has leveled Terry Catledge, Greg Kite, Horace Grant and Michael Jordan. Grant and Jordan were his Bull teammates at the time. He injured them during practice.

Detroit's Isiah Thomas was so mad after taking a Cartwright jab in a Jan. 31, 1989 game that Thomas ended up fighting Piston assistant coach Brendan Malone, who had tried to restrain him.

"I know he has cut Isiah several times," said Rod Thorn, NBA Director of Operations. "He's a little unorthodox with the way he moves around with his arms."

In the late 1980s, amid a trail of writhing bodies, the league believed it had to do something, even though nothing Cartwright did was illegal.

"I suggested to him that he wear pads," Thorn said. "He said he had tried them, didn't feel comfortable wearing them and thought it would impair his ability to play. I understood what he was saying but my retort was, `We can't have people hit in the head on an ongoing basis.' "

The league never insisted on the pads and Thorn said it hasn't been a serious problem since. But all that attention served an important purpose. Opponents have those elbows in the back of their heads, mentally as well as physically.

"I certainly have taken those blows back and probably some more," Cartwright said. "But if anything, they (opponents) stay away from me now."

Sikma isn't so sure that Cartwright's reputation makes players back off.

"What I will agree with," Sikma said, "is when you play Bill Cartwright, everyone thinks about how he plays and what can happen."

Dan Risley, his high-school coach at Elk Grove, Calif., and still his personal manager, doesn't want anyone to get the idea that Cartwright is an NBA goon.

"He's an unbelievable gentleman. I never have had anyone say a bad word about Bill," he said.

Risley said Bill's values and personality are the products of his parents' influence. His family lived in the Valley Hi, a suburban subdivision about 10 miles south of Sacramento. His father, James, worked the local farms and dairies of nearby Elk Grove. He did everything from pick vegetables to work construction and made sure Bill and his six sisters understood the work ethic.

"I started early, 7, 8 years old, picking tomatoes, apples, pears," Cartwright said. "Ever hoe a sugar-beat field? It's 100 degrees, you have this long-handled hoe and you're chopping. It's a beautiful thing. I think everyone should experience that.

"You remember going out there in the morning and you know it's going be the same every day. It teaches you perseverance."

Bill Swesey, a former Valley Hi neighbor, said, "I was very impressed by his parents. They made sure he kept a level head."

But James Cartwright allowed his son's basketball indulgence.

"We lived two blocks from Woods Park and Bill lived about three blocks away," Swesey said. "From about age 14 on, every single day I'd see him bounce a basketball past our house on his way to the park."

On his bedroom wall Cartwright had a poster of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond. Some might see it as a portent.

"Kareem's elbowing Thurmond in the jaw," Cartwright said. "It was an incredible shot. Thurmond had his head turned way back."

What really jump-started Cartwright's career was his competition with a teammate, 6-foot-9 forward Terry Staufferer, who was one grade ahead. Risley said as far back as 1975, "If Billy ever writes his memoirs, he should dedicate a chapter to Terry Staufferer."

Cartwright remembers, "He beat me up bad, especially my freshman and sophomore years. When I came home, my mom thought I was fighting, I was so beat up. I had cuts on my lip, my eyes, nose.

"But I learned how to post up. I learned how to use my body, how to protect the ball. I learned how to be tough."

"It was about survival," said Staufferer, now a middle-school math teacher in the Rescue Union School District near Sacramento.

When the season began, Staufferer said, "that was the easy time. Once it was over, we'd spend five or six hours a day on the court. We didn't just play. We tried to develop our skills, our movements, our footwork."

By age 14, Cartwright stood 6 feet 7. As he grew, so did his reputation. By 15, he was playing against and beating such NBA players as Kevin Restani and Phil Smith. He finished high school averaging nearly 40 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks per game. His team had a 30-0 record his senior year.

"Everyone knew about Bill Cartwright," said UW Coach Bob Bender, who joined Cartwright and other top high-school players invited to play in an All-Star Game in 1975 in Washington, D.C.

"First time I saw him play, I said `Whoa,' " Bender said. "Because of size and shooting ability, he was unique."

Bob Gaillard, University of San Francisco head coach, ultimately won the letter of intent from Cartwright, the country's most sought-after player.

"He was 6-11 and 217 pounds when I got him. He worked his butt off," said Gaillard, now the coach at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. "His longevity and success are tributes to his work ethic. He was dedicated to the right things."

In his sophomore season, USF won 29 straight games and was ranked No. 1 in the country. However, the Dons lost to Reggie Theus-led Nevada-Las Vegas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In his four seasons, Cartwright never made it to the Final Four.

He did wind up with the school record for points (which he still holds) at 2,116 as well as a degree in sociology.

The New York Knicks believed Cartwright could carry them to an NBA crown and drafted him third in 1979, behind Magic Johnson and David Greenwood. But as at San Francisco, it didn't quite work out. In the nine years he was in New York, the Knicks never reached even the NBA semifinals.

Perhaps it was because the club and his role were in constant flux. Red Holzman was the first of his four coaches. Hubie Brown, Bob Hill and Rick Pitino followed.

"Each one had a different expectation. Now you're a scorer, now a rebounder, now a picker, now play inside, now play outside," Cartwright said.

But in a way, it was good for him.

"I think doing all that, it gave me a better understanding of basketball. It made me more versatile," he said.

He averaged 21.7 points his first season and 17.8 points in his first five seasons. He suffered an injury to his left foot in 1984 and and later suffered injuries to the same foot three more times. He played in just two games in two years, missing all of the 1984-85 season. Nicknamed "Dollar Bill" by the New York press after signing his first pro contract, he was then given the name "Medical Bill."

"No one could question his integrity, his character or his pain threshold," Hubie Brown said. "He was really hurting. He could not participate. And when he came back, he was averaging 17 points a game again.

"I can't give you a negative if I tried. He's as solid as a rock. He married his high-school sweetheart. I've never known him to take a cheap shot. He has always played with dignity."

The emergence of Patrick Ewing in the mid-1980s greased Cartwright's New York exit. Trade rumors began in 1987. On June 27, 1988, he was traded to Chicago for Charles Oakley.

"In Chicago I was basically a defensive player," Cartwright said. "I had some offense, but when you have Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, John Paxson, and B.J. Armstrong, you don't get a lot of chances to shoot the ball."

But what he couldn't do for USF or New York, he did for Chicago. He won and won and won, three championships rings. He was a scorer in New York and a stalwart defender in Chicago. Same guy, different role, different results.

"Your role always changes; you have to able to change with it," he said. "You don't have to like it, but you have to be versatile if you want to play."

In Seattle, he'll have yet another role, supporting young center Ervin Johnson and assisting veteran Sam Perkins. But his real value will not be known for six months, when the playoffs begin.

"What Cartwright brings to Seattle is a total team player," Brown said. "He'll score, he'll make his free throws, his field-goal percentage will be high and he'll give you five years of defensive experience. Plus, he'll get the non-call at the critical times in the last two minutes of the big playoff games."

Cartwright pondered retirement this spring. He is entering his 17th pro season and is the league's fourth-oldest player behind Robert Parish, Moses Malone and James Edwards - all centers. There may be concern that he is now "Past Due Bill."

"I think I can give them what they want," Cartwright said. "I had offers from other teams, but I thought I would have to play too much. I wasn't going to put myself in a situation where I had to play 30 minutes a night."

Seattle will find, Risley said, that Cartwright is that rare player who is willing to sacrifice his game for the benefit of the team.

"He has an ego, but he's in control of it,' Risley said.

The issue hasn't been the ego. It's the elbow that has characterized Bill Cartwright.

"He's a great addition to the Sonics," Sikma added, "but I'd hate to have to practice against him every day."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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