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BOB RYAN

He had no wiggle room here

No one in this town who cares about basketball is neutral on the subject of Antoine Walker.

If you're 40 or older (perhaps even 35), and your basketball frame of reference lies somewhere between The Cooz and Larry, yesterday was a day of rejoicing. You decided long ago that it would be a happy day when you no longer had to put up with those hideous threes, those foolish coast-to-coast excursions, and the theatrics that were the hallmark of Antoine's game. You knew this long before last spring's crash-and-burn against the Nets, when Kenyon Martin treated 'Toine like some 12-year-old camper called out for a demonstration at a summer clinic.

If you're 30 and under, 'Toine was your man. You parted with the cash for that No. 8 jersey and you reveled in the full scope of His 'Toineness. You loooooved the killer threes -- he did have a number of game-winners, you like to point out -- and you freaked out on his crossover moves, and you thought it was a completely acceptable practice every time he went into the Antoine Wiggle after nailing a big three, or cupped his hands to his ear every time the other team called a timeout when things were going the Celtics' way.

We know one thing. Jim O'Brien slept better last night than he did the night before, because Antoine Walker is now Dallas's problem, and no longer his. Anyone who appreciated O'Brien's Philadelphia Big 5 pedigree, his marriage connection (he wed Dr. Jack Ramsay's daughter), and his general orthodoxy always suspected that he was putting on a magnificent act, when, night after night, day after day, season after season, he would stand before his postgame inquisitors and lavish praise on a player who you just knew offended his professional sensibilities. It never made the slightest sense, and those of us for whom the NBA is not just a necessary assignment felt embarrassed for him.

Jim O'Brien had no choice. Antoine Walker was a daily reality. He had the capability of making or breaking O'Brien and the team, so the mentor was obligated to make some kind of a pact with this man that would allow the team to function. It may even be that Jim O'Brien came to like Antoine Walker the person. But there was never the slightest chance he would be able to embrace Antoine Walker the player.

Say this about 'Toine: He is very lucky, because he could not have gone to a more comfortable place, or be hooked up with a more compatible coach. Dallas is the ultimate Basketball Worker's Paradise, a franchise where players are fawned over to a disgusting degree in the guise of creating a viable workplace. Mark Cuban is every athlete's fantasy owner.

The best part for Antoine, however, is that he has found the right coach. Don Nelson is the champion of the oddball player, and there is no more oddball player that Antoine Walker, a 6-foot-8-inch guy with a questionable body who can make threes but who shoots too many of them; who can dribble like any guard you can name but can't really handle the ball properly; who has post-up moves but can't get them off against any good athlete; and who can make sensational passes but can't be trusted to make them at the proper moment. If anyone can make sense of all this, it's our Nellie.

Antoine Walker is, in so many ways, the quintessential modern player. He wasn't really ready to leave school, but he left anyway. He went to a sorry team where the permissive coach (that would be M.L. Carr) allowed him to do absolutely anything he wanted on the court. He was barely two months past his 20th birthday when he played his first NBA game, and he had to do all his growing up in public.

He made an All-Star team in his second year, and that was a disaster because it confirmed his judgment of himself and led to his infamous "veteran All-Star" quote in the summer of 1998, when he had not yet turned 22. The silly system being what it is, he was ludicrously rewarded at the pay window, further confirming his overblown opinion of his game. Now he thinks he deserves the maximum. Perhaps someone should send him a full set of tapes from last spring's Jersey series.

He was made -- and this always amazed me -- "captain" of this team. Bob Cousy . . . Bill Russell . . . John Havlicek . . . Larry Bird . . . Antoine Walker. One of these things is most definitely not like the other. Did he want to win? Sure. Did he use his position to prod and motivate his teammates at certain times? Apparently. But did his entire package remotely merit the exalted designation of "captain"? How can we even go there?

Look, he did some good things here. I wouldn't have any trouble quoting my own self after some of his better games. But I was always pleasantly surprised when he did these things. They were not the norm.

My own daughter is from the Antoine generation, but her basketball memories begin with Larry, Kevin, and Robert. "Is this a good idea?" she asked me. "I kinda liked him."

"Think about it," I said. "How many times did you like what he did? Two out of five? Three out of seven? Eight out of 20?"

"I guess you're right," she said.

The only surprise here is that Danny Ainge was actually able to find a buyer. It wasn't easy. I heard him tell Glenn Ordway on WEEI yesterday, "I talked to every team in the league, and, believe me, there are people out there who, even if he averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and shot 50 percent from the floor, would not want him on their team."

There may be other players in the league about whom the same can be said, but not many. I'd have to say that Danny has just done some very nice GMing.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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