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By Weston Phippen
It's one day before Arizona State University's first official practice of the 2002-03 season.
The basketball staff meets at Rob and Carolyn Evans' beautiful Ahwatukee home at 8 a.m. to discuss the upcoming season. The gathering includes the three assistant coaches – Russ Pennell, Tony Benford and Dan O'Dowd. Derrick Wrobel and Dr. Joe Carr also are present.
Wrobel is the team's director of operations (translation: Jack-of-all-trades).
My family makeup has a lot to do with who I am now. I have a great family. My mom is an elementary-school teacher and my dad teaches languages English, French and Ibo. I understand Ibo myself. My folks taught me to be polite and to be myself at the same time. Its not hard to say, Yes, sir. I played tight end at a big-time Texas football school when I was a freshman and sophomore, but then it was just basketball for me. My parents definitely left it up to me where I wanted to go to college they just wanted to make sure I didnt end up regretting it. My mom said, I dont want a phone call from you saying you want to come home. Not that they would have let me come home, anyway. The coaches here know what theyre doing, and they care about you as a person. They know its very important for me to get my degree. Id rather talk to someone than read a book, but you really got to tune your social life down, or youll get behind. As for basketball, I try to be aggressive feel the game and go. I soak up a lot of stuff studying film, and I also have a little bit of instinct about what I have to do before I do it. Im used to getting triple-teamed it happened in high school. I just dont let anything on the court frustrate me for long.
A famed sports psychologist, Carr has been in Tempe working with the ASU team. He and Evans have a long history, going back 35 years. From Washington, D.C., Carr long ago had a mad jump shot that earned him the nickname "Radar." But poor grades forced him in 1967 to attend New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs. Oscar Evans – Rob's dad – was working as a janitor there, and became a surrogate father to the young black man.
Carr later earned his doctorate in psychology. Last season, he consulted with eight of the Sweet 16 teams in the NCAA tournament.
After breakfast, the group adjourns upstairs to a room with 12 cushioned theater seats. Coach Evans is on a stool in front of a large screen; everyone else sits in the audience. If nothing else, the coach is a realist, and he knows that many things will have to fall into place for ASU to reach its goal – a berth in the NCAA tournament in March 2003.
He starts the four-hour session by giving a snapshot synopsis of the team. For almost every player's upside, there seems to be a serious downside. For example, he says this about Kyle Dodd, a scrappy senior point guard who's expected to back up sophomore Jason Braxton:
"KD. Team leader. The kids love him. Gravitate toward him. Black kids, white kids, everyone. Works like hell for us, and we know exactly what we're going to get from him every night. As you know, he lost his confidence in his shot last year, and I don't know if he's going to get it back. But I have a feeling he may become very important to us as the season goes on."
Dodd is one of four seniors on the team who were part of Evans' first freshman recruiting class at ASU: Donnell Knight, Tommy Smith and Shawn Redhage are the others. (Justin Allen, the fifth member, will have another year of eligibility left after missing the 2000-01 season battling Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer. It's been in remission for more than two years.)
Each of those players is battle-tested – and in the inspiring Allen's case, life-tested. But two of the seniors, forwards Smith and Knight, are local kids for whom expectations have been exceedingly and probably unfairly high.
Redhage, a 6-7 forward, and Dodd are fine college players and are a pleasure to coach. But the staff doesn't expect them to dominate many games. Allen is still trying to find his playing niche after his devastating illness.
The two other seniors – guard Curtis Millage and center Chris Osborne – are junior-college transfers in their final years at ASU. Millage showed flashes of brilliance last season, and his improved play will be vital to the team's success. But Osborne hasn't been able to cope with Evans' strict emphasis on superior physical conditioning and rugged defense.
As for the underclassmen, point guard Braxton is lightning-quick and plays tough defense. But he's a poor shooter and an erratic decision-maker. Junior-college transfer Jamal Hill has been recruited because of his shooting prowess. But it's a leap to major-college ball, where the players simply are better.
Mesa's Kenny Crandall is a fine outside shooter with a deft court sense. But he's still recovering from a shattered ankle sustained in a dirt-bike crash after last season ended, one of three Sun Devils who survived potentially fatal accidents in the off-season (Hill and Osborne were the others, in separate car wrecks).
The staff expects Angounou, a charismatic 6-7 forward from the African nation of Cameroon, to push enigmatic Donnell Knight for playing time as the season progresses. He's been in the States for just two years – he went to high school in Albuquerque – and is conversant in English (he thinks in French, and speaks three other languages fluently).
But, Evans warns, "This is a kid who's going to have trouble with abstract concepts. We're gonna throw jargon on him that he won't understand, like Take it to the hole,' and You got to crash the glass.'"
"We should take extra time to show him visually what we mean, then show him tape," suggests Coach Benford, an excellent teacher who was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986 after his college career at Texas Tech. "He's going to bring a lot to the table when he figures out a few things."
Though Evans has been planning to red-shirt Morill this season, the 6-7 bruiser from Arlington, Texas, is determined to force himself into the mix. The coaches already love Morill, in part because of how the kid has endured in the face of extreme personal hardships.