Mcilvaine Solution In Middle?

In the nation's capital, a hot topic on local radio talk shows during a forgettable Washington Bullet season centered on the team's two 7-foot centers.

It seemed half the city rooted for Gheorghe Muresan, a 7-foot-7 Romanian, and the other half pulled for shot-blocking specialist Jim McIlvaine.

The Bullets committed to Muresan, leaving McIlvaine, a free agent, to sign a seven-year deal reportedly worth $35 million with the Seattle SuperSonics.

"Gheorghe definitely gave the team more offensive punch. But when I came in, we were probably a little bit better defensively," McIlvaine said. "I'm sure nobody outside of Maryland thought it was much of a controversy, but it got pretty tense back there."

McIlvaine, seated next to his wife, Kim, and agent, Ron Grinker, spoke about being contacted by 23 NBA teams in the past two weeks and declining a deal for $10 million more than the Sonics' offer.

"I wanted to be in Seattle and playing for a title contender," he said.

NBA insiders considered the 7-1, 265-pound center one of the top free agents at his position.

Still, many Sonic fans are asking: Who is Jim McIlvaine and why is Seattle spending $5 million per season on someone who averaged 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds last season?

"That's a good question. I guess they will have to find out," he said. "I'm a player who's committed to the team, committed to Seattle and who will work hard."

Words so cornball, Sonic Coach George Karl couldn't help but laugh.

"McIlvaine is a lot like Ervin (Johnson) in the sense that offensively, he's not going to demand the ball much and defensively, he's probably as good or better," Karl said of the 24-year-old. "Size and rebounding were two major concerns. Jim gives us size and even though he's not a great rebounder, Shawn (Kemp) has always rebounded better when he's next to a big guy. . . . We got taller and younger at center and that's a good thing."

Clearly, the Sonics are banking on McIlvaine's potential.

He played in 80 games and finished 10th in the NBA in blocked shots with 2.08 per game despite averaging 14.9 minutes last season. McIlvaine started Washington's final six games, during which he averaged 4.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.2 blocks. He had a career-high nine blocked shots and 11 rebounds in the season finale against Chicago.

"The last 10 games when Muresan got hurt, he played a lot of minutes and we tracked those statistics, looked at a lot of tape and he was capable and comfortable playing 30 minutes a game," team president Wally Walker said. "Defensively he is there among the better centers in the league. . . . Offensively he's got some work to do."

Walker said it became imperative the Sonics sign McIlvaine after the Lakers acquired Shaquille O'Neal. "However, we're not bringing him in as a Shaq stopper," Walker said. "No one can guard Shaq man-to-man. We're bringing him in as a good center who fits in with what we're trying to do on both ends of the court." ----------------------------------------------------------------- The Jim McIlvaine File. . Height: 7 feet 1. Weight: 265. Years pro: Two. 1995-96 averages.

Points: 2.3.

Rebounds: 2.9.

Blocked shots: 2.1.

Minutes: 14.9. Drafted: Selected in the second round (32nd overall) by Washington in 1994. College: Marquette (led the nation in blocked shots, averaging 4.3) Hometown: Racine, WI. Age: 24. NBA career highs: Points (12), rebounds (11), blocks (nine), assists (three), minutes (35, twice). Personal: Good friends with SuperSonic Steve Scheffler; married two years to wife, Kim; favorite movies are "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Caddyshack."