Originally created 04/12/98

Injured stars find it hard being on sidelines



INDIANAPOLIS -- Haywoode Workman watches the games from the bench week after week, month after month. He doesn't sweat with his teammates on the Indiana Pacers or bump elbows with opponents or get to back up the trash talk he occasionally yells from his seat.

Workman is in NBA limbo -- injured and not sure when he can return.

"You see the guys having fun, but you don't feel a part," said Workman, a key player in the Pacers' first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference finals four years ago.

He's not alone collecting splinters on the bench. Injured veterans Patrick Ewing, Anfernee Hardaway, Jayson Williams, Gheorghe Muresan and Mark West also have been sitting out during their teams' push for the playoffs.

Workman was sidelined with a knee injury in 1996 and has missed all but four games the past two seasons.

"It was just hard to accept being injured because everything was coming around," he said. "I thought, `It is my time. Here's the opportunity and you're right at the door and now you have an injury.' "

After allowing six months for his injury to heal, Workman started running again and tore cartilage in the same knee. Doctors say he has only a 50-50 chance of ever playing again.

"Until they say I can't play, I'm going to try," the 32-year-old Workman said. "I love basketball. I want to come back and win a championship."

He said he was robbed of what could have been the best part of his career. He's also missing out on playing this season under Larry Bird, the rookie coach of perhaps the best Pacers team ever.

In 1993, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Workman signed to be the Pacers' third point guard, but made more starts (52) that season than the other point guards combined. He's still the Pacers' all-time career playoff leader in assists with 160.

Sitting beside Workman on the Pacers bench is 14-year NBA veteran Mark West, best known for his six years as starting center for the Phoenix Suns.

West, 37, signed with the Pacers as a free agent in September, but played in only 14 games before an old knee injury flared up.

"It's tough, but as you get older, you've seen it happen to older players before you," he said. "I feel blessed that it happened late in my career instead of early."

Washington Wizards center Gheorghe Muresan isn't quite so understanding.

The tallest man in NBA history has missed all season because of an elusive injury, first diagnosed as a stretched tendon in his leg. The 7-foot-7 Muresan recently learned that the tendon is fine, making his injury a bigger mystery than ever.

"Last year, I had the best time for all my 27 years," said Muresan, who stars in the new movie "My Giant" with Billy Crystal. "(Now) I've had the worst year. I cannot comprehend anything."

Muresan averaged 11 points per game while shooting close to 60 percent and blocking 443 shots over four seasons. This was supposed to be the year he helped the Wizards make the playoffs easily. Instead, they are struggling and probably will miss the postseason.

"I ask, `What happened to me?' " Muresan said. "Why am I injured right now? I can't find the answer."

Ewing's prognosis is better than Muresan's, and against long odds the New York Knicks franchise player hopes to be back for the playoffs -- if his team gets in. Ewing has missed more than half the season since he hurt his wrist during a game Dec. 20.

In New Jersey, the Nets' All-Star Jayson Williams has been on the bench with a broken thumb.

"It makes you antsy," Williams, 30, said. "It's frustrating not playing. I am in the prime of my life and I just want to play."

The hustling 6-foot-10 center is second in rebound average behind Chicago's Dennis Rodman.

"You learn a lot sitting on the bench," Williams said. "You learn a lot of other guys' weaknesses -- a lot about guys on your team, and you learn how good you are when you are sitting on the bench, too.

"You say: `That guy couldn't do that?' and `Wow, he couldn't get that one (if I was in there).' "

Williams hopes to be back in time for the postseason, if the Nets make it.

And if the Orlando Magic rally to get in the playoffs, Penny Hardaway wants to be back, too. He has played only 19 games this season due to a weakened calf.

The 6-foot-7 All-Star guard was the subject of trade rumors in February and said he thinks some people have written him off because of his injuries.

"Fans I trusted turned on me now that I'm injured and I don't know the reason why," he said. "They should be with me now because I'm down. That's when you need people on your side."

But for every veteran sitting on the bench, there's one who made it back to the court.

The Denver Nuggets' LaPhonso Ellis was one of the NBA's most promising young forwards until a knee injury forced him to miss virtually all of 1994-95 and nearly half of 1995-96.

Just when he appeared to have regained his form last year -- averaging 21.9 points per game -- he ruptured his Achilles' tendon. Ellis subsequently missed the rest of that season and remained on the injured list until Nov. 12.

True to form, Ellis bounced back -- right onto this season's worst team. The Nuggets were 10-67 with five games left.

No matter, he said. Despite the team's miserable record, it's good to be back on the court.

"This year has been a true judge of character," said Ellis, who's averaging 13.8 points per game. "It is a lot more difficult for a player to step it up in a situation like we are in where you know you aren't going to the playoffs."

With one year left on his contract, Workman wants one more chance. He works out every day, just waiting for the OK to practice with the team, which clinched a spot in the playoffs weeks ago.

"I don't think any rookie could understand," Workman said. "You get a couple years up under you, then you understand what it's all about -- why guys like myself want to come back and try to win a championship when you may not even have a chance of playing."