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SECRET WEAPON
Phil Taylor
February 02, 1998
Potent yet understated, the Grizzlies' Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the best NBA player you never see
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February 02, 1998

Secret Weapon

Potent yet understated, the Grizzlies' Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the best NBA player you never see

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Want to see The Future? You may have to stay up until the wee hours of the morning for the night-owl edition of the cable highlight shows, or endure quizzical looks when you walk into a sports bar on the East Coast and ask to have the Vancouver- Sacramento game punched up on satellite. If you don't want to go that far, make sure you are in front of your television on the one night each year when the entire nation has a chance to see The Future. Failing all that, your best option is a plane ticket and a passport.

The Future is better known—but just barely—as Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the Vancouver Grizzlies' quietly sensational second-year small forward. Because he is tucked away in a remote corner of the NBA map on a struggling third-year franchise, Abdur-Rahim doesn't get the exposure that most players of his caliber enjoy. The only place it's easy to find him is on the list of the league's scoring leaders, where he ranked fifth at week's end with an average of 22.8 points. The only night he gets prime-time national coverage is when the Grizzlies make their annual appearance on either TNT or TBS, and that is because Turner Sports is contractually obligated to show each team in the league at least once per season. (The Grizzlies' appearance this season came on Jan. 6 on TNT, when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 100-87.) Michael Jordan gets more exposure in one of his underwear commercials.

Since making a few headlines in June 1996, when the Grizzlies drafted him with the No. 3 pick after his freshman season at Cal, Abdur-Rahim has simply been the least visible star in the NBA, which he insists bothers him only slightly. He is genuinely modest, a rarity among players of his generation, and he talks at far greater length about his deficiencies—defense and perimeter shooting—than he does about his remarkable scoring ability. He even cringes a little at the mention of his nickname, The Future, which he earned when he was playing for Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga. A teammate suggested that in the future all players would be like the 6'9" Abdur-Rahim, with the size of a power forward and the ball handling skills of a guard.

"People said watching me play was like looking into the future," he says. "I kind of wish they'd forget about it. It was just meant to be a description, not a nickname." Those are not the words of a player thirsting for the spotlight. "I'd like to get more attention, not just for myself but for the team," he says. "You can be forgotten up here, but I think that's because we're not winning [the Grizzlies were 13-30 through Sunday], not because Vancouver is a small media market. When we start to win, the attention will come."

But Abdur-Rahim gets more than his share of attention from opponents. So far, no one has come up with a very effective way to stop him. "He's tough to guard because he's got so many moves down in the post, so many ways to get his shot off," says Golden State Warriors forward Donyell Marshall. "You think you have him locked up, but he still winds up getting to the hoop somehow."

Abdur-Rahim is capable of the occasional highlight-tape spin move or one-handed dunk off an alloy-oop pass, but his game is more efficient than it is spectacular. He is a natural scorer, with a way of slithering around and between defenders near the rim. Think George Gervin with fewer flourishes. Abdur-Rahim likes to set up in the low post, where he gathers in any pass that is remotely near him with his huge, soft hands and scores on a variety of jump hooks and short flips. Although he is slender at 230 pounds, Abdur-Rahim has quickly established himself as one of the best finishers in the league, able to score even after he draws contact, which he often does. And at week's end only Jordan (320), San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson (292) and Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone (290) had made more than Abdur-Rahim's 274 free throws (he was shooting 75.5% from the line).

"Reef gets his points in a lot of different ways," says Vancouver coach Brian Hill. "He'll get six to eight free throws, two or three baskets off offensive rebounds, and before you know it, you look up and he's got 20. The other thing that makes him so effective is his body control. He can twist and lean and move the ball around to get his shot off, and no matter what the angle is, he puts it up softly and gives it a chance to go in. It's just a knack, a scorer's instinct."

Abdur-Rahim's instincts were developed on the playgrounds in and around Atlanta, where his father, William, began working with Shareef, the second of his eight children, at age six. The elder Abdur-Rahim, for instance, had his son practice his ball handling skills with a tennis ball so a basketball would seem easy by comparison. But William and Aminah, Shareef's mother, were even more dedicated to their son's education, including the ways of the Muslim faith. "When Shareef was just a little boy, he would come with me to distribute food to the hungry or to visit people in drug rehab," says William, who is an imam, which is similar to a minister in other faiths. "He saw a lot at a very young age."

Those experiences no doubt contributed to the maturity that everyone who knows Abdur-Rahim marvels at. Excess is not a part of his lifestyle. His only concern when he bought his home in Vancouver, where he lives alone, was that it be spacious enough to accommodate a steady stream of house-guests, mostly friends and relatives from Atlanta. He doesn't smoke or drink, and in keeping with Muslim teachings, he prays five times each day. When he celebrated his 21st birthday, on Dec. 11, there was no wild party, no late night. "I had dinner with a few friends, then I went back to my room by myself and just reflected on how far I'd come in these 21 years," he says. "I didn't really think of turning 21 as a big thing, like it made me a man. I think I've been a man for a long time."

The Grizzlies are cautiously optimistic that Abdur-Rahim won't be lured away by a bigger media market when he is eligible to become a free agent after next season. "I don't think he's one of these guys who's going to base his decision on whether we're on NBC every Sunday or how many shoe commercials he'd get if he played in some other city," says Vancouver president and general manager Stu Jackson. "Knowing him, knowing the way he was raised, I know he has more depth than that, and that bodes well for our franchise."

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