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Olowokandi a surprise fit as backup center

WALTHAM -- The Celtics' October Surprise was a big one, 7 feet tall and 269 pounds, to be precise.

Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers didn't expect Michael Olowokandi in town for training camp, never mind making the final roster.

After an exhibition season in which he averaged 1.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 9.2 minutes per game, including a 10-rebound effort (five offensive) in nine minutes against Cleveland, Olowokandi wasn't sure he would be in a Boston uniform this season.

Acting as his own agent, Olowokandi kept close tabs on which teams needed a backup center. But with Theo Ratliff sidelined for all but two exhibition games with a sore back, and Kendrick Perkins inconsistent off the glass, Olowokandi was in Boston at the right time.

"I was a little bit surprised [to make the team], to be quite honest with you," said Olowokandi, who was at practice yesterday after missing Friday's workout to visit his daughter, who has a mild case of pneumonia. "I thought Luke [Jackson] was doing well, but you never really can tell in this business.

"For now, I'm going to concentrate on working my way up the ladder on this team, coming off the bench, and giving the team a boost of energy from time to time.

"I will admit this: Theo being somewhat sidelined definitely worked in my favor. He's getting up there [in age] and I'm not too far behind, but we do have experience where the body is sort of lacking. I think that might have demonstrated itself more on the offensive end.

"This team has enough offensive weapons where half the time that I'm out there I'm not thinking about doing anything offensively, but being able to be active and get your hands on balls and block shots and move around is what the team needs, that little bit extra. It's a difficult thing to do, but if you're not playing 40 minutes a game and you're not relied on to score 20 or 30 points a game, it's very feasible."

Backing up players almost 10 years younger (Perkins and Al Jefferson) for the veteran minimum is a new job description for Olowokandi, who never fulfilled expectations after the Clippers selected him No. 1 overall in the 1998 draft. In his eight years in the NBA, Olowokandi has averaged 8.6 points and 7.1 rebounds with three teams.

Olowokandi arrived in Boston Jan. 26 as part of a deal with the Timberwolves structured around the swap of Ricky Davis for Wally Szczerbiak. While not exactly an afterthought, Olowokandi did not factor into the Celtics' long-term plans.

Once he became a free agent at the end of last season, it was assumed the Celtics had seen the last of Olowokandi. Now, his play will determine how much more fans see of him.

"I'm not really big on charity," said Olowokandi. "If I feel like I'm not up to it, I really don't want to be here. So far, so good in the health department. So, keep your fingers crossed and hope things keep working out well."

Rivers also is not big on charity. To earn regular minutes, Olowokandi must produce the way he did in exhibition games.

"He can help us, but he has to be patient," said Rivers. "There may come a game where he's not playing at all and then we need him. He's still fighting for minutes, everyone is. That's the message.

"But he should continue to do what he's done. He's been very good. He's been a pro. He's already proven a lot of people wrong, in my opinion, more leaguewide than around here.

"I'm happy for him and I'm happy for ourselves because he's done it. Now, he has to follow through. It can't be just about making a roster. This is the first time in his NBA career that there are no guarantees, so he has to play well."

Rivers planned a lengthy practice yesterday as the Celtics began preparations for opening night against the Hornets Wednesday. But it was clear the players' focus was not where it needed to be and Rivers cut the workout short by an hour. "We just had to end it," said Rivers. "It wasn't good enough. It's like playing golf. You sit on the range and hit bad shots all day. You practice bad habits and you end up playing bad." Rivers noted that part of the difficultly was having a roster with so many players who can play multiple positions. All that versatility makes it time-consuming to practice offensive and defensive sets . . . Rivers would not commit to Ryan Gomes as the starting power forward, raising the possibility of the Celtics being "a multiple start team, like Dallas has done over the last couple of years where they start different lineups against different teams."

Shira Springer can be reached at

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