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OUT OF THE CELLAR // Now it's a fine whine

Just when you thought you had Christian Laettner pegged _ spoiled, arrogant and prickly _ they begin talking about his personality makeover.

It's not that Laettner has changed much. Rather it is our perception of him that has been altered in the past month or so. Getting to the NBA post-season will do that for a player.

What looked like arrogance on a last-place team is competitive fire on a playoff team. The surliness of a loser is the temperamental nature of a winner. A brooding underachiever in Minnesota becomes an enigmatic spark in Atlanta.

Laettner continues his post-season renaissance Wednesday night when Atlanta comes to Orlando for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"If you win more, you're going to be happier," Laettner said. "That's the best thing about it, you're getting rewarded for your effort. You're not just going out there to earn your check and lose; you're going out to win some games."

Laettner was the biggest winner in a February trade that brought the onetime Duke star from Minnesota _ the NBA's version of Siberia _ to Atlanta and the Hawks.

Not only had Laettner endured a string of three-plus losing seasons with the Timberwolves, his reputation also had taken a beating. Not exactly Mr. Congeniality at Duke, Laettner was at least considered a winner instead of a whiner in college.

During his relatively short stay in Minnesota, Laettner feuded with teammates, had a couple of nasty, profanity-laced outbursts at assistant coaches and complained about the team's decision to build around 19-year-old rookie Kevin Garnett this season.

The Garnett episode finally led to the deal that sent Laettner and Sean Rooks to Atlanta for Andrew Lang and Spud Webb.

"The things he was unhappy about were the team not winning and guys not working as hard as he works," Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens said. "Our players work hard so those weren't issues we were going to be concerned about.

"But we talk with a lot of people before any trade our people investigated it. What we saw was a guy who wants to win, who was tired of losing."

Few have won with as much consistency as Laettner in college. Duke was the NCAA champion in 1991 and '92 and Laettner became the only player in history to start in four Final Fours.

Coming into the NBA, it seemed like everyone wanted a part of Laettner. He was pursued by Madison Avenue executives enthralled by his good looks. He was followed by media who loved his candor. He was coveted by NBA general managers who saw a 6-foot-11 post player who could pass and score from the perimeter.

"Another life," Laettner said. "That was another life."

He brought the same qualities to Minnesota as the No. 3 pick overall in 1992, but it did not add up to success. The T-Wolves continued their losing ways and Laettner's brazen ways did not wear so well on a team that lost 60 times a season.

While acknowledging Laettner is a competitive person and a unique personality, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the image of Laettner as a petulant NBA player does not jibe with his memories of a college leader.

"I love Christian," Krzyzewski said recently. "He was the best player I coached in college. Grant (Hill) was the most talented. Bobby (Hurley) was the most daring. But Christian was the best. He always wanted the ball in pressure situations."

That image of Laettner has been revived in recent weeks with Atlanta's stretch run and first-round victory against Indiana.

While posting respectable statistics during the five-game series _ 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds a game _ Laettner made several critical plays and helped slow Rik Smits, despite yielding 5 inches and 35 pounds to the Indiana center.

The stoic Laettner even played to the crowd during the series, raising his arms in the air and shouting his exuberance.

"He provided the intangible that we were looking for when we made the trade," Atlanta general manager Pete Babcock said.

Whether that intangible will make a difference in the Orlando series is debatable. Laettner, who at 6-11 and 235 pounds probably is better suited as a power forward, will be left guarding the Magic's 325-pound center Shaquille O'Neal.

But no matter how the Orlando series turns out, Laettner already has a new lease on his NBA career.

The Hawks have a chance to build their team around Laettner and guard Steve Smith, and Laettner has a chance to redefine the reputation that has dogged him the past three years.

He even is learning to make light of his touchy reputation. When asked on a radio show about reports that he was not popular with his new Atlanta teammates, his response was typically contrary, but without any bitterness.

"I'm the most popular guy on the team," he said. "In fact, I think I'm the most popular person in the country."