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.

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Alex Hecht