UA seniors reflect on careers which include Final Four

By Monty Phan

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Damon Stoudamire sits in the Arizona locker room in the basement of McKale Center. Some of his teammates are scattered around the room, watching TV. He is safe here. Outside the door there are about six or seven teenage boys, leather basketballs and Sharpie pens in hand the balls are to pass the time until Stoudamire emerges, the pens to pounce on their hero when he finally does. Various players enter and leave the confines, signing autographs as tolls to the tiny trolls that guard the entrance to the players' lair. Stoudamire, however, prefers to stay where he is. Where it's safe.

Not that autograph-hungry fans are rare, by any means. On the contrary, at any given home game, hordes of fans are a virtual constant, blocking the hallway to the players' locker room, demanding a John Hancock or two from the NBA-bound point guard and his mates. And it's not only Tucson, but on the road as well. Up and down the West coast, along the Mississippi River, even stretching over to the Atlantic Ocean, fans are talking about the 5-foot-10 1/2-inch Portland, Ore., native. And they want autographs, too.

"At Syracuse we had to wait for Damon to walk maybe a hundred yards to the bus," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "We had to wait, I'd say, 20 or 25 minutes, because he was not going to leave a kid out there without the opportunity to give him a chance for an autograph."

Ray Owes sits in a blue foldout chair on the McKale floor, tying his shoes while the rest of his teammates begin practice. He is alone. Two college students approach him, one holding a baseball cap and a pen with which to sign it. He hands both to the obliging Owes.

"You get that a lot?" someone asks, as the students walk away.

"What, autographs?" Owes says. "Yeah, around McKale. Little kids, mostly. Young kids want autographs and stuff. Not too much on campus."

It probably wouldn't be surprising if basketball fans in Syracuse had never even heard of Ray Owes. In fact, it would probably surprise Owes least of all. Tucson just barely woke up to him this season, and even then, it was merely to contrast him against Stoudamire. Never one to seek the limelight, Owes knew eventually the limelight would seek him. He was never into the "Bright lights, Big city" aspect. He isn't now.

"I guess it could be worse, because I could be at a small school that doesn't get any recognition in the first place," Owes said. "At least here, people can watch me play even if they're not hearing what I'm saying or seeing my face during the interview. They at least see me on the court playing."

"The media can make you or break you," Stoudamire says, as he reflects on his career at Arizona. "You sit over here, you look at Ray, Ray don't really talk to the media, he doesn't really have that personable attitude, and what's the outcome of that? He's always considered an underrated player, but his stats are good. It's just that he's not personable.

"Then you look at me. I talk to the media, I have good games, tell them things that they need to hear, and now they're talking about me as All-American."

But he's just getting warmed up. In Stoudamire's

opinion, his success would've come despite the media attention, despite the small market of Tucson. But in a larger market, such as, say, the Bay Area, where another point guard was coddled by the media, such as, say, Jason Kidd ... well, let Damon explain.

"But do you think that Jason Kidd is as good as he is, or do you think that the media built him up to be more of a superhuman? You figure that out. Yeah, Jason Kidd is good but he ain't no superhuman. I mean, you can't be superhuman if you can't score. But they're talking about he's the best point guard coming out of college or whatever. I really don't think he would've been able to come out of college last year if the media didn't build him up the way they did. I mean, he was destined for the NBA as a senior in high school (because of the media).

"So the media does make you or break you. I don't care what nobody says. You think if Dick Vitale wasn't talking about players as All-Americans and stuff like that, you think people would be listening? Nope."

"In my case, the media has hurt me," Owes says, as he reflects on his career, still sitting in the blue foldout chair. "Basketball right now is such a game that (concerns itself with) 'Who is everybody talking about,' not 'What are they doing.' You don't even have to be doing that well, but if everybody's talking about you, then you're the one that's going to be doing well, so in that case it has hurt me a lot."

Numbers-wise, Owes and Os were rarely synonymous. The chant of "Ohh-wes" was heard more times than a Pac-10 official's whistle. An informal vote of players would've christened him "Mr. Consistency" by a landslide. He spoke loudly, but he spoke it on the court. Off the hardwood was a different story. When the lights and cameras and notepads were in his face, asking Owes a "yes" or "no" question usually resulted in just that. "Yes" or "No".

"I'm going to be my own person. If that's going to hurt me, then so be it," he said. "I might regret it down the line, maybe opening my mouth more and being more vocal could've got me a million dollars. Who knows?

"But I've gotten a little bit more attention. People want to do stories on how I've had good stats and still I'm not really recognized nationwide. I'm not the type of player people want to write stories about because I don't have anything crazy to say and if I did, I really wouldn't let it out to the public anyway."

NCAA Bylaw, "Benefits from prospective agents":

"An individual shall be ineligible ... if he or she (or his or her relatives or friends) accepts transportation or other benefits from any person who wishes to represent the individual in the marketing of his of her athletics ability. The receipt of such expenses constitutes compensation based on athletics skill and is an extra benefit not available to the student body in general."

The news swept through Tucson like the virus in the movie "Outbreak." Stoudamire, the Wildcats' version of the boy next door, was now being mentioned in the same sentence as "NCAA investigation" and "ineligible." Not to mention the university itself, which to that point had reflected the image of its coach clean cut, no rough edges. Not anymore.

The allegations: Willie Stoudamire, Damon's father, took a plane ticket from a Los Angeles agent in order to fly from Portland to L.A. to see his son play. The consequences: Stoudamire was suspended by the university for the March 11 game against Arizona State in compliance with NCAA rules. The aftermath: with his family in the stands, the senior was on the bench for the final home game of his Arizona career.

Stoudamire refused to comment on the investigation, saying afterward that he would only answer questions about the game. But no one had questions about the game. And Stoudamire, of course, knew this. The locker room was no longer safe. It was now infested. So he left.

Olson, following Arizona's 103-98 double overtime loss to Arizona State March 11, on the NCAA investigation concerning the allegations involving Stoudamire:

"(Stoudamire is) one of the most honest young people that I have ever met in my life. I understand rules, but I also understand common sense and until they throw dirt on me, I will never understand how someone can do this.

"I've known Damon Stoudamire for four years. I've never met a greater kid. I've met a lot of great kids, but I've never known a greater one. I've never met one that's more honest, I've never met one who has tried to do the right things. I'm not just talking about on the court, I'm talking about as far as the classroom is concerned, I'm talking about the community. There are a lot of injustices that occur. In four years this is the greatest injustice I've seen.

"And the interesting thing, from his end, his biggest concern was that he wouldn't do anything to hurt the university. Knowing what has happened to him, and how unfair it is, he said I know what the rule is, and I just want to make sure the university is not penalized. Here's a kid with 30-some relatives here to watch him play in his last game, and yet his thought is the welfare of the university, and of future teams here.

I understand the rules. In terms of Damon, I understand the rule. But if someone is totally innocent as I would stake my life on it I wouldn't say that about a lot of people, but I would stake my life on it, the fact that this kid has not done anything wrong. But I also know the rule, and I know why rules are there. I understand that. It's just a shame, though, that in some rules an innocent person is taken away from having the opportunity to just play this game out. I will never understand that."

Damon Stoudamire is standing on a stage on the field of Arizona Stadium. It is last April. He is with the rest of the 1993-94 squad, as fans celebrate the return of their Final Four team. They listen as the then-junior point guard, straight-faced, says he had a good run, but it's time to move on to the next level. The fans also listen as he smiles and says, "Psyche." Truthfully, though, the thoughts were there.

"Yeah, I thought about it, but I don't think I should've. I think I could've, but I'm glad I didn't. For me, it'd be coming out for all the wrong reasons. I was just (thinking of) coming out because I didn't want to go to school and stuff no more, if I would've done it. I'm happy with my decision. I still think I made the best decision for me."

What did staying mean? Well, to the Wildcats it meant 23 points per game during the regular season, including a 45-point performance at Stanford and a 40-point performance at Washington State, and 7.4 assists per game, including a triple-double at home against Oregon.

To Stoudamire, it meant leading the Pacific 10 Conference in points and assists for only the second time in league history. It meant a Co-Pac-10 Player of the Year Award, which he shared with UCLA's Ed O'Bannon. It meant being named to the All Pac-10 team for the third time in his career, as well as being named to the Basketball Weekly All-American team, the U.S. Basketball Writers' Association All-Dis trict 8 team and the National Association of Basketball Coaches' All-District 15 team. It also meant being a finalist in both the John Wooden and James Naismith Awards for the best college basketball player in the country.

Ray Owes slides off the blue foldout chair onto the floor. He begins stretching. The rest of his teammates have already begun running drills. Olson looks over, sees his starting forward still getting ready. Coach lets it slide, though, for if anyone is a coach's player, it's Owes.

"Me and Coach Olson, we've gotten along," Owes said. "He has a lot of knowledge of the game, or he wouldn't be where he's at, so I respect everything he has to say and listen and do it. Even if I don't agree with it, I still do it because he knows more than I do."

Lately some of the team has criticized Olson's approachability, saying that, well, he's not.

"I think he's (approachable) and guys don't know it. Guys don't know that, hey, if you trust Coach Olson, if you get him in a one-on-one situation, he's just like one of the guys, you just have to talk to him. A lot of guys don't know that. I didn't know that until recently. It's one of those things where you're kind of intimidated by who he is, and that's a compliment to him."

Damon Stoudamire is inside the Arizona locker room. It is a strange locker room, though, in Dayton, Ohio. He has just lost the last game of his Arizona career, and he is surrounded by reporters. A piece of paper taped above him signifies that it is his locker. But it's not. And most importantly, it's not safe.

"I know I won't ever put on this uniform again," he says. "These guys have another shot. I don't got another shot. We're going back to Arizona with a loss. That doesn't feel good to me."

Ray Owes is outside in the hall. One or two reporters are around him. They will soon leave, and he will be by himself. But not until they leave.

"It's like a bad dream," he says. "This is what you're judged on. You're judged on how far you go here. This is the time for you to step up, where big time teams step up."

For Stoudamire and Owes, the bad dream will end. In fact, it will most likely end somewhere in the realm of the NBA. Stoudamire leaves as one of the best players in Arizona history. Owes leaves with his "Mr. Consistency" title and the hope that opening his mouth more may get him a million dollars. Never one to say a mouthful, he may have summed it up in two words.

Who knows?

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