“Sometimes bad is bad”

— Huey Lewis

Ricky Mahorn is alone, sitting in front of his locker, eating pistachio nuts.

“Do you have a minute?” he is asked.

“Gotta sauna, then leave,” he mumbles.

“Um . . . is that a no?”

“You can take it as a no,” he says, sneering, “or you can take it as a maybe.”

The visitor says he’ll take it as a no, and leaves.

In the vernacular of the NBA there is bad, meaning good, and bad, meaning bad. Then there is bad, meaning a tough guy — somebody who throws a fist or two out on the court, somebody to stay away from, somebody you do not press when he’s halfway through his pistachio nuts and he wants to take a sauna. Ricky Mahorn, they say, is one of those guys. Bad guys.

“OH, AW RIGHT,” he yells down the hallway. “Come back. I’ll do it.”

Or is he? Fire away — is that a gun?

“Ask your questions,” he says, lifting another nut to his lips.

There is an awkward silence, because the questions are about badness. The bad kind.

The Pistons have not played well in recent weeks. They have a losing record. And when fingers get pointed, they often point over — and up — at Mahorn, the big forward who was traded to the team just before the season started, who was supposed to be a force, but who is averaging only six points and five rebounds a game.

“Um, let’s see,” comes the first question, “some people are saying that you’re not, uh. . .”

The visitor is expecting the worst. Will Ricky Mahorn swing? One swing and it’s over. Look at those shoulders. Those fists. Is that a gun in his gym bag? No, it’s just his shoe. Isn’t it? Just a shoe?

” . . . not playing as well as you should be. How do you, um, well, how do you feel about it?”

Ricky Mahorn just shrugs. “Being in a new place, adapting to a new team, it’s hard,” he says.

“I’m not a Superman. I get paid well to play basketball, but I’m still vulnerable.”

Vulnerable? What’s he talking about? Where’s the knife? Where’s the can of mace? He’s just waiting for the right moment. He’s just going for the brass knuckles. Yes. This will hurt.

“Why haven’t you played here like, uh, you know, like you did in Washington?”

The visitor wants to duck.

“The role here is different,” he says. “The truth is, my role here seems to be getting garbage points inside, and playing some defense.

“It wasn’t what I thought it would be when I got here. But I don’t have a say in it.”

He says he could score more — which has been a criticism — if they worked the ball inside to him more. But they don’t. Does he deserve it? He shot poorly in his first dozen games here, and now he rarely shoots at all. And he no longer starts.

That makes him mad, right? He wants to tackle the water fountain, right? He wants to drive a tank through the Pistons office, right?

“It’s just different here,” he says. “They want me to rebound, but you have Bill Laimbeer rebounding a lot. They say score, but you have Isiah Thomas scoring a lot.”

“I’m trying,” he sighs. He sighs? He has new-town blues

He talks about being traded here. “I lost a lot of good friends, especially Jeff Ruland.”

Ruland. Aha! Another big guy. What did they do together? Terrorize neighborhoods? Soap windows? Wear black leather jackets and cruise the streets, leaving bodies in garbage cans? What?

“Oh, we’d go to movies, concerts, out to eat,” Mahorn says, resting his chin in his palm. “We did practically everything together.”

He grins. He grins?

“You can’t replace a guy like that,” he says. “Up here it’s been pretty empty for me. At night, a lot of time there’s nothing to do. I’ll end up calling Rules (Ruland) and just talking.”

Something is off here. Ricky Mahorn, on the telephone for hours? Lonesome Ricky Mahorn? Where’s the switchblade? Where’s the skull patch? Where’s the bloody tooth around his neck?

“I play a certain way on the court,” he says, “I don’t take any bleep. Maybe people think I’m always that way. It could be.”

He shrugs. He shrugs?

What to do? Mahorn still isn’t playing the way the Pistons need him to. He has rarely been a factor. His numbers are low. It could change, but so far it hasn’t. Sometimes bad is bad.

“Thanks for your time,” the visitor says.

“Thank you,” Mahorn says.

And sometimes, bad isn’t as bad as it looks.

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