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The Man Behind Mad Max

Thirty minutes after the Houston Rockets have disposed of the Golden State Warriors 134-102, basketball is a subject far from Vernon Maxwell's thoughts. The Houston Rockets' streaky and volatile off-guard is instead making a beeline for the cramped counter at a bar he calls "the spot." Here, at World Bait Headquarters on Greenbriar, the potent Jello shots are only $1.50, the jukebox -- and 99 percent of the white clientele -- isn't as alternative as it used to be and a bartender will readily trade a free drink for your grandpa's mounted prize fish.

But these details are of little significance to Maxwell -- for him the place is a haven from the NBA spotlight, where after he has downed a few beers from the locker-room keg, dealt with the post-game media and signed the last poster, a cold Heineken will always await.

Now is Maxwell's quality time, when he doesn't have to deal with real life -- like at home, where his wife and two children are asleep, and where he would stay up all night worrying about his next opponent. When Maxwell is out on the town -- "hanging with my boys," as he calls it -- he's the center of attention, the man. Dressed in a burnt-gold suit (custom-designed for $1,500), Maxwell stands on a raised platform in front of the bar's counter. Though his chiseled six-foot-four frame towers over the average human, Maxwell needs the extra boost. From this elevated perspective he is the most visible object in the bar -- his toothy grin shines almost as bright as his clean-shaven head. But Maxwell's vantage point is more about defensive strategy than showcasing his boyish good looks. With his hawklike glare he scans the bar, making sure no "jealous punks" are planning to jack with his "boys."

Maxwell's entourage tonight consists of two well-dressed men: Peanut and Fizz, both of whom Maxwell includes among his "ten best friends in the world." Fizz, a large man who befriended Maxwell after Maxwell was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 1988, is often mistaken as his bodyguard. It's a position that Fizz frequently wishes were true -- at bars, females who wish to talk to Maxwell often ask Fizz for introductions.

Hanging with an NBA athlete, says Fizz, is a sure-fire way to meet women. Within five minutes, Fizz is accosted by three blonds. Most use the standard lines -- what big Rockets fans they are, how great Maxwell is on the court. But one doesn't have to say a word. Fizz is captivated by her healthy endowment.

"Doesn't she have nice tits?" Fizz asks, nudging Maxwell. The blond girl fondles her breasts.

Maxwell isn't shocked, and he certainly isn't speechless. He nods his head, agreeing with Fizz's evaluation. He says he's pleased to meet the girl, asks what she does for a living, innocently flirts a little. Then he retreats to the bar for another round of Heinekens.

Retreating, though, is rarely Maxwell's style. For his fiery temper and erratic play on the basketball court, Vernon Maxwell is known as "Mad Max." To cite a common basketball cliche, Maxwell is a player you love to have on your team but hate to play against. He'll guard the other team's tallest, taunt the smallest, fire up the game's biggest shot and win every questionable call. Though he'll sometimes explode for 30 points, just as likely is an appearance by his darker side -- a hotheaded, irrational Maxwell who results in many a technical foul and ejection. Last month, for instance, the NBA fined him $10,000 for refusing to leave the court after an ejection.

The Mad Max moniker can be applied off the court as well. In July 1992 he was charged with simple assault after pushing a police officer at the Yucatan Liquor Stand. A year later he was accused of creating a scene in front of Fat Tuesday's on Richmond. He has been served with a paternity suit, then held in contempt of court for not paying the mandated child support. His longtime girlfriend, now his wife, once received a restraining order against him -- she claimed he was being physically abusive. And last month Maxwell was arrested in a Luby's parking lot for allegedly waving an unregistered .38-caliber handgun during an argument.

If the Rockets are to survive far into this year's NBA playoffs, Vernon Maxwell's streak shooting will be integral. In the Rockets' first two playoff victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, for example, Maxwell averaged 6.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds and hit five of his 11 three-point shots. In the down-to-the-wire third-game loss to the Trail Blazers, it was only Maxwell's three-point virtuosity that kept the Rockets in the game.

But if that virtuosity is overwhelmed by anger, if Vernon Maxwell's violent and erratic side appears, if he proves to be nothing more than a distraction in yet another failed Rockets championship bid -- well, Mad Max will have added just another chapter to an out-of-control history.  

I like it here [at World Bait] because they [the cops] don't mess with me," Maxwell says after returning from the bar. While some athletes use their spare time to search out spiritual perfection or head anti-drug campaigns, Vernon Maxwell is happiest when he's immersed in Houston's nightlife. Regardless of whether it's during training camp or the NBA finals, Maxwell can be found out on the town, mingling with the people, enjoying some of the city's more lively atmospheres. Maxwell enjoys sucking crawfish at Magnolia Bar, drinking margaritas at Pico's, a little Saturday social mingling at 8.0.

"I ain't alcoholic, but I hang out with the boys every day," says Maxwell. "I wouldn't change that for anything in the world. I'll just keep going out there and doing the things I do. That's just the way I am."

By not conforming to the traditional NBA lifestyle, he has established himself as a rebel against the system. With the departure of punch-drunk Houston Oiler coach Buddy Ryan, Maxwell is Houston's most controversial sports figure. But it's a characterization that Maxwell feels is unmerited, and generated by the media.

"I feel like I'm under the microscope in Houston," Maxwell says. "This came about because of 'Mad Max.' People just portray me as being that way off the floor. I just hang out at places and people come up and ask me, 'Mad Max, are you really crazy?'

"Everybody thinks I'm this wild, militant guy. I'm really not that way. I'm laid back."

Well maybe, maybe not. Not that he is an outright liar, but Vernon Maxwell has a habit of not disclosing the full truth. One day he'll say that he and San Antonio Spurs forward Dennis Rodman are not very close. Two days later, Rodman is "an all right guy. He's a good friend of mine." He'll tell you that his groin is too sore to go out after the game. But after the next day's practice he brags about drinking until four in the morning. He'll say he won't eat at Luby's because of the pistol-waving incident, but the next day he's "off to Luby's with [Rockets guard] Sam [Cassell]."

Then there's the subject of his criminal history. "I never got into any trouble until I came to Texas," he says. It's understatement personified. Trouble has accompanied Maxwell since his middle-class upbringing in Gainesville, Florida. Maxwell's father left the family when Vernon was only three. His mother, Grace, who was enrolled in cosmetology school at the time, was left with three hungry mouths to feed.

Much of what makes up Vernon Maxwell can be traced to the never-back-down attitude he picked up from his mother. "I've known Vernon since the fourth grade," says Shell Maxwell, Vernon's wife. "He's not gonna back down, he's not gonna compromise. He was raised that way -- his mother is like that. They're strong people."

Even in high school, when he averaged 36.2 points per game his senior season and was named Florida's Mr. Basketball, Maxwell's anger would get him into trouble. Rick Swain, Maxwell's basketball coach at Bucholz High School, says, "[Maxwell] didn't like anyone to take advantage of his friends. It wasn't a cheap shot, and it wasn't fighting. It was just very physical play."

After intense college recruiting his senior year, Maxwell narrowed his final choices down to the University of Florida and Jim Valvano's North Carolina State (which had, after all, miraculously defeated Akeem Abdul Olajuwon and UH's Phi Slama Jama for the national title). Despite a verbal commitment to N.C. State, Maxwell ultimately chose UF, mainly so he could stay close to his family and -- more important -- to his friends.

For better and worse, Vernon Maxwell put UF onto the NCAA athletic map. In his four-year tenure, he was the school's all-time leading scorer. He led the Gators to the school's first two NCAA tournament appearances, and he connected on a last-second three-pointer that beat St. John's 62-59 in the 1988 tournament.

But remaining in Gainesville turned out to be an ill-fated decision. "It was too much too fast," says Maxwell, remembering his days at UF. "Staying at home, knowing the area. I got caught up in too much stuff." The trouble started after Maxwell's senior year in college, when word leaked out among NBA scouts that he had tested positive for cocaine use three times before his senior year, that he was allowed to skip a drug test before the NCAA tournament his senior year, and that twice he had failed to complete assigned in-patient rehabilitation programs.  

Soon after, the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI began an investigation into UF's athletic program and its ties to the drug trade in Gainesville. According to Swain, the DEA had evidence that Maxwell had purchased cocaine. Maxwell was granted immunity in the probe, provided that he detail just how corrupt his intercollegiate experience had been. Maxwell complied, claiming that during his senior year he had employed an agent. When UF coach Norm Sloan asked about his suddenly lavish lifestyle, Maxwell's reply was constant: "Family, homeboys and a rich uncle in Miami."

Maxwell's testimony did nothing to exonerate Sloan and the coaching staff. Maxwell claimed that a UF assistant coach paid him $800 while he was still in high school and an extra $1,000 when he signed with UF. "Whatever I asked for, I could get," Maxwell added under oath, estimating that in his sophomore and junior seasons he received approximately $1,000 a month from the UF coaching staff.

As a result of Maxwell's allegations, the University of Florida went on probation for NCAA rule violations. The school lost three scholarships over two years and had to return all NCAA tournament revenue generated during Maxwell's playing tenure -- a loss that totaled more than $600,000. Apparently in response, UF stripped Maxwell of his 15 school records.

"It's been four years since Vernon graduated," says UF media information director Joel Glass. "It took us getting to the Final Four this year to really cleanse our image."

The UF episode exacted a heavy financial toll on Maxwell. Though he was projected as a middle-first-round pick in the 1989 NBA draft, Maxwell's stock plummeted, and he wasn't chosen until deep in the second round. The Denver Nuggets selected him 47th overall, then quickly traded him to the Spurs. Only after he scored 27 points in an intra-squad game did the Spurs sign him to a league-minimum contract.

Maxwell put up more than adequate rookie numbers -- 11.7 points a game, 3.8 assists, 86 steals. But his off-the-court baggage -- mainly from the 18-month investigation in Gainesville -- rendered him a marked man. In San Antonio, where the Spurs are the only professional sports team in town, the players are thrown into a fishbowl of media criticism. (Though in Maxwell's case, it probably wouldn't have helped if he had been drafted into the much tougher media circus faced by the New York Knicks, the L.A. Lakers or a number of other NBA teams in large markets.) The San Antonio newspapers ate Maxwell alive: they harped on the details of his past cocaine use and on a citation from a Florida judge who was holding Maxwell in contempt of court for falling $275 behind in child-support payments, the result of a paternity suit filed against him in 1987. He also owed the State of Florida a reported $4,765 in child support to future wife Shell, money he claimed he couldn't afford to pay back as a student at UF.

"Vernon has to realize he has made mistakes and it's time to get straight," Bob Bass, Spurs assistant to the chairman, said during Maxwell's time in San Antonio. "We [the Spurs] will try to help him get his life in order."

Maxwell's friend Fizz doesn't think they did. "I think the city of San Antonio took a lot of that University of Florida shit and used it against him. They were so hard on him -- they didn't give him a chance to develop."

Maybe. But Maxwell didn't help much. Twelve days after an assault charge at a San Antonio nightclub (Maxwell allegedly broke a man's two front teeth with a punch), ten days after he told the San Antonio Express News that "I love San Antonio. The people are nice here," and seven days after Shell received a restraining order against him (she said in court that her future husband had thrown her to the floor and broken her wrist), the San Antonio Spurs sold Vernon Maxwell to the Houston Rockets for $25,000.

"Sold like meat," is how Maxwell describes the experience.
Because of what happened in Gainesville and San Antonio, Maxwell carries a fear of the press. He worries that newspaper articles will be insufficiently positive and defers requests for profiles to his manager/accountant, who agrees only on the condition that she edit the article before publication. (The Houston Press agreed to no such stipulation.)

Part of their fear comes from the fact that Maxwell handles the media much the way Charles Barkley does -- sometimes he says things just to say things. Though not as quick-witted as Barkley, Maxwell can make for some interesting copy.

"Me and [Golden State Warrior forward] Chris Webber was betting on free throws. One hundred dollars a free throw," he says after a Golden State game, grinning about the $300 he claims to have won from Webber this season. He's pouring talcum powder on his feet with one hand, drinking a cup of beer with the other. It's difficult to tell whether he's being serious, or whether he knows that, if the gambling claim is true, the NBA could suspend him.  

Maxwell takes a gulp of beer. He growls at a scantily clad female reporter. "Trash talking, yeah, it works a lot. It's just part of my game," he says. "If I don't go out and play that way, I won't be effective." He takes another gulp and, after eyeing the female reporter's backside, growls again.

Vernon Maxwell feels happy acting this way, and for good reason. He isn't shunned for his crudeness, gambling claims or overt sexism -- he is instead worshipped by his teammates. Maxwell has stepped up during this record-setting season and filled a long-standing void in the Rockets' leadership. "Vernon might say anything," Rockets strength coach Robert Barr says when asked about the team's pre-game huddles led by Maxwell. " 'Fuck these motherfuckers! Let's bust their asses!' I like that kind of stuff. It's just his competitive nature."

"To be a successful team in this league, you need some of the elements that Vernon brings to a team," adds ex-Rockets general manager Steve Patterson, who engineered the purchase of Maxwell's contract. "Look at the difference Dennis Rodman has made to the Spurs, Charles Oakley in New York, Rick Mahorn in Detroit. Those kind of guys are generally not choir boys.

"And if they're not going to back down from anybody on the court, they're not going to back down from a loud-mouthed jerk in a bar who's giving them a hard time. So they're gonna get into scrapes every once in a while. It comes with the territory."

Patterson's attitude just might contribute to Maxwell's off-the-court problems. It often seems that Rockets executives and fans alike fear that if Maxwell were to shed his Mad Max persona and become a model NBA citizen, he would lose his edge. But basketball is the ultimate test of self-discipline, of harnessing athleticism and mastering the game's subtle nuances. The great players -- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird -- were great not just because of their innate talent, but also because of their self-control.

Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich is very close to Maxwell, mainly because their styles are so similar. As players, both were spot-up shooters and tough defenders. As people, both like to party. Their difference, Tomjanovich says when found unwinding from a Rockets win with a few tequila shots at a Greenway Plaza bar, is that Maxwell needs more "true" friends.

A true friend, in Tomjanovich's eyes, is one who "if he thinks you should be doing more, he'll tell you." Tomjanovich recalls a lecture from a college buddy who fell into that true friend category. "Sure, you're pretty good, but shit, we're talking about being an All-American," the friend told him. The speech so moved Tomjanovich that he quit smoking and drinking. For a day, anyway.

"Max needs a friend like that," Tomjanovich continues, shaking his head. "He has a his wife. He has kids...."

Vernon has always been a person who hangs out with the guys -- he's been that way since we were in the fourth grade," says Shell Maxwell. "It's just his nature. He's a complex, difficult person."

Shell insists that instead of dissecting her husband to find out what makes him tick, people should accept Vernon as Vernon. The Maxwell she loves has stuck to the same daily routine for his entire pro career. His game day starts with the Rockets' shootaround at 11 a.m., which lasts for about an hour. After running the day's errands, Maxwell rushes home to catch his daily three-hour dose of soap operas. He has been hooked on The Young and the Restless since college. He dozes off every day during The Guiding Light.

However tranquil his life might appear, Vernon can act like Mad Max on game days. He obsesses about the man he has to guard in the next game. "I know not to discuss anything of importance with Vernon on game day," explains Shell. "On big games, he'll just start arguing about nothing." After the day's second meal of red meat -- usually steak and potatoes -- Maxwell is off to the Summit for the game, followed by a night on the town.

"Vernon and I have an understanding -- it's a mutual respect," Shell says when asked about her husband's nightlife. "I understand him and he understands me. I'm not trying to change him. I love him for him."  

"Shell gives me my freedom, that's why we're still together," says Maxwell. "I tried a couple of girls -- they were just too bossy. It just wasn't right. Too much pressure, man. I already got enough pressure on me."

Again, Maxwell offers nothing but contradiction. He says his privacy is what's most important to him, and that he won't take his family to the movies because it creates too much of a ruckus. Then he frequents crowded bars, knowing that all eyes, including those of Houston police, follow his every move?

Shell insists that Maxwell is not the maniac on the verge of a final breakdown that the media have constructed. "Being a professional athlete encumbers so much," she says. "People only see the money and the lifestyle. It's a big headache. Everywhere he goes, somebody recognizes him.... Guys in the bar, they're insulted just because of the way he dresses, or because he drives a new car."

Maxwell hasn't made things any easier. As part of a plea bargain in the pistol-waving case, Maxwell paid a $1,500 fine and was instructed to apologize publicly to the children of Houston. But Maxwell wouldn't give the judge complete satisfaction. After his required public statement, he said he would continue to carry a weapon. "You can have a rifle with you as long as you don't hide it," he said. "I may get me a shotgun."

"Absolutely out of the question," Shell insists. The shotgun, in fact, was initially purchased for her safety. During a Rockets road trip a couple of years ago, several burglars cut off the electricity to the Maxwells' home while Shell was inside, unarmed. (The would-be thieves were chased off by the police and were not apprehended.) The Maxwells' home in San Antonio was burglarized, and after several trespassing incidents, they've hired an on-site security guard to watch over their new home now under con-struction.

Shell insists that around the house, aside from game days, Maxwell is "the easiest person to get along with. He's sensitive, really soft and kind." The Maxwells have two children -- Vernon Jr. and Ariel. A week prior to the start of this season, in her eighth month of pregnancy, Shell suffered a stillbirth. The loss affected Maxwell deeply -- inscribed on the back of every pair of his hi-tops is "Amber," the name of his stillborn daughter.

"She's a big part of me," says Maxwell. "It's hard to talk about. Everybody tries to tell you that it happened for a reason, but shit, I don't see the reason. I don't understand that."

"I know that Vernon would die for me and the kids -- there's no doubt in my mind about it," says Shell. "You take Vernon as you see him -- I've learned that about Vernon and accepted it."

Once a week, usually on Wednesdays, Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon pulls Maxwell aside after practice. The two sprawl across four seats on the Rockets bench, and their conversations frequently last over two hours. Olajuwon does most of the talking.

"Hakeem is just setting Max straight," says David Nordstrom, the Rockets' equipment manager. By "straight" Nordstrom means that Hakeem is presenting Maxwell with the message of Islam.

"Max is very interested -- [conversion] is ultimately the goal," says Olajuwon. "But first of all you've got learn about it -- talk about it, learn the concepts, step towards the right direction."

"I like the message, yeah, but I want to go real slow with it," says Maxwell. "Me and Hakeem have been talking off and on for a couple of years now. It's a good message. I think I'd be a much better person as far as life-wise, off the floor. A more controllable person. A more humble person."

According to Shell, Maxwell has been thinking more about Islam lately -- he attended the recent men's-only lecture by Louis Farrakhan and is a regular reader of a local Muslim newspaper.

Plus, Maxwell says his favorite movie is Spike Lee's Malcolm X. "For Vernon to sit down and watch a movie for three hours," says Shell, "well, I don't have to say any more."

Who would be a better "true" friend for Maxwell than Olajuwon, who was once infamous for his elbows and technical fouls and for punching a convenience-store clerk? There is no question that Olajuwon's game and attitude have matured with his religious devotion, but he has been a Muslim all his life. Maxwell's conversion would be more painful -- just like Detroit Red in Malcolm X, Maxwell would have to give up the habits and lifestyle he so enjoys.

"I ain't alcoholic," Maxwell repeats, when asked about the prohibitive Islamic lifestyle. "[Drinking] is not a lot to give up, but it is, because I like to do that. I'm thinking about all the areas of my life I would have to change if I was going that way.  

"I don't know if I'm ready to [convert] now. Maybe two or three years down the road. Maybe this summer. I'm basically trying to get the elementary parts of it down right now."

Then, walking down the hall, toting Elementary Teachings of Islam and How
to be a Muslim (and three other books Olajuwon has presented to him), he heads out of the locker room to catch the day's episode of The Young and the Restless.

"Hey Max," yells Nordstrom, "I got something for you. Look in the cooler."
Vernon Maxwell instantly forgets Olajuwon's lecture -- how even the "baddest" man will humble himself before Allah. The books he's carrying, the playoffs, his children, his soap operas -- these subjects are far from Maxwell's thoughts. His eyes light up as he heads for a cooler in the laundry room.

"You got a brewsky for me?


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