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The wins keep Harter young

You can only play so much golf, watch the NBA via satellite and enjoy the other leisure activities that Hilton Head, S.C., has to offer Ñ at least if you're Dick Harter.

The world's youngest 71-year-old is back coaching again, this time with the Boston Celtics, who come to the Rose Garden tonight with a shinier gleam than in recent seasons.

How is it to be back in the coaching business after a year away?

'On 29 nights, it has felt great,' Harter says. 'On 21 nights, it has felt terrible. It is as simple as that.'

The Celtics are 29-22, in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and Harter, the former University of Oregon coach, should get at least some credit for the progress by the Celtics, who finished 36-46 last season. They missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season, a shocking fact for a storied franchise.

Jim O'Brien, who took over at midseason for the deposed Rick Pitino, hired Harter out of retirement. O'Brien and Harter didn't know each other well, but there were plenty of connections. O'Brien's father-in-law, Jack Ramsay, and Harter go way back. O'Brien was an assistant at Oregon under Harter's successor, Jim Haney. And O'Brien played (St. Joseph's) and Harter coached (Penn) collegiately in Philadelphia.

Though the offense of All-Stars Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce gets the most notice, Boston's improvement also can be traced to defense, where it ranks fourth in the NBA in opponents' field-goal percentage (.424). Defense is close to Harter's heart, and his impact shouldn't be downplayed, but he passes credit along to the head coach.

'Jimmy is a very dedicated defensive guy,' Harter says. 'We have spent a lot of practice time on it.'

Next step: offense. The Celtics are shooting .420, second-worst in the league. Harter would like to see the ball spread around a little more. So, too, would the supporting cast of Pierce and Walker, who see the rock only every so often.

Harter on Pierce: 'An all-out warrior. He battles his ass off and wants to do good.'

On Walker: 'A very talented player who has tried to adapt to Jimmy's system and play good defense. How hard he works on defense will be critical to the direction we go the final 30 games.'

MIDSEASON ADDRESS: Bob Whitsitt met with the media this week, discussing a variety of topics concerning his Trail Blazers. Sometimes you have to listen very closely to what the Blazer Boss Man says.

Among his comments (with ours added in parentheses):

• 'We probably have to do a little better job of letting our community know all of the positive things our players are doing. Years ago, our philosophy was, 'Let's do it because it is the right thing to do.' I still think there is a belief inside of me, when you do charitable work, that's the reason you do it. But we also now have to make sure we let the fans know some of the things we are doing, because it helps them feel better about the players and the organization.' (Seeking attention for charitable work smacks of unseemly, no matter how low the franchise's reputation has sunk within the community.)

• 'I am spending more time getting out into the community right now. É as opposed to being behind the scenes. That means more days, even though I spend a tremendous amount of time in Portland. When I'm in Portland, I'm not out making speeches. I try to let the players and the coaches and the people in the organization do that. I try to be behind the scenes. Maybe it's one of the awkward parts of being a leader. I've never felt comfortable getting that much face time. That's not my personality. That's not who I am. But it is real important based on what happened at the end of last season, and a lot of things that went wrong and a lot of mistakes we made. I have got to get out there.' (Move from Seattle to Portland, Bob, if you are serious about running the franchise and keeping your finger on the pulse of this city. And when was the last time Blazer players made speeches in the community, 1993?)

• On whether the Blazers will emphasize on-court decorum with their players in the second half of the season: 'There has been a great effort the first half. At this time last year, Rasheed (Wallace) had 27 technicals; now he has 17. It's still too many, but with our emotional-energy players we have, that passion, that frustration É we need to keep working on that, keep getting better. But the important thing is to make sure it keeps going in the right direction. And I think it is. Can it be better? Yes. That's no different than asking a player to become a better free-throw shooter. You have to keep working at it, keep talking about it, and hope you can improve in those areas.' (Reducing technicals and ejections seems plenty different than trying to raise your percentage at the foul line. Wallace's tech total, incidentally, is at a league-high 18. Bonzi Wells is runner-up with 13.)

• 'If we finish sixth (in the West), I would be real pleased with that, since we finished seventh last year. That would be a step up, and we would be happy with that.' (I'll bet that is news to Paul Allen, who has spent $84 million in salary on this team, second-highest payroll in the league.)

NOTES: Whitsitt says he has had discussions with Arvydas Sabonis' representatives as late as the All-Star break about the 7-3 center, now in retirement in Spain, re-joining the Blazers at some point this season. 'Our door is wide open,' says Portland's president/GM. 'They are not saying no, but not saying yes, which is why he hasn't (officially) retired. I would love to see him come back this season, and if not, we would take a look at him again in the offseason.' ... Whitsitt says Wells can become a restricted free agent on July 1, meaning the Blazers will tender him a one-year contract and retain the right to match any offer from another club. ... NBA vice president Stu Jackson says the league has fined Wallace for his refusal to meet interview requests with the media this season. 'The team has fined him as well,' Jackson says. 'Eventually, it has probably got to come to a head.' ...Wallace evidently will not qualify for the out clause in his contract and will be bound to Portland through 2003-04. ... Whitsitt says it is unlikely Portland will make a deal before next Thursday's trade deadline, and says he believes other teams have started rumors about the Blazers being involved in potential deals. 'Team X is talking to Team Y about a trade and not quite getting there,' he says. 'Boy, if Team X can introduce through the media that the Blazers are interested in that guy, that they have a willingness to do deals in the past, maybe that will get Team Y to move quicker.'