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THE STRUGGLE TO STARDOM FOR SCOTT SKILES : Michigan State Guard Has His Faults, but They Don’t Have Anything to Do With the Way He Plays Basketball

Times Staff Writer

The first time he got arrested, he wrote the police a statement. Part of it read:

“I have been at Michigan State University for the past two weeks. My roomate (sic) put some things in my bag because he was going on vacation with his family. I thought it might be something illegal but I never did check. . . . I was supposed to go back to school on Thursday. He told me to make sure I brought the bag back. I had no idea, I thought it might be a joint or something. I never have nor ever will I have anything to do with cocaine.”

It was Aug. 29, 1984 in Plymouth, Ind., his hometown. The cop who had pulled him over said he’d seen the driver of the car reach beneath the seat. The driver, Scott Skiles, 21, handed over a plastic bag of marijuana. The rest of the stuff in the green Michigan State gym bag belonged to somebody else, he said. Officer Joe Duenez examined the satchel and found several small vials of white powder, which proved to be cocaine, and two razor blades.

At a pretrial hearing, Duenez testified that Skiles, after surrendering the marijuana, said: “Everybody knows that I do mess around with the stuff and do use it.”

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Skiles called the policeman a liar.

The second time he got arrested was 24 days later. It was in Meridian Township, Mich., not far from the Michigan State campus.

Officer Russell Wolff said he’d seen a 1980 Mercury Capri weaving, going too fast and running a stop sign. He stopped the car, asked the driver to step out, thought him to be “unsteady,” then asked him to recite the alphabet. Skiles got it right the second time, the officer said. The first time he stopped at the letter D.

At the station house, according to the police report, Skiles asked to make several telephone calls and subsequently referred to the police as "(bleep)ing pigs.”

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The third time he got arrested was a little more than 13 months later. It was 2 a.m. in East Lansing. Skiles was charged with drunken driving.

He had also violated probation by entering an establishment where intoxicating beverages were sold.

Later he told the judge: “I was out with a few friends and went to a place I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry for it. It was bad judgment.”

Basketball Coach Jud Heathcote of Michigan State was so mortified by this third arrest of his senior star that he booted Skiles off the team for, oh, almost five full days.

The young man even had to miss an exhibition game. But by the season opener, he was back on the squad. After all, there were baskets to be made and games to be won, and Jud Heathcote figured that, by golly, a young man was entitled to a fourth chance.

Big Ten basketball crowds, meanwhile, prepared for his visits.

At Iowa Jan. 16, during warmups, a man in the stands yelled: “Hey, Skiles! Where are your handcuffs?” A vendor told customers that his programs included Skiles’ complete rap sheet.

At Purdue Feb. 8, fans shook plastic sacks filled with flour and chanted: “Go to jail! Go to jail!” When Skiles was introduced, a banner was unfurled that read: “Scott Skiles, Big Ten All-Criminal Team.” It also included the names of three Minnesota players who had recently been arrested on sexual assault charges.

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Later, Skiles said: “If they see it getting to you, they act worse, so you act like you don’t hear it. But really, you’d have to be deaf not to hear the name-calling.”

At Michigan Feb. 20, in what Michigan State students generally considered the biggest game of the year, homemade signs abounded. “Skiles: Jud’s Disgrace,” one read. “Scott Skiles Is Snorting Mad” read another. On a large bed sheet was scrawled: “Mothers Against Scott Skiles.”

Carlton Valentine, a reserve on the Michigan State team, cuffed Skiles on the back of the neck affectionately as the Spartans huddled before tipoff.

The game began. Michigan got the ball. Michigan State stole it. It went to Skiles. He streaked downcourt. From 20 feet, he stopped and popped. It swished.

Michigan Coach Bill Frieder had seen Skiles do this more than once, and referred to it as “one of his shut-up baskets.”

The crowd did shut up, for maybe half a minute.

Suddenly, though, things started going badly for Skiles. He got loose on a fast break. Michigan’s Butch Wade snuffed his shot. He lost control of a dribble. Michigan’s Gary Grant grabbed the ball and stuffed it. Then Grant poked the ball away from him, slapping it out of bounds.

Skiles slapped Grant on the butt.

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Not 10 minutes of the game had expired when Grant stole the ball from Skiles once more. Lunging for it, Skiles fell on his face. The Ann Arbor crowd loved it. Grant drove the hoop alone and tomahawk dunked.

Skiles swore under his breath.

A few minutes later, he was point man on a 3-on-2 break. Many right-handed guards look left, pass right. Skiles, who is ambidextrous, looked right and passed left. Vernon Carr scored for Michigan State. Skiles shook his fist high in the air.

Early in the second half, Skiles stole the ball. His guard partner, Darryl Johnson, took off. Skiles, standing near the enemy free-throw line, looking the wrong way, hurled the ball backward, over his head. He led Johnson perfectly for a layup.

With 5 1/2 minutes to play, Skiles lobbed another long pass to Johnson for a score. Michigan State led by 11. Michigan called time. Skiles, at midcourt, turned and faced the pro-Michigan fans. He shook both fists in their faces.

Skiles scored 20 points and Michigan State won. He had now played 24 games and had scored 20 or more in all but two of them. Once, he got 19. The other time, 16.

In the locker room after the Michigan game, Skiles said: “I’m almost speechless. It was such a great feeling to beat them. It wasn’t the best game for me personally, but it was a real great game for the team.”

It might have been his last.

Next morning, Skiles, accompanied by Heathcote, traveled snowy roads to Plymouth, Ind., to face a judge. The charge was violating probation on his drug conviction. If found guilty, Skiles might have been ordered to serve all or part of a one-year suspended sentence.

“I can’t say it’s not on my mind,” he had said in the locker room. “It’s hard not to think about it.”

Four years before, he had been Plymouth’s greatest hero.

Skiles was the kid who had led one of Indiana’s smallest schools--894 students--to the state high school championship, in a state where there are few greater glories. His long jumper at the horn sent the title game into overtime. His 39 points led the Plymouth Pilgrims to a 75-74 upset of heavily favored Gary Roosevelt. The next day, the hero rode prominently in a Plymouth parade.

But now he stood accused before Marshall County Circuit Judge Michael D. Cook, the same man who had put him on probation 10 months earlier, the same man who had frowned at him and said: “You had the chance to do something every boy in the state of Indiana dreams of--including me.”

Skiles apologized to the judge for violating probation. Cook accepted an arrangement agreed upon by Marshall County Prosecutor Fred Jones and Skiles’ attorney, Charles Scruggs, wherein Skiles would serve 30 days in jail.

With good behavior, he could be out in 15. And so he could serve his sentence without missing classes, Skiles was given the option of doing his time after final exams end, in June.

Scruggs had maintained that Skiles “already has suffered a penalty far greater than that imposed by the court.” Cook looked at Skiles after rendering his decision and said: “You have received much more publicity than any other case I’ve ever had. To that extent, you have suffered more than other individuals who go to court.”

Skiles had no comment outside the courtroom. Scruggs, climbing into his car, turned and said: “Those people at Purdue that were running around (and) spitting on Scott, I hope they’re satisfied. I had a beagle that was prom queen there once.”

The basketball career of Scott Skiles continued.

Already he was the leading scorer in the Big Ten and second-leading scorer in the country. He had popped in 45, 40, 36, 29, 25, 27, 29 and 23 points over one eight-game Big Ten stretch.

Now he was free to break Greg Kelser’s all-time school scoring record, free to score 43 more in the schedule’s final game, free to guide Michigan State into the NCAA tournament and a first-round game with Washington, which his two last-second free throws helped the Spartans win Thursday night, 72-70.

The compliments have just kept coming. Opposing coaches rave about Skiles, not about his shooting, but about his savvy and spectacular passing. He is 6-1 and slow, but no one minds.

Michigan’s Frieder said: “You could put a walk-on next to Scott Skiles and have the best guard combination in the country.”

Rich Falk, who until Friday was Northwestern’s coach, said: “He’s got everything Larry Bird’s got, except the height.”

Minnesota assistant Phil Saunders, too, called him “the Larry Bird of college basketball.”

Skiles’ response to that was: “It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a nice compliment, but let’s face it. There’s only one Larry Bird. He does it with the men. I do it with the boys.”

Skiles is no shrinking violet, though. He deals with doubts about his height, speed and defense by saying: “I can play in the NBA. They said all those same things about me in high school. People never thought enough of my ability.

“I haven’t seen anybody play any better than me. People have to see me play more than once. If they see me just once, all they notice are my deficiencies.”

Told once that Bruce Douglas of Illinois had referred to himself as the top guard in the conference, Skiles replied: “If Bruce Douglas is the best guard in the Big Ten, then I’m the best guard in the world.”

On the court, Skiles always has been demonstrative, a self-described brat. Heathcote said spectators at the Lobo tournament in New Mexico once booed Skiles without even being aware of his trouble with the law.

“I’ve always been independent, always opinionated,” Skiles said.

Heathcote has attempted of late to shield Skiles from interviews, except for postgame press conferences. At one point earlier in the season, Skiles said, “If I had been coach, I would have kicked the guy off the team,” meaning himself. Heathcote resisted public outcry and reinstated Skiles after his brief suspension, with the wholehearted support of school officials.

Skiles realizes there are people in his hometown and on campus who were disappointed by his behavior.

“The hardest thing is living up to other people’s expectations,” he said. “I’ve never been one to worry about what other people think of me. And peer pressure? That’s ridiculous. People make their own decisions, and I’ve made foolish and wrong ones.

“People only know half the hurt. I’ve hurt my school, my coaching staff, my family, my teammates. More than that, I have to live with the fact of how much I’ve hurt myself.

“I do not know if my name will ever be cleared, how people will remember me a few years from now. I do not know if I’ll ever gain back their respect. Hopefully, someday, I can make up for it.”

The National Basketball Assn. draft will be held June 17. Scott Skiles that day will be in jail.

‘The hardest thing is living up to other people’s expectations. I’ve never been one to worry about what other people think of me. And peer pressure? That’s ridiculous. People make their own decisions, and I’ve made foolish and wrong ones."--SCOTT SKILES


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