Maybe there is no other way to tap the talent inside Vernon Maxwell. Maybe the threat of failure is the only thing that can force his survival in the NBA.
Maxwell, whose career at the University of Florida was both stormy and spectacular, knows the Houston Rockets could well be his last chance.
It's a matter of survival of the fittest. And Maxwell's chief competitor is himself.
Because of that fear, he has responded to this last-ditch effort by playing some of the best basketball in his short professional career.
The Rockets are in the playoffs, playing the Los Angeles Lakers. They probably wouldn't be there without Maxwell. Since coming to Houston in late February, he has helped the Rockets to a 17-10 record and a post-season berth on the final day of the season.
Despite losing the first two playoff games to the Lakers, Houston has received standout performances from Maxwell. He had 20 points in Game 1 and 24 on Sunday.
"He says the right things, as most players are able to do," said Don Cronson, Maxwell's New York-based agent. "But in this case, he's put some deeds behind his words."
During a recent trip to Orlando for a game against the expansion Magic, Maxwell again said all the right things _ that he's not the Vernon people used to know in Gainesville, and more recently in San Antonio, Texas.
"I realize that I got another chance," said Maxwell, "and I'm not going to get too many chances. I have to make the most of this one."
In the enduring saga of 24-year-old Vernon Maxwell, only one thing is missing: a dull moment.
The greatest scorer in Gators history became the greatest disappointment after he admitted to numerous improper actions.
He was granted immunity in a probe of the Florida athletic program. He testified to a federal grand jury that he spent some of the money he received illegally from an agent to purchase cocaine. The St. Petersburg Times reported that he tested positive for drugs at least three times, but was never removed from the basketball team, an apparent violation of the school's drug policy.
Projected to be a first-round NBA pick, Maxwell wasn't selected until the second round of the 1988 draft.
He lasted a season and a half with the San Antonio Spurs.
Earlier this year, he was accused in a complaint of assaulting a Spurs fan outside a San Antonio nightclub. On Feb. 15, his wife filed for divorce, charging him in court documents with "cruel treatment and adulterous conduct."
One week later, Maxwell was sold to Houston for the miserly sum of $50,000. Turns out the Rockets got a bargain.
"He's a serious player, the kind of guy who understands what it means to execute at full speed," Houston coach Don Chaney said last month. It was Chaney who lobbied for management to acquire Maxwell.
"We've got a lot of players who are deficient in the fundamentals," said Chaney. "Vernon had a good teacher somewhere along the line."
Maxwell credits San Antonio coach Larry Brown for expanding his game. But he could always play basketball. The hard part, he said, came away from the court.
"I was wild and crazy. I did a lot of wild and crazy things. I was going out, partying all the time," said Maxwell. "I got into a lot of things, had some problems. I have to take care of my body."
Last season Maxwell and all other rookies had to take random drug tests. He passed every one of them.
"It's a blessing that I'm in Houston," he said. "It's been a 110 percent turnaround for me. I'm going to do my best to stay away from the places I've been. I've got a clean slate and I'm going to make the best of it."
Maxwell, who has two children, said he wants to be a better father. "I go back and think: My father wasn't there for me. I want to be there for them."
Right now, he's busy with the playoffs. Houston rallied to snatch the eighth and final playoff spot away from Seattle in the Western Conference.
Maxwell starts in the backcourt with Sleepy Floyd. His defensive assignment is the Lakers' Magic Johnson.
He can't stop Johnson from scoring or passing (no one can), but there are two ends. He can shoot and pass some, too. If he does, the Rockets might make the Lakers work harder than they want to.
There is just one problem: The words of redemption from Maxwell's mouth that get recorded for posterity, he's used them all before. It's now his job to give meaning to those words.
"I'm trying to change my life, and I feel like I am making changes," said Maxwell. "I don't even like to think about the past. I get a sour taste in my mouth every time I do."