LARRY MERCHANT was speaking about the need for those in leadership positions to sometimes make difficult decisions.

"I've had to make personnel changes," Merchant said. "That includes at the Philadelphia Daily News, when I was the sports editor there. That includes at NBC when I produced a show there. In every case, the guy I brought in improved my staff and my product.

"To me, as a leader, that's your only standard."

I called Merchant at his Santa Monica, Calif., home regarding the rumor that his 29-year run as a boxing commentator for HBO is nearing its end and that he will be replaced in the HBO Championship Boxing announcing lineup by Max Kellerman.

All signs point to Merchant's last two HBO telecasts being the May 5 pay-per-view showdown of Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas and the May 19 middleweight title bout between champion Jermain Taylor and Cory Spinks in Memphis, Tenn.

The debut for Kellerman, 33, now toiling in the purgatory of HBO's ratings-challenged "Boxing After Dark" telecasts, would be the June 9 matchup of Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah in New York's Madison Square Garden - ironically, the night after Merchant receives the James J. Walker Award for long and meritorious service to boxing at the Boxing Writers Association of America's 82nd annual awards dinner at the Copacabana, just down the street from the Garden.

Merchant, 76, never has minded asking the tough questions, or answering them. But, as much as he seemingly is aching to go public about reports he is being forced out by HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, he understands that professional ethics demand a code of silence for the time being.

"On the record, all I can say is 'No comment,' " Merchant said.

An HBO spokesman said the cable network does not comment on contractual matters.

What remains to be seen is whether the Kellerman-for-Merchant switch, if it is a done deal, improves HBO's boxing brand. Frankly, I think it is dubious. Ousting a gray-haired septuagenarian still capable of getting the job done in favor of a much younger guy with considerably less journalistic experience smacks of age discrimination.

Younger does not necessarily mean better. Remember when HBO launched its "KO Nation" series in the hope of creating a new generation of boxing fans? We got blaring rap, nondescript fights and, worst of all, host Ed Lover, a clueless disc jockey who was as miscast as a boxing announcer as Sanjaya Malakar would be in "La Boheme." "KO Nation," which answered the bell in 2000, was, thankfully, KO'd in 2001.

What's odd in this instance is that HBO backed Merchant even when such powerful fighters as De La Hoya and Mike Tyson demanded his ouster. HBO also stood behind announcer Jim Lampley when he recently was accused of domestic violence by a former girlfriend. Lampley was sentenced to 3 years' probation after pleading no contest to violating a restraining order.

If Merchant's age is not the main thing being held against him, then maybe he's the scapegoat for the shrinking viewership for HBO's boxing telecasts, although that owes more to the many mismatches approved on Greenburg's and senior vice president Kery Davis' watch. If you're an "HBO fighter" these days, chances are, the pay is excellent and the opposition soft. To his credit, Merchant has refused to play the role of acquiescent house man when the action in the ring was dreadful.

No Philly sweep

In recent years, the Pennsylvania State Golden Gloves Championships have been a showcase for Philadelphia-area boxers to beat up on their counterparts from the western part of the state.

Philly fighters did win six of nine scheduled bouts over the weekend at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field - and 112-pounder Qa'id Muhammad made it seven victories, on a walkover - but brothers Jesse and Jim Lubash, representing South Park in the 152- and 178-pound weight classes, respectively, prevented a sweep by advancing to the nationals, Sunday through May 6 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Jesse outpointed Julian Williams, of the Mitchell Allen Gym, and Jim decisioned Dennis "Assassin" Hasson, of Harrowgate.

Tahree Carroll, of the Mitchell Allen Gym, led the Philly contingent with a decision over Michael Strauss, of MASC, in the 141-pound weight class.

Other local winners were Shawn Manning (119), Luis Esquillon (125), Anthony Flores (132), Jesse Hart (165) and Pedro Martinez (super heavyweight).

Hopkins cuts

Longtime former middleweight champion will do the ribboncutting today at 1:30 p.m. for the dedication of the newly renovated Charles Henry Elementary School playground at 640 Carpenter Lane.

The playground got a facelift after a grant from the Bernard and Shirley Hopkins Make a Way Foundation, established in the name of "The Executioner's" late mother.

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