TODAY'S PAPER
33° Good Afternoon
33° Good Afternoon
Sports

Nailon Tries To Get Past His Past

When Knicks forward Lee Nailon speaks with the media, his

eyes glaze over in apparent indifference. But underneath it all, Nailon can

barely stand it. He has to play. Just has to. Every minute Nailon steps onto an

NBA court represents a giant leap from his past.

The tattoo on his left biceps, a gravestone with the name of a childhood

friend, reminds Nailon of what he left behind in a South Bend, Ind.,

neighborhood saturated with drugs and gangs. Nailon admits he ran with a

dangerous crowd, but his high school coach said the lanky boy with an easy

smile and impish sense of humor always attended class because basketball was so

important to him. When he needed love and advice, Lee turned to his

grandmother, Ruby Dungey, whom everyone knew as "Granny."

Nailon was a senior when his South Bend Clay High School team won the 1994

state championship. Not long after that, Nailon said, gang members shot and

killed his friend Duane Reid, who was a neighborhood drug dealer. "We was all

standing in a line; everybody was. They just pulled out guns and I ran," said

Nailon, his eyes suddenly sharp, his voice animated. "All gang guys, they shoot

guns but they don't go to the range just to shoot. So they may not be pointing

at you, but it might hit you, you know what I'm sayin'? Once that happened, I

was like, 'I gotta watch who I hang out with.' It opened my eyes. I wanted to

be the first to get out of South Bend to make a name for myself then, to show

everybody in South Bend that it can happen."

Nailon played two seasons at junior colleges and two years at TCU before

the Hornets - whom the Knicks will play tonight in New Orleans - drafted him in

the second round (43rd overall) in 1999. He played a season in Italy and

signed with Charlotte in 2000.

His short stay with the Knicks has been promising (20 points in 22 minutes

vs. Sacramento), and frustrating at times. Since Latrell Sprewell's return two

games ago, Nailon's playing time has decreased considerably. He sat out the

entire second half Monday night as the Knicks nearly blew a 32-point lead over

the Detroit Pistons.

Knicks coach Don Chaney said he must learn to trust Nailon. "When I put him

in the game, I have to depend on him being able to rebound and defend. It's a

two-way street," Chaney said. "We're getting to know each other."

Nailon would rather forget his two seasons with the Hornets, who cut him in

October after his differences with Paul Silas. The New Orleans coach tired of

Nailon's complaining about minutes and his unwillingness to play defense. After

a verbal confrontation with Nailon, Silas chose to keep defensive-minded

George Lynch. "I'm not saying it's the [wrong] decision, but when he gets to

the point in the game where he needs somebody to score, he can't go to George

Lynch to score," Nailon said.

Tom DeBaets, Nailon's high school coach at Clay, agrees that his former

player needs a refresher course on defense. "I think he played harder

defensively in high school than he does in the NBA. He doesn't play any

defense," said DeBaets, who added: "I keep telling him if he hit the offensive

boards he'd get more minutes."

Until Chaney finds a comfort zone with his newest player, Nailon will wait,

somewhat impatiently, for his chance. For reassurance, he recalls the words of

Granny, who died last October. "God has a plan," she always told her grandson.

"I don't know [what it is]," he said. "I have to wait till the end of the

season to find out. One door opened and another one closed. Now this door is

open and hopefully I can keep it open."

New York, after all, is a giant leap from South Bend.

Today

Knicks

At New Orleans

8:30 p.m.

TV: MSG

Radio: WFAN (660)

New York Sports