|Monday, February 3
Plenty to like about Ike
By Curry Kirkpatrick
ESPN The Magazine
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With apologies to Warren Schmidt (as played by Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt) ... who, in explaining the disappointments of his unfulfilled and suddenly fractured life, turns to a faraway pen-pal, a Tanzanian child, to whom he addresses his missives ... "Dear Ndugo."
At any rate, in this hoops age of Ugly Un-civility, Hotdog Hype and LeBronian Enablement, you should know that your friendly manners -- those "Yessirs," "Nosirs" and "Thank You's" after interviews have us shocked media checking our normally punked-out pride -- not to mention your fundamentals-friendly game has gone a long way toward reaffirming one's belief in basketball as we once knew it.
Not that there hasn't been enough new juice flowing through campuses all over the landscape, i.e., Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, Rashad McCants at North Carolina, J.J. Redick at Duke, Matt Walsh at Florida and Hassan Adams at Arizona. Why, there's been an onslaught of fab frosh right there from your own adopted Dallas community -- Bracey Wright (to Indiana), Chris Bosh (to Georgia Tech) and Daniel Horton (to Michigan).
But you, sir, in the first couple of months of your freshman season, have grown out of nowhere into the most indispensable rookie of them all. Not only have you led a severely limited, trifecta-challenged Arizona State team to 13 victories already, a winning mark in the Pac-10's first half-season for the first time since 1995, but also a slot in the RPI (31) that should hold up for only the Sun Devils' third NCAA Tournament bid in over two decades. If Boston College's frosh banger Craig (C-Wagon) Smith is Charles Barkley East, your immense strength and inside moves surely recall Chuckles West. Your dependable, hardly moveable, low-blocks presence is such a Sun Devil staple now that anybody who could pronounce the name of your family's hometown of Owerra -- which is a long, hard 12 hours from the bustling capitol of Lagos -- and especially if they could find some vegetation there, could refer to you as the Owerrian Oak.
Instead your teammates -- having gotten one look at your 6-foot-8, 255-pound Olympian-sculpted body and then suffered the consequences in pickup games last summer --nicknamed you, of course, "The Beast."
"I don't mind the name. It's kind of neat," you say. "I never thought of myself as any Barkley. But now he was a real beast. I think people were surprised by my jump hooks, left and right. But I've always worked on that, and the up-and-under moves, the power ball. Not really fancy stuff. I just like to keep it simple."
"I told you guys this kid could play," Arizona State Coach Rob Evans warned your fellow Sun Devils back then. "No, no, coach. You don't understand," they replied. "We can't handle this guy. Nobody can deal with him."
Soon enough the outside world found out. There was that 13-point, 8-rebound outing in only your second varsity game. Against Kentucky. There were those 22/8 and 18/9 jobs in which you led ASU to upsets of Utah and Purdue. "This guy is a lock all-leaguer for four years," said the Utes' Rick Majerus. "It's his body that distinguishes him. But he also has a maturity, psychologically."
Whatever that meant -- probably that you kicked butt in the mental game -- there was also that 14-and-10 double-double in your very first Pac-10 game on the road at Oregon State and then your 27 and 8 amid the hostile Duck blinds at Oregon. "I knew then how special Ike was going to be," Evans said.
"After that, I didn't think I would be intimidated by anybody," you said.
Why Arizona, those erstwhile Number Ones down South, set up a whole 1-3-1 zone defense because of you -- well, also, for your teammates who are reluctant to shoot 3s, maybe because they're the worst at it in your league -- to such an extent that "I felt like three guys were attacking me every time I touched the ball," you said. The Wildcats held you to 15 (and only 4 boards) and won in Tucson, 71-63. But then last Thursday, against the twin invaders from the California Bay, first you devastated Cal in your best game yet -- 18 and 13 as the Sun Devils knocked off the Bears, 75-70 -- and on Saturday, if you had managed one more simple defensive box-out, ASU would have beaten Stanford as well.
But Dear Diogu:
Even the opposition, which had just surprised Arizona (for the third straight year in Tucson) and then copied Arizona's zone, doubling and tripling Your Massiveness anytime the ball came within range, absolved you on that final gaffe. "I thought (Ike) had me blocked out," said Childress whose wondrous retro-Gervin Afro is nearly as long as his arms. "The ball just fell to me. My wingspan's about 6-11 so it wasn't hard to get it back up there." And Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery pointed out the "fortuitous" nature of the play. "Against Diogu," -- you had 16 points and 14 rebounds -- "it's not like we can dominate the boards."
Still, as you said: "I thought I put my body on the guy. I didn't. Yeah, it's a compliment when the other team focuses the D on me. But it doesn't matter. This one got away. He got the ball. We lose. End of story."
Actually -- averaging 18 points and seven rebounds a game and shooting 59 percent from the floor and 73 percent from the line (your 176 attempts leads the league) -- you're still at the beginning of the story.
"Forget freshmen. Diogu's probably the best player in the Pac-10," said Stanford assistant coach Russell Turner, not needing to refer to your position on-course as the league's first freshman to finish in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding since Cal's Shareef Abdur-Rahim -- who won the league player of the year award in 1996.
Your father and mother, Edward and Jane, surely couldn't have foreseen all of this when they emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. to continue their careers as educators. Shortly after your dad earned his doctorate at the University of Buffalo, the city where you were born, they moved to Garland in the suburbs of Dallas -- where they both still teach and where your older brothers, Eddie and Eric, would sparkle in football. (Eric was the starting tight end on Tennessee's '98 national championship team.) So what happened to you?
"I think I got a lot of this (athletic ability) from genes," you laugh. "My mom ran track and my dad, I remember, was a really good tennis player -- quick, fast, agile. I played tight end, too (on a state title team). But my senior year I decided to concentrate on basketball."
By that time, ahead of everybody else such as Connecticut, Illinois and Alabama, Evans was onto you, bigtime. Matter of fact, the ASU mentor -- quite an athlete himself; he played in the NCAA Tournament for New Mexico State, was drafted in baseball by Houston and offered a free agent contract in football by the Raiders' John Madden -- thought he had you locked up until confronted by another Diogu. Your mom.
"Yeah, I was concerned Ike was taking all these trips to other schools," said Evans, "so I thought I should put on the pressure. I explained the nature of the business, that we had other recruits and if they committed, we'd have to go that way. But momma was having none of that. She stood up and I knew she wasn't happy. 'Coach,' she said. 'Nobody will pressure Ike. If you must move on, you move on.'"
Whoooaaa. Evans quickly backtracked. "Uh, noooo. No, ma'am," he said. "Please don't misunderstand. I'm not movin' on."
"Actually," you say, "when I narrowed my list of schools, we checked around on different coaches to see if we could get any dirt on them ... and Coach Evans, his name constantly came up clean."
The result being that you've had to grow those locks out into a sort of Mid-Half-Fro which, with those babyface balloon cheeks, gives you a sort of Gary-Coleman-Turns-Wolfman thing going on.
"The only thing that's surprised me is how quickly Ike's adapted to the college game," says Evans. "I've never met a kid so grounded and it's all from his upbringing. Ike will never do anything that wouldn't meet the full approval of his family. He's such a joy to coach. If he's got a meeting at 10:30, he's there at 10:20. He absorbs teaching like a sponge, watches tape on his own, always wants to get better. The seniors" -- three of whom start -- "love him because he's ego-less."
That doesn't mean you grant them any wide berth, though, right Ike?
After the Sun Devils got blown out in an early-season rematch with Utah in Salt Lake, Evans held a team meeting and asked for suggestions. Wasn't it you who held up your hand and said: "Coach, these guys are listening but they're not hearing. They're just going on their own." You, a freshman, calling out the seniors.
"But they didn't get mad," says Evans, "because they knew what Ike was saying, he really felt from the heart."
Then there was just last week when ASU was running a play in practice and senior forward Shawn Redhage screwed up. Again, wasn't it you who let him have it? "Did Coach not just call 'Double Screen Spots'?" you said, not softly. "Shawn, get to your spot!"
"Shawn just apologized," says Evans. "When Ike says something, this team listens. They realize his leadership, which is refreshing. We're talking about somebody very unique. This is a kid in no hurry. He goes at his own pace. He knows who he is."
"A Manchild," echoes Smith, the Phoenix homeboy who's been waiting a whole career for a bellweather to carry the Sun Devils. "People wonder why I'm not averaging double figures, but with Ike in there it's like bread and butter. Give him the rock and it's two or three points every time. I compare him to Shaq on the college level. You can double and triple him and he's going to score anyway. He's still got a lot to learn but ...
And who's Amare Stoudamire? The local Suns' basketball hero, an age-peer who jumped straight out of high school to blow up the NBA, didn't play in the same all-star contests with you last season. So you've never even met.
And who's Henry Bibby? The Southern Cal coach was the one who -- after you beasted his team for 27 points -- proclaimed you a "one or two-year guy."
"Maybe that's a compliment," you said. "But I've never even thought about the NBA. What I really want to do is start up my own business in my major, which is Digital Art."
(We got a million of 'em, folks. Thanks for coming. And drive home safely.)
The worrisome thing for Arizona may be that since an "unidentified assistant coach" reimbursed the Lawrence, Kan., hotel $80 for the vending machine losses, isn't that an admission that somebody took something? And if players committed the theft, don't they themselves have to pay back the money--- or else it's an NCAA violation?
Shouldn't Lute Olson call in his gang and ask them face- to-face just what happened and who was involved? Or maybe he has. In which case…
Arizona and all the Wildcats are innocent until proven guilty. Which would make everything Good (And Plenty). As well as bring great (Almond) Joy to Tucson. And stop Snickers---ing. That's simply the American--- not to mention, Milky--- Way.
JOSH: No doubt last week's thrilling Kansas-Texas and Nick Collison-T.J. Ford moments will stand up as twin-classics-in-one. But the player of the year so far -- and if his fledglings-dominated team finishes in the top three in the ACC, he should be a lock -- is the best all-round player hardly anybody ever mentions, Josh Howard of Wake Forest.