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Its Damons time

• In his seventh season with Blazers, Stoudamire finds his place

This is Damon Stoudamire's team. Finally.

Mighty Mouse is running the Blazers' ship.

What a long, strange trip it has been for the former Wilson High great. He was so excited to come home when the Blazers made the trade with Toronto to acquire him in 1998. Along the way, there have been enough lows to make the pint-sized point guard wish more than once for a one-way ticket out of town.

When Maurice Cheeks Ñ a great distributing point guard in his playing days Ñ arrived as coach in 2001, he told the media that reserve Rick Brunson knew how to lead a team, but Stoudamire didn't. Cheeks thought Stoudamire shot too much and passed too little, and tried to re-create a shooting point guard into a distributor. Stoudamire felt stifled, but tried to play the good soldier as he struggled with his role.

The nadir came last season, when Cheeks demoted the one-time NBA Rookie of the Year to third string behind Scottie Pippen and Jeff McInnis for a good portion of the season. Stoudamire, who never had a DNP-CD (did not play-coach's decision) in his seven years in the league, had 22 in a span of 48 games from mid-November 2002 to late February 2003.

Then Pippen injured his knee, and Stoudamire regained his starting spot for the last month of the regular season. Gradually, Cheeks came around to Stoudamire's playing style, and Damon finished with a successful playoff series against Dallas.

Now, all the competition at point guard Ñ Pippen, McInnis, Antonio Daniels Ñ is gone. Cheeks seems to have full faith in Stoudamire, his captain and floor leader. By process of elimination, there is no other choice.

Stoudamire is the last player standing from the group Bob Whitsitt put together that lost to the L.A. Lakers in the seventh game of the 2000 Western Conference finals.

'It seemed like there was no future at one point last season, but things changed,' Stoudamire says. 'I have been able to weather the storm.'

All the personnel changes have left the Blazers top-heavy in the front line and woefully thin in the backcourt. So thin that Cheeks has used National Basketball Development League veteran Omar Cook, on his second 10-day contract, to spell shooting guard Derek Anderson in the fourth quarter of the past two games.

The onus now is on Stoudamire and Anderson. Each has pouted at times about their amount of playing time in the past, but there will be no shortage of it now. Each is looking at a lot of 40-minute games the rest of the season, health permitting. And that is a bit of a precarious situation. Stoudamire is nursing a calf strained late in Wednesday's win over the L.A. Clippers, and Anderson's back is less than 100 percent. 'One day it is good; the next day it is awful,' he says.

If either goes down for an extended period of time, you can kiss the Blazers' fleeting playoff hopes goodbye.

'They are piling up minutes,' Cheeks says. 'I would rather not play them that much, but that is what is on my plate.'

Stoudamire, 30, has another year left on his contract. If the Blazers are amenable, he would love for agent Aaron Goodwin to begin negotiations on an extension.

'I want to be here,' he says. 'I have gone through so much to get where I am. Portland is my home. There is really no place I would rather play. I would love to look forward to staying here until I retire.'

Stoudamire quickly got over losing longtime friend and teammate Rasheed Wallace. He has warmed to the addition of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff and his role alongside them.

'I have played a lot with Rahim just ratballing in the summers in Atlanta, but you don't really get an appreciation for a player like him until he is around a decent crew,' Stoudamire says. 'He can do a lot of things. You always knew he could score. But he knows how to pass, to play team defense, and he really understands the game. And Theo, he changes the complexion of a game with his shot-blocking.'

The chemistry experiment between Abdur-Rahim and Zach Randolph will be ongoing. They had good moments together in the victory over the Clippers, and Randolph showed a little of the zest that had been missing since the Wallace trade with 17 points and 10 rebounds in just 31 minutes.

'It was good to see Zach get off his schneid a little bit,' Stoudamire says. 'I know he has been a little frustrated. We just need him not to worry about anything but playing hard and giving us what he can.'

Stoudamire is excited about the possibilities.

'We can be pretty good,' he says. 'It is going to take a little time for everyone to get adjusted to each other, but we have a lot of players. These guys just need somebody to lead, and I know I can do that.'

Notes

Portland, 25-28 going into tonight's game at Golden State, could finish 45-37 by going 20-9 the rest of the way. That would get them into the playoffs if Memphis, Houston or Denver falters. It's a big if, but the immediate schedule is favorable, including a home game against Boston followed by games at Miami and Orlando. If the Blazers can run the table over the next week, they'll have a five-game win streak, a 30-28 mark and some momentum building into a stretch run.

The Blazers are trying to get back Wes Person, the shooting guard they traded to Atlanta recently with Wallace. If it happens, Atlanta would waive Person, who then would sign with Portland for the veteran's minimum salary, a prorated $300,000.

Randolph and Dale Davis let their teammates down, and showed up Cheeks, by sleeping through Wednesday's shootaround. Each has had issues with playing time of late, and though both claim the mishap was unintentional, it easily could be construed as a form of protest. Simply, true professionals don't let that happen.

And on that subject, will Qyntel Woods ever learn? Already buried beneath a slew of small forwards, the drug bust in his car over the weekend Ñ no, he wasn't cited, but his friend was Ñ casts further doubt on his level of common sense, considering his track record. Woods was fined $2,000, and deservedly so. The young man is messing with his career. Meanwhile, Woods' BMW sits in a towing yard in Colinga, Calif. It is being held for $25 day, and Woods needs to appear and sign paperwork to have it released. The driver, Joseph Blake, was stopped by the California Highway Patrol going 102 mph near Fresno, Calif. Blake reportedly told officers the marijuana in the car was his.

Karl Malone says the Wallace trade for Abdur-Rahim and Ratliff sends an important message to Portland's fan base. 'The fans had turned away from the team,' the Laker star says. 'They can now say: 'Management is trying to do something positive. They mean business.' Shareef and Theo, they have great character. I mean, they are good people, and they can play. The fans should appreciate them and what they stand for; they will see good results in the long run.' É Laker coach Phil Jackson's appraisal: 'They are a better team now than they were with Rasheed. It gives them a lot more depth off the bench. They just have to figure out how to play all those guys. Zach and Shareef are a bit of a logjam at power forward, but I am sure it will work out for them.'

Ratliff averaged only 22.5 minutes the last two games, but it is the last thing he is worried about. 'My whole thing is winning,' the veteran center says. 'I will do the best I can while I am out there, but I have never been a stats guy or minutes guy. I want to be a winner. If that means sitting on the bench most of the game, I am fine with it. If it means 45 minutes, no problem. We are all in this together.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .