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By Weston Phippen
It's mid-November, 10 days until opening night, and Arizona State University has just finished a dress rehearsal for the 2002-2003 season, an intersquad contest in which the prospective starters got thumped by the second team.
The head coach sits on a stool in the dimly lighted room and stares at his 17 players for what seems like a long time. Then his thoughts pour out in bursts, as he dissects each player's performance in the scrimmage.
He gets to Jamal Hill, a 6-5 junior-college transfer from the Bay Area with a sweet disposition and jump shot to boot.
"Jamal, you didn't run like you meant it all the time today," says Evans, who had watched the game from the stands with longtime assistant Russ Pennell, as the two other assistants, Tony Benford and Dan O'Dowd, did the bench coaching.
Hill's head sags, just a little.
"Keep your eyes on me, Jamal!" the coach tells him testily. "You want to play for me, that won't cut it. You can call home right after this, call your aunt. I promise she'll tell you, You all right baby, I still love you.' Even if you're sitting on the bench with me, she's gonna be saying the same thing, okay?"
Evans isn't picking on Hill – he's stating facts.
Senior guard Curtis Millage speaks up, which in itself is noteworthy. As a junior-college transfer last season he said little, and moped when things didn't go his way. But he resolved over the summer to be a better teammate this year.
"Coach," he says, "I want you to tell them they don't have to be scared of you. To just have fun, smile and play, and that they'll be fine on this team."
The unexpected request raises a brief smile from Evans – a rarity for him in the locker room.
"You afraid of me, Jamal?" he asks Hill.
"Nah, coach," Hill replies, shaking his head and smiling back. "I'm not scared of you."
Evans asks each player in turn the same question, and gets the same answer.
"I'm trying to figure out who's afraid of me," he says, his voice rising and palms upraised. "I'm a fighter. I'm fighting for you. I'm fighting for this program. I'm fighting for your futures. I'm into respect. I don't care about nothing else. I'm into this game for respect. Respect for the university, from the fans, from the other team. If I don't feel like I'm getting respect, I'll take on the whole world. That's just me."
With that, 56-year-old Robert Oran Evans has told his team what they need to know about his expectations of them, and something about his own extraordinary life as well.
On March 20, the ASU Sun Devils will play the Memphis Tigers in an NCAA first-round game in Oklahoma City. It marks the Devils' first national championship appearance in eight seasons, and the first in Evans' five years at the school.
This winning campaign has been due in large part to the sensational rise of 6-8 freshman Ikechukwa Somotochukwa Diogu, known as Ike. The 19-year-old son of Nigerian immigrants, Diogu's mature demeanor and intelligence on and off the court have made him seem like a brother from another planet.
But the Sun Devils have battled great off-court adversity, including injuries and academic issues involving key players. Evans says the challenges have topped anything he faced in 33 previous years of coaching, including five years in Tempe.
But his history, going back to his humble roots in Hobbs, New Mexico, says this: Rob Evans will fight to the end for those on his side – and in his world, you're with him or against him.
Same goes for his straight-talking wife of 32 years, Carolyn, who also has approached life with a just-give-me-a-chance-to-show-you attitude. "Rob never wavers: He has a blueprint and he'll follow it, and things fall into place. I know him inside and out, and I know that he does what he says he's going to do."
Beyond instructing his players on how to play basketball, that blueprint includes:
Serving as a life mentor to his team, especially to players who haven't had a male role model with whom to identify (an increasing number of recruits come from single-parent families).
Motivating his guys to think about what they want to do after organized basketball ends, which will be sooner than most of them think.
Says Evans, "If all I do is play a kid for four years and send him away with no degree, no future, then I've wasted my time and I've wasted his time. And when they graduate, and they do, I'm going to be sitting in the audience applauding."
Brandon Goldman, a walk-on player who has captured the fancy of Sun Devils fans with his upbeat attitude, puts it like this: "Young males need a male figure to be there for them, an older man, a teacher, a coach. Coach is a standup guy, and he always pushes the work ethic, getting tougher, working harder."
Adds senior co-captain Kyle Dodd, a loquacious 22-year-old from Southern California: "Coach knows a lot about life, about living. We all know he didn't have it easy coming up or breaking into head coaching. He's taught me that when you screw up, look in the mirror and see what you see. It's usually not anyone else's fault."