OLDEN IS BEHOLDEN TO NOBODY BUT HIMSELF

Olden Polynice was 7 years old when he came to America. He got off the plane at Kennedy Airport, holding his younger sister in one hand and his younger brother in the other. He was supposed to wait at the gate, but instead, in a new country, in a strange place, he decided to start walking.

He couldn’t read the signs, so he looked at the pictures. He saw suitcases, symbolizing baggage claim, and he followed them. He was almost to customs when his mother and father, whom he hadn’t seen in two years, came rushing by, heading for the gate. They spotted their children on the other side, led by Olden, going straight toward the doors, next stop New York City.

They did a double take.

“Olden, where are you going?!”

So, right from the start, he followed his own direction. That he grew from a Haitian child who used to sneak onto railroad trains and eat sugarcane into a muscular NBA center now posting sweet statistics only proves one thing: He hasn’t changed. He still goes his own way.

“I speak my mind,” he says. “I always have.”

You get no argument in the NBA on this. After all, Polynice, 29, has done all of the following: called a team hotel “a dump”; gone on a hunger strike during the season; had his own radio show; helped LA clean up after the riots; played a year in Italy; changed his uniform number to 0; thrown a garbage can during a tantrum; scribbled cryptic messages onto the back of his sneakers; and was accused, over the summer, of pulling a gun on his girlfriend — by his girlfriend.

“I didn’t do that!” he insists. “That was totally a lie. That was just someone making something up because she couldn’t get what she wanted.”

Just the same, if Olden tells you he’s going right, you probably don’t tell him to go left.

He’s a bright spot for Chaney

On the other hand, when Olden wants to go straight down the middle, you just stand back and admire. He is having a benchmark season, scoring nearly three times as many points as his career average, grabbing three times as many rebounds, and playing twice as many minutes. He pulls down more boards per game (13.7) than any other center in the NBA — and that includes O’Neal, Robinson and Olajuwon. People keep waiting for him to do something goofy — join a monastery? marry Grace Jones? — but he just keeps churning.

It is hard to find good signs on the current Pistons. Here is one exception. You get the feeling Don Chaney looks down his roster each night and sighs at every name except Olden Polynice.

“We keep waiting for the bubble to burst,” Chaney admits of Polynice’s 14.6-point average and .581 shooting percentage. “But it hasn’t. Maybe this is for real.

“I know this, Olden feels good about himself right now. And that’s important for him. I’ve learned, from last year, he is one of those players that you just can’t ride. You have to compliment him more than criticize. If you scream and yell, he just flips the switch off, and he’s not listening.”

Which is precisely what happened with Ron (ARGGGHHH!) Rothstein, the Ozzy Osborne of sideline coaches. Polynice and Rothstein never connected. They were liquid and gas. “Talk to me like a man,” Polynice says. “Don’t yell at me like a child. I hated that.”

Of course, starting a hunger strike in the middle of the season is enough to make any coach go vocal. Granted, it was for a good cause (Haitian refugees). But considering Polynice is a pro athlete who cannot work without a nourished body, the idea was better in theory than in practice.

“It was something I had to do,” he says. “If you’d grown up where I grew up, you would understand.” Haiti taught him to demand his share

Polynice remembers ducking under desks in Haiti when gunfire erupted in the streets of Port-au-Prince. And he remembers walking past the presidential palace, seeing how clean it was, and how dirty his neighborhood was by comparison. It was the start of a chip that he carries on his shoulder: Make life fair. Give me my share, too.

Polynice is a force this way. Tell him he can’t do something, he’s in your face demanding to know why. When he puts that strength into basketball, he is a monster.

The knock has been that it comes and goes. Polynice says, “If you give me minutes, I can produce.” He is getting the minutes. With the Pistons these days, if you can stand without crutches you get minutes.

Still, his numbers have never been this good before. Is it his contract, which runs out this year? “If it is,” Chaney says, laughing, “I wish we could do a one-year deal every year.”

Polynice denies the contract angle. He says he has matured. He doesn’t let every little thing bother him anymore. He now has the letters W.H.E.N. on his sneakers: Work Hard Every Night.

“Next year, after I redo my contract, I’ll be back to do the same thing I’m doing now. And then the people will have to say, ‘Damn, that boy’s good.’

Which beats saying, “Hey, where’s he going?”

Mitch Albom will sign “Fab Five” and “Live Albom III” at 4 p.m. today, Waldenbooks, Roseville; and Friday at noon, Waldenbooks, Renaissance Center, Detroit; 5:30 p.m., B.Dalton, Summit Place Mall; and 7:30 p.m., B.Dalton, Lakeside Center.

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