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NBA: Take a stampede at the rookie wall

Mark Woods

With 82 games, nightly flights from sea to shining sea and an incessant scrutiny which would test even Buddha, a season in the National Basketball Association is a daunting marathon rather than a gut-wrenching sprint. 

For those who enter the world's most competitive league, the upheavals are enormous, lungs and minds put through an
exhaustive examination in which the pass rate can equate with millions of dollars and a lifestyle imagined only in dreams.

Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler know it well. 

The two youngest stars of the once-mighty, now bedraggled, Chicago Bulls, the pair opted last summer to jump straight from high school to the pros, skipping out the traditional finishing school offered in America's universities. Still in their teens, they inherited an impossible mantle. 

Ever since Michael Jordan skipped town to condemn the Bulls to repeated slaughter, the Windy City has been awaiting its new saviours. Making the grade is hard
enough. Catalysing an immediate turnaround in fortunes is an intolerable burden.

For Curry, joining the Bulls was the stuff of childhood fantasy. Growing up in suburban Chicago, he watched Jordan's impervious reign from close quarters. 

"I used to put myself in those uniforms and imagine one day I could be at that level," he reveals, his infinite arms soaring skyward to cheerily high five a young fan. 

On his left arm, a motto is tattooed to remind him of his challenge: 'Among Men', it reads. The 19 year old
though remains a kid at heart.

"I've had a lot of support from my family, especially with them being only an hour away," he states. "They can drive to my house. I can go to theirs. It keeps things normal. 

"Even with a lot of things which have changed, they've been my rock. They're always checking up on me, especially my Mom. Making sure I'm in the house when I should be. She'll call and say 'Why are you still up when you should be resting?' She wants the best for me. She'll come clean up sometimes at my house."

Smiling, he adds: "The only thing is she charges me for it now."

Chandler, who at 7 feet is the taller by one inch, grew up near Compton, the troubled inner city LA neighbourhood which brought us the Williams sisters. 

Like his cohort, his mother retains a watchful eye on her son, travelling back and forth from LA to check that little Tyson is eating right and washing behind his ears. 

Like Curry, there were times in his first season when he looked, and felt, lost in a land of giants. Much like the Bulls themselves of late who hope that investment in young talent will eventually compensate for their present growing pains. 

With the addition of a promising college star, Jay Williams, and the gentle steering of Jordan's one-time team-mate Bill Cartwright, respectability - if not greatness - is now the aim. 

But the spectre left by Chicago's favourite son looms large even now. 

"It's always going to be there," Chandler offers. "He's the greatest player who ever played the game. That shadow is always going to be around and no-one is going to replace him. 

"All we can do is play our hardest and stick together. This organisation will get as good as Eddy and I get so we need to get better together."

There must be a temptation to blow the millions on jewellery and parties though? 

"The lifestyle is one thing but we're here to play basketball," he responds. "So that goes out the window once the season starts.  But it's a great lifestyle. You're travelling all over, playing against the best players in the sport you love. What else can you ask for?"

A championship perhaps? Jordan, now in Washington, is preparing for surely his last fling at the age of 39 but even he carries little hope of a glorious final triumph.

Likewise the contenders from over here - John Amaechi in Utah, Robert Archibald in Memphis and Ireland's Pat Burke in Orlando don't figure to be in action come the middle fortnight in June. 

The league's quartet of genuine monoliths all prowl in the league's Western Conference - the Los Angeles Lakers,
Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs - all of whom will wrestle incestuously for the right to play Goliath to the East's designated David.

While the Lakers, the defending champions, remain reliant on their tandem of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Sacramento are the kings-in- waiting after coming within a single shot of dethroning their intra-state rivals last summer. This could, and should, be their turn at

Constrained by a salary cap that penalises any team which over-spends, the chasing pack can only barter to discover that elusive winning blend.

Or instead they can wait for young buds to flower into grown orchids.

"Only the strong survive," proclaims the ink burned into Chandler's right bicep. 

For the weak, patience is the ultimate virtue until their turn arrives to muscle in among the big boys. 

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