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Kevin McHale, who had never started a conversation with me before in his life, chucked me on the arm on his way through the Wolves' locker room last month. "I thought you said Rasho couldn't play," he said with a lift of his chin, his voice imbued with a little bit of taunt inside the tease.
Had I been ready for this spontaneous invitation to debate my previous denigration of the Wolves's suddenly improved center, Rasho Nesterovic, there were a variety of ways to answer the jibe. Under the "best defense is a good offense" stratagem, I could have assailed McHale with the names of Stojko Vrankovic, Paul Grant, Stanley Roberts, Cherokee Parks, and Dean Garrett, a quintet of underachieving centers he had either drafted or traded for before Rasho's arrival. I could have protested that I never wrote that Rasho "couldn't play," only that he was "flawed under the best of circumstances," "as fragile mentally as he is soft physically," and constituted "a major disappointment."
Instead, I tilted my head, offered a wan smile. "You're right," I uttered weakly. "Huh?" McHale said, pausing a beat to see if I was going to come up with anything better, or at least more coherent. (He was "right" about what? What I'd said? His faith in Rasho?) Then he continued on his merry way.
I had been pretty confident that Rasho would fade into oblivion like the other aforementioned big men that Saunders and McHale had overrated in their serial bouts of wishful thinking. During his first year in the league, Rasho's foot work, court sense, hands, and passing skills were fairly refined for a 23-year old kid, but the Slovenian native was woefully soft battling for rebounds and challenging opponents who drove toward the basket--the classic pros and cons of a native European.
Last year, however, was a disaster. Rasho's confidence seemed decimated before Christmas. He minced and moped around the court, looking like a player who wanted to disappear. During the last third of the season, Saunders started to oblige him, steadily reducing his minutes to the point where the Wolves were relying on the creaky Dean Garrett and the way-undersized Reggie Slater. There were even rumors the Wolves might agree to a buy-out of his contract before the 2001-2002 season, so he could return to the European leagues.
No player in Timberwolves history has restored his confidence as dramatically as Rasho has done this season. On offense, he moves diligently to create a physical presence, setting-up picks as teammates cut through the painted area and jousting for position near the basket. He's calling for the ball when he's open and, when he's not, spinning toward the hoop for lay-ups or short jump-hook shots. On defense, the new zone coverage schemes have enabled the Wolves to compensate for his lack of physicality; when he's matched up against a behemoth, other teammates can provide assistance. The rule changes have also allowed him to resurrect the zone-oriented instincts he developed in Europe. "Rasho understands what we want to do on defense as much or more than any of our front line people," Saunders explains. "It's one of the big reasons for our improvement."
While Rasho will likely never be a guy who prevails with brute force or a nasty attitude, this year he is much more active fighting for rebounds at both ends of the court; I bet he's already tipped in more errant shots than he did during all of last season. He's also been copying the virtues of his teammates. He prolongs rebounding battles by tipping balls he can't corral back up in the air, like Gary Trent and Kevin Garnett. He is also developing a Joe Smith-like ability to draw charging fouls on opponents, which neutralizes their aggression.
All these hard-earned improvements couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. There is an inherent kindness and sensitivity about Rasho that becomes more poignant when you learn a little about his history. When he was 15 years old, Slovenia became the first republic to break away from Yugoslavia, sparking a ten-day war that resulted in hundreds of deaths. That tragedy would soon be dwarfed by the carnage wrought in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the rest of his former country as the Serbs used ethnic cleansing and other methods to consolidate their influence. "He's had very close family members die and be killed over there," says Wolves' assistant coach Randy Wittman, who has become something of a tutor and confidant for Rasho this season. "I don't know much more than that because I don't want to stir up any memories or feelings that he might not want to get into."
After starring for two years in the Italian basketball league, Rasho first came to Minnesota at the age of 22, where he was thrust into the playoffs in only his third game with the Wolves. He didn't know English or the caliber of the NBA game. "When you're seven feet tall, the only place you find athletic people who are just as big as you are is in the NBA," says McHale. "In Slovenia or the University of Minnesota [where McHale went to school], you can get away with just being taller. But not in the NBA. It takes time to adjust."
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