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As Indiana sophomore forward Jared Jeffries scanned the list of Chicago Tribune Silver Basketball winners, going all the way back to 1946, his eyes lit up each time they rested upon a familiar name.
"I definitely know them," Jeffries, this year's honoree, said with a smile.
And he definitely knows Indiana's previous winners, from Archie Dees in 1957 and '58 to Steve Alford to Calbert Cheaney.
"Scott May (1975-76) is almost like my uncle. And Kent Benson (1977) comes to all our games," he said.
"It's unbelievable to be able to associate yourself with basketball players who had the college careers and the lives that these guys had. These guys were not only great players, they are also great men, on and off the court."
For Jeffries, greatness isn't just a word. It's his aspiration, his mission, his dream. In a world full of average Joes who set the bar too low, Jeffries' goal is simply "to become the best player in America."
"I've told everybody that," he said.
For Jeffries, it's no spur-of-the-moment boast.
Since he was a little boy, trading elbows and turnaround jumpers with his cousins on the court his father, Tom, had built for him in the 40-acre "yard" of his rural Bloomington, Ind., home, the last thing Jeffries has ever wanted was to be ordinary.
In a sport where kids hope they can someday be like Mike, Jeffries found his personal heroes outside the walls of a basketball arena. Jeffries admires accomplishment in all forms, from boxer Muhammad Ali to civil rights activist Malcolm X.
"My father was a big supporter of Ali's," Jeffries said. "I watched all his fights, seen all his speeches. The way he transcended nationality and racial lines was amazing."
Jeffries is a student of the game, but he's also a student of planet earth.
"I love to read autobiographies to find out how great men's lives were shaped," he said. "If they can do it, so can I. Knowing how they accomplished what they did can help me."
At the same, Jeffries is also more than ready to help himself. His smooth-as-butterscotch-pudding moves may be God-given, but coach Mike Davis said Jeffries deserves every accolade that has come his way.
"Jared has a great feel for basketball," Davis said. "But what he has also done is work very hard to take his skills to the next level. I think he could be national player of the year, a first-team All-American next year. Being around him every day, you know that's his goal. He wouldn't work that hard if it wasn't."
Jeffries' motives aren't purely selfish.
"I may be the best player on the team talent-wise," he said. "But I feel like if I work harder than everybody else that will elevate the play of our other players. A lot of times I'm the last player to leave the court. I've always been like that. You can't leave early and expect the game to come to you."
Despite a sprained ankle he sustained Feb. 9 against Louisville, an injury that affected his play over the last month of the regular season, Jeffries averaged 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds while leading the Hoosiers to a share of their first Big Ten championship since 1993 and their first appearance in the NCAA tournament's Sweet Sixteen since 1994.
"He showed great courage just to go on the floor," Davis said. "He needs to take a week off to heal, but we need him as long as he can continue to withstand the pain.
"I know it's frustrating to him not to be able to play to the level he did before. If he doesn't go down, I think we would have been outright Big Ten champs. Everyone knows if he wasn't hurt against Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin we would have won one of those games."
Jeffries, who beat out Illinois' Williams, last year's winner, and Ohio State's Brian Brown for the Silver Basketball, said being injured actually has been beneficial in an odd way.
"I've been forced to rely on the mental part of my game more," he said. "I've learned how to move when the ankle hurts. I don't have the power and the strength I had before when I go to make a move. Once I get healthy I think my game will be at a whole new level."
Many experts think that new level is the NBA. Jeffries is a likely first-round draft choice this yearif he declares for the draft. He'll sit down with his parents and Davis after the season and decide.
"I have confidence that I'm ready and that I'd be able to get on the court some way," Jeffries said. "What I fear most about the NBA is probably the lifestyle. I won't know what it's like till I get there."
Those who know Jeffries won't find that statement surprising. Jeffries, after all, is a former McDonald's All-American and Indiana Mr. Basketball who had his pick of high-profile programs all over the country and still decided to play college basketball in his native Bloomington.
Why? So he could make the 10-minute drive to see his parents whenever he wanted.
"I really enjoy being around my family," he said. "I'd like to stay close to them at least a couple more years."
That's why Jeffries is considering doing what Duke guard Jason Williams is doing: completing his degree work in three years. That would mean putting off the NBA until the spring of 2003. Davis likes that idea and so does Jeffries' mother, Cecelia. Logistically, though, it's not easy to do.
"His mother and father are great people," Davis said. "They have saved me a lot of time in terms of sitting him down and talking to him about life. They always give him the right advice."
Jeffries' ultimate value to some NBA team may go beyond any physical attributes. Jeffries' greatest value may be simply this:
He wants one thing more than anythingto be the best. To be the greatest. Just like one of his heroes, Ali.
"If he seems loose and relaxed," Davis said, "that's just his calmness. His calmness is his strength. When he walked in as a freshman, there was a different coach here (Bob Knight); people were upset about [Knight's firing], and he was still able to put this program on his shoulders and play well.
"He was supposed to be the guy who could bring this program back to life. Growing up here, he knew the pressure he'd be under. He knew it. And he wanted it."