Take me to the old playground
Where the old ones rule,
And the young ones do their time
Take me to the old playground
Where the talk is cheap
And the restless stalk the baseline
-- BRUCE HORNSBY & THE RANGE
IF THE OLD PLAYGROUND SEEMS younger this year, and never so
restless, it's probably because -- according to another lyric from
rock essayist Hornsby -- that's just the way it is. Kareem's head is
all but bald, and even Magic and Bird are getting old. The coach of
the NCAA champions up and left his school for another job. And now
the U.S. has lost the Olympics fair and square. It's time to bless
the beasts and children.
And those species may be one and the same as college basketball
welcomes its most heralded group of big (6 ft. 7 in. and above)
freshmen in history. Centers, forwards, center-forwards. Shot
blockers, rebounders, bangers, facial-adjusters. Play-everywheres.
''The size in this class is simply incredible,'' says Howard
Garfinkel, high school basketball's guru of gurus. ''I rated 14
immediate-impact big players, and that's unheard of.''
Even Mike Krzyzewski, the normally reserved Duke coach, begins to
sound a little like those Blue Devil undergraduate berserkoids when
he describes this year's rookie class: ''When I got to know a lot of
the big kids during recruiting, I said, 'Jiminy Christmas! This is
unbelievable.' We decided to try and bring in two. All these quality
big men -- you don't know when you might get that opportunity
again.'' Coach K succeeded in luring a couple of the big fellows to
Durham, N.C.: 6 ft. 10 in. Christian Laettner from Angola, N.Y., and
6 ft. 10 in. Crawford Palmer from Arlington, Va. This pair provides !
as accurate a measure of the power of the class of '92 as any, if
only because while everybody and his alumni booster wanted them, both
would have a difficult time making their own preseason all-class team
-- first, second or even third string (see box, page 10).
It's not as if this entire group sprang out of anonymity in the
fashion, say, of a Larry Bird when he turned up 12 years back at
Indiana State. Two years ago, when some of the '92 crew were barely
sweet 16, rumblings were heard from the summer camps that this might
be the class of classes. North Carolina's J.R. Reid, then a somewhat
awe-inspiring college freshman in his own right, spoke in reverential
tones of a younger kid back home on the Virginia playgrounds: bigger,
faster, more aggressive, an imposing customer who made even J.R.
The kid's name was Alonzo Mourning, and Reid's scouting report may
have been the first manifestation of the game's now and future
epidemic: Mourning sickness. Says Jerry Wainwright, an assistant
coach at Wake Forest who coached in Chicago-area high schools and has
been a resident coach at the prestigious Five-Star basketball camp
for 13 years, ''When Mourning was in the eighth grade, I saw him
throw J.R.'s shot over the playground fence and into the parking
Mourning quickly became the standard against which his
contemporaries were measured. Notre Dame's LaPhonso Ellis, St. John's
Malik Sealy and Duke's Palmer each made his reputation with a brave
performance mano a mano against Mourning. As Mourning loomed larger
with each outing for Indian River High in Chesapeake, Va., he
inspired favorable comparisons with the ultimate preps -- Ewing,
Malone, Walton, Alcindor and Chamberlain. His 27 blocked shots in one
AAU game and his physical terrorizing of the U.S. Olympic team --
before he was the next-to-last man cut -- have enhanced his 6 ft. 10
Mourning has lived with his guardian, Fannie Threet, since he was
10. His appetite is ''just plain frustrating,'' Threet told USA
Today. ''I'll go to the grocery store and buy five or six boxes of
Cap'n Crunch, expecting it to last several weeks. He'll sit down and
eat two boxes for breakfast.'' But Pittsburgh coach Paul Evans has a
different dread of Mourning. ''I said last year that Mourning could
go in the NBA lottery, but nobody believed me,'' says Evans. ''After
the Olympic trials I was talking to ((Phoenix Suns coach)) Cotton
Fitzsimmons, and he said he'd take Mourning ahead of Danny Manning.''
* Evans points out that Mourning's stint with the Olympians makes him
the equivalent of a sophomore in experience: ''He's played against
every big man in college, and half the pros.''
As a consequence of Mourning's not having been unveiled in Seoul
for the network TV cameras, his reputation has perhaps become even
more fearsome than his play; a true unmasking awaits Georgetown's
usual pleasant cruise through the Big East. And along about Feb. 13
at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., Mourning will for the first
of many times match reps with another schoolyard legend, Billy Owens
of Syracuse (page 16).
OWENS IS THE LATEST PRODUCT of the changes in the game and in
player roles that began with Magic Johnson. A boy used to say he
wanted to be a guard or a forward. Now he says he wants to be,
simply, a player. And that's what the incredibly versatile Owens
became while leading Carlisle (Pa.) High to an unprecedented four
straight Pennsylvania championships.
Rumors out of Carlisle last year had Owens matriculating at
Syracuse, North Carolina and Villanova, but his brother, Michael, a
star running back on the Orange football team, knew all along that
Billy would be heading to upstate New York. ''I would be sitting
watching basketball practice in the field house with a few friends,
and ((Syracuse hoops coach)) Jim Boeheim would spot me,'' Michael
says. ''I'd say to everyone, 'Watch, he's going to come talk to me.
I'll bet you a dollar.' He'd come over every time and ask how Billy
Billy was fine. Says Wainwright, ''The two best all-around players
I've ever seen are Michael Jordan and Billy Owens. There may never
have been anybody as gifted as Owens at such a young age. You don't
even give him a position; he plays anywhere he wants to.'' It makes
Owens nervous to hear such talk. ''But it's like my ultimate dreams
are being played out now,'' he says.
The two jewels in the freshman crown, Mourning and Owens, talked a
lot over the summer and consider themselves friends, but Owens isn't
pleased that scouting services rated Mourning the better player. ''We
never played head-to- head, so how could anyone tell?'' he says.
''This year we can judge. When we play, I'll be real excited. I wish
we could play Georgetown the first game.''
Even as we come to praise the best of all freshman classes, many
coaches and administrators would prefer to bury it. UCLA's John
Wooden always argued against freshman eligibility. Other prominent
coaches -- among them Indiana's ; Bob Knight, North Carolina's Dean
Smith and Krzyzewski -- have spoken out against the policy, pointing
to the ''hardships'' it works on youngsters emotionally,
academically, socially, physically. (And they don't like those rookie
But, really, just because a freshman shows up in the groves of
academe still bearing white socks, pimples and his Iron Maiden tapes,
that doesn't mean he shouldn't be allowed to play varsity basketball
-- at the same time that he's permitted to run for student
government, audition for a play or turn chartreuse from a weekend keg
party -- does it?
''My kids have been playing as freshmen since they put in the rule
((1972-73)), and I've got a graduation rate that's pretty doggone
high,'' says coach Bill Foster, late of Clemson, currently of Miami,
two institutions that are not internationally renowned for graduation
rates. ''If I really felt like a kid was struggling and needed to sit
out academically or emotionally, I hope I'd be smart enough to sit
him out. But nobody's ever convinced me that all freshmen sitting out
is going to solve the problems of the world.''
Iowa State coach Johnny Orr is another proponent of first-year
play. ''They tell you it's a strain for a freshman, but that's
bull,'' he says. ''It's no strain. No pressure. My players do much
better with their grades when the season is on than when it isn't.
They might miss three or four days of classes a season because of
basketball. The average student misses more than that just screwing
Pitt's Sean Miller, the best freshman on a team loaded with good
freshmen last season, says, ''You have to learn how to deal with the
pressure, the peaks and valleys, your goals. Practicing hard every
day is the toughest adjustment. But right away, it ((being eligible))
makes you grow up. Suddenly you go from being a person in high school
who had a pattern every day, who had someone to do your laundry, and
you're thrust into a situation where you haven't been. It really
foreshadows what happens when you get out of college.''
Basketball doesn't consume the amount of time football does.
Basketball players don't start practice until Oct. 15, so they've had
time to get acclimated to school before their sport begins. In
contrast, football players have already played a couple of
traditional rivals before they know the meaning of drop-add.
Basketballers finish practice at dusk and can mingle around campus,
unlike their grid counterparts, who have to watch films or - gobble
steroids. The only time freshmen seem to have real trouble is when a
coach (such as Wooden, John Thompson or Temple's John Chaney) covers
them with some stifling gag rule. Mostly, freshmen adjust; freshmen
Still, a multitude of mentors have bemoaned freshman eligibility
for the 16 years of its existence (in 12 of which, by the by, at
least one freshman has started at Chapel Hill for Smith, a major
moaner). They charge that it has brought havoc to recruiting,
practice sessions, road trips, statistical records and morale (read:
the coaches' leisure time). They insist that it has meant more
pressure, frustration, disillusionment and heartbreak (read: dumb
fouls). At times they have even argued that there weren't enough good
freshmen to make a difference anyway.
But beginning with that first freshman-eligible year -- when
Indiana's Quinn Buckner played both varsity basketball and football
and somehow found time to eat, sleep, study and be cordial to the
media -- at least one freshman has played a key role for a Final Four
team in every year except the last one.
Here's the freshman honor roll:
1973: Buckner of Indiana. 1974: Bo Ellis of Marquette. 1975: Jack
Givens and Rick Robey of Kentucky. 1976: Phil Hubbard of Michigan and
David Greenwood of UCLA. 1977: Mike O'Koren of North Carolina. 1978:
Gene Banks of Duke and Kelly Tripucka of Notre Dame. 1979: Mark
Aguirre of DePaul. 1980: Rodney McCray of Louisville and Rod Foster
of UCLA. 1981: Sam Perkins of North Carolina. 1982: Michael Jordan of
North Carolina and Patrick Ewing of Georgetown. 1983: Alvin Franklin
of Houston. 1984: Reggie Williams of Georgetown. 1985: Perry McDonald
of Georgetown. 1986: Pervis Ellison of Louisville. 1987: Derrick
Coleman of Syracuse. And last season, all a freshman (Mark Macon of
Temple) did was carry the Owls to a No. 1 ranking for six weeks
during the regular season.
WHEN JUDGING THE CURRENT crop of freshmen against its
predecessors, keep in mind that the old guys have the unmistakable
advantage of having already done it: We know they were great because
they showed us they were, but lord knows what -- if anything -- we
thought about them in the fall of their freshman years. From the
college class of 1930, from which five men became members of the
Basketball Hall of Fame, to the point-happy class of '70, led by Pete
Maravich, Calvin Murphy, Rick Mount, Bob Lanier and Dan Issel, every
decade has boasted a couple of special groups. But the watershed
class remains the class of 1983. Among its undergraduate
In 1980 McCray helped Louisville win the NCAA championship (while
Ralph Sampson led Virginia to the NIT title). In '81 Isiah Thomas
guided Indiana to the national championship, and James Worthy did the
same for North Carolina in '82.
Besides Sampson -- and remember that big men tend to elevate a
class, as the current one surely will be elevated -- the centers in
this class included Sam Bowie of Kentucky, Randy Breuer of Minnesota,
Terry Cummings of DePaul, Steve Stipanovich of Missouri, and LaSalle
Thompson of Texas. In addition to Worthy, the forwards included
Dominique Wilkins of Georgia, Dale Ellis of Tennessee, Sidney Green
of UNLV, and Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr of Wichita State. And
with Isiah in backcourt were the likes of Jeff Malone of Mississippi
State, Byron Scott of Arizona State, John Paxson of Notre Dame,
Quintin Dailey of San Francisco and Jon Sundvold of Missouri. Whew!
No fewer than 25 players from that class are still prominent in
the NBA; five have been in the All-Star Game. ''I don't know how
you'd even compare,'' says the Atlanta Hawks' Wilkins when asked to
rate the present freshman class with his own. ''The camps that year
were the most competitive I've ever been to. I know there's no class
as good as ours.''
Not yet, anyway. But today's gang is certainly attracting more
attention than any other -- and before any of them have taken their
first shot on a college court. Meet just a sampling of this cast of
-- Maryland's Jerrod Mustaf, who grew up in North Carolina before
moving to live with his father in the Washington, D.C., area and
becoming a star at DeMatha High, may steal some headlines from
Mourning around the nation's capital. The son of a court bailiff,
Mustaf, whose academic interests include law and black studies, also
considered Howard. ''Sometimes I think that black athletes should go
to black schools,'' he says. ''They can circulate money back into the
black community. But I am proud to be a part of Coach ((Bob)) Wade's
being the first black head coach in the ACC.'' Oh yes, and about that
other color, powder blue. ''I want to beat Carolina,'' says Mustaf.
''I'm obsessed with it.'
-- Notre Dame's Ellis once smashed a backboard to bits, dunking
for Lincoln High of East St. Louis, Ill. ''He's the reason we put in
breakaway rims, the first ones in my 18 years here,'' says Irish
coach Digger Phelps. ''And you know how I liked my old rims.'' Ellis
chose Notre Dame against the wishes of his high school coach, Bennie
Lewis, who told the Chicago Sun-Times that LaPhonso should have gone
to a ''basketball school. Illinois is a basketball school. Notre Dame
is a football school.'' Ellis himself figured the Illini were only a
center away from the Final Four, but ''I didn't want it to be me.''
That's because he wants to play forward. So who will be starting at
center for the Irish? LaPhonso.
-- Dikembe Mutombo from Kinshasa, Zaire, may turn out to be
Mourning's backboard buddy at Georgetown -- if just a few matters of
identity can be cleared up. Mutombo was identified in a June edition
of Basketball Weekly as a ''5-10 point guard.'' While he was tearing
up the D.C. summer league, Mutombo appeared to be very much a 6 ft.
11 in., 230-pound freshman center. Except that he's not really a
freshman. Apparently he's been hiding out at Georgetown long enough
-- while learning English -- that he's been classified a sophomore.
Academically, that is; but he does have four full years of basketball
eligibility -- like a freshman.
Regardless, the Big East serves as a microcosm of the first-year
talent burgeoning across the land. Almost every team in the league
brought in an immediate impact player, among them the top blue-chip
prospects from six different states and one other continent: Virginia
(Mourning), Pennsylvania (Owens), New York (Sealy), Connecticut
(UConn point guard Chris Smith), Massachusetts (Boston College guard
Bryan Edwards), New Jersey (Villanova forward Marc Dowdell) and
Australia (Seton Hall swingman Andrew Gaze).
-- LSU coach Dale Brown wanted humongous Stanley Roberts (a.k.a.
Bob Lanier Reincarnate) so badly that he hired Jim Childers,
Roberts's coach at Lower Richland High in Hopkins, S.C., a year ago.
Then Roberts failed to clear Bylaw 5-1-(j) -- still better known as
Proposition 48 -- so he'll have to sit out his freshman year.
Meanwhile the letter of intent for LSU signed by Chris Jackson from
Gulfport, Miss., probably the most accomplished freshman guard, was
torn up by Jackson's mother, a somewhat enigmatic character who
wanted him to go to Alcorn State. Alcorn State? Brown landed Jackson
anyway. Don't you recruit anybody normal, Dale? ''I'm attracted to
the unusual,'' says Brown.
-- At Kentucky, Prop. 48 delayed another debut in the class of
'92, when the bylaw swallowed up prized recruit Shawn Kemp. That
still left coach Eddie < Sutton with a couple of already semilegends:
Richie Farmer, the 6-foot hero of the mountain folk in Clay County,
Ky., who have already named a road after him; and Chris Mills, the
notorious L.A. pen pal whose father allegedly received that infamous
Emery Air Freight envelope containing $1,000 in cash. The Cats will
play in the Nov. 19 Tip-Off Classic against Duke; fortunately for
Mills, the game will be in Springfield, Mass., rather than at the
Blue Devils' Cameron Indoor Stadium, where it would surely be raining
overnight express envelopes, Monopoly money and emery boards.
-- A pair of newcomers in California is expected to bring UCLA
back to its traditional prominence: 6 ft. 10 in. forward Don MacLean
and 5 ft. 11 in. guard Darrick Martin. Does any remark better
describe the barren Bruin cupboard than MacLean's saying he chose
Westwood over Georgia Tech because he'd have ''a better chance to
play right away''?
-- Arkansas fans may soon be replacing their beloved ''Pig
Soooie'' hog calls with chants of ''MayDay, MayDay!'' That's because
Lee Mayberry and Todd Day, respectively the Oklahoma and Tennessee
state players of the year, have both turned up in the Razorback
backcourt. ''They're lean and mean types,'' says Arkansas coach Nolan
Richardson. ''Quiet killers.''
-- A legitimate successor to Indiana's Steve Alford as the Big
Ten's calendar boy is Matt Steigenga of Michigan State, the next of
the great white leapers: He won the slam dunk contest at the
McDonald's all-America game by jumping over a chair -- with Darrick
Martin sitting in it. Having survived personal tragedy when his
father, Paul, suffered a fatal heart attack while playing a pickup
game with Matt seven years ago, Steigenga remains unassuming in the
face of the hype he has generated. ''It's every player's dream to do
the same things in college that he's done in high school,'' he says.
''I hope I can, but basically I just want to help the team win.''
Says Spartan coach Jud Heathcote, ''He's what you might call a, uh,
-- Missouri coach Norm Stewart landed himself a tough type in 6
ft. 4 in. Anthony Peeler of Kansas City, who says he rejected
Maryland because he felt the ACC was on the skids and Kansas because
he ''didn't want to be a one-man team.'' That kind of grit may be
just what a freshman needs if he is going to distinguish himself in
this class of classes. Peeler, who pitched American Legion baseball
well enough to be drafted by the Texas Rangers, can probably
appreciate the story of the heralded college freshman pitcher who
quickly became disillusioned. He couldn't get anybody out and,
traumatized, went to his coach.
''In high school I struck out eight out of nine batters every
time,'' said the kid.
''That's O.K., son,'' said the coach. ''You know that ninth guy?
They're all here.''
You know that guy who stuffed your jumper right back in your face?
In college basketball 1988-89, they're all here.
THE HONOR ROLL
THE COLLEGE COURTS WILL SEE A DELUGE OF NEW TALENT THIS season.
The main wave will come from the richly endowed class of '92, but in
this age of Bylaw 5-1- (j), a.k.a. Proposition 48, fresh faces aren't
necessarily frosh faces. Those members of the class of '91 who sat
out last year will arrive, as will the latest contingent from the
junior colleges. So, before any of them sets a sneaker on the court,
we'll rank the best of the bunch (in descending order) -- and wait
for the letters.
ALL-FRESHMAN FIRST TEAM
BILLY OWENS, Syracuse 6 ft. 8 in., F, Carlisle (Pa.) High
ALONZO MOURNING, G'town 6 ft. 10 in., C, Chesapeake, Va. (Indian
LAPHONSO ELLIS, Notre Dame 6 ft. 9 in., C, East St. Louis, Ill.
CHRIS MILLS, Kentucky 6 ft. 7 in., F, Los Angeles (Fairfax High)
CHRIS JACKSON, LSU 6 ft. 0 in., G, Gulfport (Miss.) High
ALL-FRESHMAN SECOND TEAM
JERROD MUSTAF, Maryland 6 ft. 10 in., C, Hyattsville, Md. (DeMatha
ROBERT WERDANN, St. John's 6 ft. 11 in., C, Queens, N.Y. (A'bishop
MATT STEIGENGA, Mich. St. 6 ft. 7 in., F, Grand Rapids, Mich. (S.
TODD DAY, Arkansas 6 ft. 7 in., G, Memphis (Hamilton High)
ANTHONY PEELER, Missouri 6 ft. 4 in., G, Kansas City, Mo. (Paseo
ALL-FRESHMAN THIRD TEAM
MALIK SEALY, St. John's 6 ft. 7 in., F, Bronx, N.Y. (Tolentine
DON MACLEAN, UCLA 6 ft. 10 in., F, Simi Valley (Calif.) High
CHRIS KING, Wake Forest 6 ft. 8 in., F, Newton Grove, N.C.
DARRICK MARTIN, UCLA 5 ft. 11 in., G, Long Beach, Calif. (St.
ERIC ANDERSON, Indiana 6 ft. 9 in., F, Chicago (St. Francis de
ALL-PROP.48s IN WAITING
STANLEY ROBERTS, LSU 7 ft. 0 in., C, Hopkins, S.C. (Lower Richland
SHAWN KEMP, Kentucky 6 ft. 10 in., F/C, Elkhart, Ind. (Concord
KENNY WILLIAMS, Barton Co. (Kans.) C.C. 6 ft. 9 in., F, Eliz.
City, N.C. (N'eastern)
DONALD HODGE, Temple 6 ft. 10 in., C, Washington, D.C. (Coolidge
CHUCKY SPROLING, St. John's 6 ft. 4 in., G, Denver (Manual High)
ALL-PROP.48 RETURNEES (SOPHOMORES)
MARCUS LIBERTY, Illinois 6 ft. 8 in., G/F, Chicago (Martin Luther
BRIAN SHORTER, Pitt 6 ft. 7 in., F, Mouth of Wilson, Va. (Oak Hill
TREG LEE, Ohio State 6 ft. 8 in., F, Cleveland (St. Joseph High)
ELI BREWSTER, Ohio State 6 ft. 3 in., G, Columbus, Ohio (Wehrle
ANTHONY AVENT, Seton Hall 6 ft. 9 in., C, Newark (Shabazz High)
ALL-JUCO ARRIVALS (JUNIORS)
DAVID BUTLER, UNLV 6 ft. 10 in., F/C, San Jacinto (Texas) J.C.
CHRIS MORRIS, Houston 6 ft. 5 in., F, Independence (Kans.) C.C.
MAURICE BRITTIAN, Georgia Tech 6 ft. 9 in., C, Hutchinson (Kans.)
BILLY RAY SMITH, Kansas State 6 ft. 5 in., F, Midland (Texas) J.C.
CEDRIC CEBALLOS, Cal State-Fullerton 6 ft. 6 in., F, Ventura