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"Are you Bonzi Wells?"

The questioner was a girl, maybe 12 years old. She had spotted
the tall man in a Ball State jacket as he wandered through a
mall in Muncie, Ind. He was, in fact, Bonzi Wells, and he was in
a playful mood that day early last fall. "No, I'm not," he told
her. "But what do you think of him?"

"I think he's a jerk," the girl replied.

What might have prompted the youngster to arrive at such a harsh
appraisal? It could have been the postgame slap Wells gave an
opposing player after a game at Central Michigan last season. Or
maybe it was the two ejections for jawing with the referees
Wells earned the year before that. A broadcast report of
domestic violence two years ago might have been on her mind
(though charges were never filed). Or perhaps she remembered
when Wells was a senior at Muncie Central High and was voted off
a postseason all-star team by the other members of that team.

Wells, a 6'5" senior forward, was the Mid-American Conference's
MVP as a sophomore, and though he put up gaudy numbers again
last season (22.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game),
he says the year was "depressing." Besides having to contend
with questions about his character, Wells faced a slew of
gimmicky defenses and constant queries about whether he planned
to enter the NBA draft. As the Cardinals struggled to a 16-13
record, Wells grew increasingly truculent. "I felt like the
pressure of the world was on my back," he says. "I was taking it
out on the referees, the coaches, the players, everybody." At
the suggestion of his coach, Ray McCallum, Wells started seeing
a psychologist to learn to control his temper.

Wells's parents separated when he was in sixth grade, and he
lived at first with his mother, Christine, and his four brothers
and sisters. By his own admission, he then "started hanging with
the wrong crowd," prompting his father, Gawen, to take him in.
Much of Bonzi's knowledge of the game can be attributed to a
decade of listening to lectures from Gawen. "When he says to
grab a drink and come out on the porch, you know you might as
well cancel what you were going to do that day," he says.

The sessions with the psychologist have produced a noticeable
mellowing in Wells this season, but his reputation has been
harder to change. McCallum had to work the phones just to get
him a tryout for USA Basketball's team in the World University
Games last summer. Wells made the team, but then hurt his knee
and didn't make the trip. So far this season his scoring is
up--to 23.3 points a game at week's end--and he has been
especially effective in big games. He dropped 34 points, along
with nine rebounds and six steals, on 14th-ranked Mississippi in
the Cardinals' 70-66 win on Dec. 6, and he went for 33 in a
68-56 defeat of Wisconsin, Ball State's first victory over a Big
Ten team in nine years. He had spurred the Cardinals to a 9-3
start through Sunday, and if his scoring average holds up, he
will eclipse Miami of Ohio's Ron Harper as the leading scorer in
the history of the MAC. Before that happens, though, he'll pass
McCallum's school record of 2,109 points: Coming into this week,
he needed only 31 points to do it. Says Wells, "I told Coach,
'You better take your last picture of the record book before
it's gone.'"

--Seth Davis

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG The Cardinals' rule has been: Get the ball to Bonzi, who's scoring 23.3 points a game. [Bonzi Wells]