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Originally published Friday, February 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Enforcers a rarity in today's NBA

It has come to this. Laminated sheets of paper with the words "REBOUND" and "DEFENSE" are taped to Rashard Lewis' locker at KeyArena, reminding...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It has come to this.

Laminated sheets of paper with the words "REBOUND" and "DEFENSE" are taped to Rashard Lewis' locker at KeyArena, reminding the Sonics forward of the basic basketball skills. Lewis even has a travel version, hoping the written motivation helps him once he returns to the lineup from a hand injury.

Somewhere Maurice Lucas is rolling his eyes.

Do you think the daddy of NBA enforcers ever needed flashcards to remind him to grab a board or play hard? Lucas told opponents before the game that he was going to hurt them, just so they could prepare for the pain.

Players today don't know much about that, though. Old-timers slip into a dead silence when trying to name current NBA enforcers.

Possibly Chicago forward Ben Wallace, tonight's Sonics opponent. Surely Seattle forward Danny Fortson, when he's healthy.

Today

Chicago Bulls @ Seattle Sonics, 7 p.m., ESPN, FSN

"Karl Malone was the last one," said Lucas, via cellphone from Portland, where he is an assistant coach for the Trail Blazers. The tone was solemn, as he remembered the days when being physical was appreciated.

"The enforcers are definitely a dying breed," said Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton Brand, who is trying to continue the tradition. "When I got in the league it was guys like [Charles] Oakley, [Anthony] Mason and Alonzo Mourning, guys like that. There were no layup rules and you could dominate that paint. They just beat me up.

"But the game is changing. There's less big men plodding and getting in the post. Now it's more open court. It looks better, it's more free, and guys just have to adapt. But I have to stick to my game. I've got to get my fouls and block shots."

The NBA used only two officials until 1988-89, and until then, aggressive players inside would simply wait until both weren't looking to inflict their will.

Lucas was notorious for the tactic, according to Sonics legend Xavier McDaniel.

"When the ref wasn't looking, he'd hit you in the chest to really piss you off," McDaniel said via cellphone from his home in South Carolina. "He'd grab you and try to frustrate you. You had to really be poised to play against Mo Lucas."

Not that McDaniel, dubbed the X-Man, was an angel on the court.

Plenty remember when McDaniel's fight with Oakley spilled eight rows into the stands.

"It's like Batman and Bruce Wayne," said McDaniel, a 1988 All-Star. "Off the court I'm nice, but a different animal starts to come out of me when I step on the court. I remembered one time Dennis Rodman punched me upside the head and then he punched my [groin]. I already told the ref and they didn't do anything, so I whopped his butt. They wouldn't let me out of the locker room after the game because I was going to get him."

Don't think the animosity has subsided, either.

McDaniel, who was suspended one game for the incident, said if he was enjoying his favorite meal at Carolina Wings in Columbia, S.C., today and Rodman walked through the door, the X-Man would leap from his seat like it was 1987.

"I'd punch him in the face," McDaniel said. "I owe him one anyway."

McDaniel's animosity is the crux of an enforcer. Enforcer is not a politically correct term for "thug," and McDaniel is not part of a different generation advocating violence. But being an enforcer meant having a deep-rooted desire to win that causes a player to become a territorial protector of his team and hater of everything outside that circle.

Go after Bill Russell and you'd have to deal with Jim Loscutoff.

Touch Isiah Thomas and Rick Mahorn would check you.

Talk crazy about Bill Walton and Lucas would sharpen his elbows.

"Today everybody knows each other through AAU and they all go to the rookie meetings together and carry that onto the court. It's more commercial," Lucas said. "Back in the day we weren't trying to be friends. If that elbow didn't bust your lips too bad and you could still eat, we can go to dinner after the game. Other than that, forget it."

The current Sonics, a band of finesse players, are in line with San Antonio as one of the nicer teams in the league. Sonics guard Ray Allen is the pretty-faced front man whose tattoo-free skin is as smooth as his shot.

But Allen gets more protection from his hired bodyguard than teammates during games.

"That's probably why we don't get any calls," Allen said earlier this season, talking about Sonics opponents being whistled for the least amount of fouls in the league. "We need to be like thuggish ruggish. That's why we need Danny [Fortson] out on the court. It lifts perception. When you rebound the ball and have a lot of dunks, then the league says that you're an aggressive smash-mouth team. Because we're shooters and don't have a big-man presence, that takes away the perceived aggressive nature."

Fortson has played in only 13 games this season. He dripped in sweat on Thursday, working out in the weight room while teammates practiced for a physical game against Wallace and the Bulls.

Fortson, a 6-foot-8 versatile post player, said he plans to be healthy for the home games against Sacramento and Phoenix before the All-Star break, but he hears the whispers while rehabilitating his knee and toes.

"I hear people saying Danny doesn't want to play anymore," said Fortson, who is making $6.6 million this season. "That's kind of funny to me. I'm trying to get back and it's cool to be appreciated as an enforcer, but I just try to play hard. I'm from the East Coast [Philadelphia] and that's the only way we know how to play."

Watching Fortson constantly get tagged for fouls illustrates the change in the NBA.

The brutish NBA game started to become more refined after Dec. 9, 1977. That was the night Los Angeles Lakers forward Kermit Washington punched Houston's Rudy Tomjanovic during a brawl as Tomjanovic came running to help teammates. The blow fractured Tomjanovic's skull and left him unconscious in a pool of blood at midcourt.

More changes were coming:

• After Detroit won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, rules were tweaked so other teams wouldn't mimic the Pistons' bruising style.

• Players started making a lot more money in the mid-1990s, and earn an average of $5 million today. That prompted owners to protect their "investments."

But the NBA took the justifiable measure to extremes, implementing a host of rules in the 1990s that effectively eliminated the middle man.

Rules stipulating a player would be ejected and suspended at least one game were installed during the 1992-93 season. Taunting was nixed the following season, along with revised hand-checking prohibitions.

Enforcers were stripped of their final rights in the 1997-98 season, when a new rule prohibited players from using their forearms to impede the progress of a player facing the basket inside, and the "no-charge" halo under the hoop was added.

"The viewing audience wants to see more scoring; it sells tickets," said Sonics assistant coach Gordon Chiesa, who coached Malone at Utah.

"Now you have to be physical within the rules of the game and be aggressive without being out of control. Then you win the respect of your teammates and opponents."

Sonics forward Nick Collison is a player learning to be a new-age enforcer.

Healthy after three injury-riddled seasons, Collison uses spacing, angles and arm-placement rules to stop the opposition in the paint. His development has helped him record seven double-doubles in his past 10 games, against opponents like Phoenix All-Star Amare Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Mourning.

Yet, inconspicuous off the court with the ability to walk with his girlfriend through the Northgate Target unbothered, Collison is hardly the player to instigate a scuffle. And hefty league fines and suspensions will keep him from leaping from the bench to join a brawl.

"I've never been on a team that had an enforcer," said Cleveland coach Mike Brown, who won an NBA title as an assistant with the Spurs. "I think you just need guys that buy into what you believe in as a head coach offensively and defensively.

"If he's a tough guy, great. If not, that's fine, too, as long as mentally and physically he's going to withstand any type of rigors you want him to go through to help your team win."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

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