DERRICK DOWELL : He Keeps USC Team Together

Times Staff Writer

Derrick Dowell's basketball career at USC has been sort of like a life sampling, the emotional peaks and valleys that everyone encounters.

The former high school star from Evansville, Ind., was homesick his freshman season and contemplated leaving USC.

He stayed, though, only to endure the trauma of the death of his father, Elijah Macon, while still in his freshman season of 1983-84.

Then, as a sophomore, he emerged as the team's leading rebounder and consistent inside scorer on a Pacific 10 co-championship team. But that season was just an oasis in his career.

Even though his statistics were credible as a junior, the season ended in shambles. There was reported friction between Powell and freshman star Tom Lewis. He was suspended at the end of the season by then-coach Stan Morrison because he reportedly refused to play at the start of the second half of a game against California.

He said it was a misunderstanding, a communication problem with an assistant coach and that the incident had been blown out of proportion.

Nonetheless, Dowell wasn't happy on the dissension-torn team. Morrison was fired at the end of the season and Dowell was in academic limbo after dropping his classes during the spring semester.

Dowell went to summer school at Los Angeles City College, though, and regained his eligibility for his senior season.

Now, he is the acknowledged leader and do-everything player on a team that isn't overly talented and is trying to stay out of the league cellar going into tonight's game with Arizona State at the Sports Arena.

The 6-foot 6-inch forward is the glue that holds Coach George Raveling's young team together.

Dowell is the team's leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 20.1 and 8.4, respectively. He also leads the Pac-10 in steals with 48.

"In my mind, Derrick is the most valuable player in the league because he's the most valuable to his team," Raveling said. "If you pick five guys in the league, he would have to be on everybody's all-star team.

"You could take one guy off almost every team in the league and they would still win. If you took Derrick off our team, it would be awfully hard. I hate to think what would have happened if he hadn't passed in summer school."

Dowell blames himself for his academic difficulties last spring.

"I think it was a chain reaction from the season," he said. "Things were escalating as far as the team was concerned. I got wrapped up with the problems of the team and didn't take care of other things.

"As a result, I found myself lost. I had to get away . . . a lot of things started going wrong."

Even though USC is a struggling team now, Dowell said there is much more unity and camaraderie among the players than there was last season.

"Last year, everyone was an individualist," he said. "It wasn't a team effort.

"Everyone is going in the same direction now and there's not any animosity on the team. There isn't a player who feels he has to go in a certain direction because of his ego and personality.

"There has never been a time when I thought the team has given up and that makes losing easier to swallow, knowing everyone tried his best."

Dowell was reluctant to talk specifically about last season's team and the controversy that swirled about it. Asked if such disharmony was related to any personality conflict that he or his teammates had with Lewis, the team's leading scorer, Dowell said:

"It wouldn't necessarily say it was Tom. It was a combination of things and things didn't work out."

Lewis transferred to Pepperdine and two other highly regarded freshmen, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, moved on to Loyola Marymount.

Even though USC lost three starting players in Lewis, Kimble and Gathers, Dowell doesn't necessarily agree that USC lacks talent. He said that mental errors, not physical, have been mainly responsible for USC's 8-13 overall record, 3-9 in the Pac-10.

"There are some teams that are more talented in the league, but I wouldn't say that we were in the bottom five of the Pac-10 talent-wise," he said. "I think it's all mental and a case of the team realizing the talent it has."

Even so, Dowell has taken it upon himself to carry the team, whether it be with a steal, slashing inside where he is so effective for a layup or a rebound, or setting up somebody else with a pass.

He acknowledges that sometimes he tries to do too much.

"Games have slipped away from us and I feel to a certain extent that it's my obligation that they don't end up that way," Dowell said. "I feel I've paid my dues and if anyone is going to make a mistake on the court in the last few minutes, I should be the one to do it."

Although Dowell's statistics are commendable, he says that he has had an average season.

"Some people say I'm playing well, but that's overshadowed because the team isn't doing well," he said. "I think of my success with the team's success. If the team doesn't succeed, I feel somehow that I'm to blame."

Chris Welp, Washington's 7-foot center, said that Dowell is one of the most active players that he has ever encountered inside the paint.

Dowell said that he learned the inside game the hard way while growing up in Evansville.

"It all started when I was in grade school," he said. "I had two brothers who stood 6-3 and 6-4 and I was the runt of the litter at 5-8. We played in the backyard and my father told my brothers never to let me get off easy.

"The ball was too heavy and I was too weak to score from outside, so I had to go inside. Now it's just natural for me to score against someone who is three or four inches taller."

Dowell aspires to play in the National Basketball Assn. and he believes it would be fitting to go into the NBA as Julius Erving, his idol, is retiring.

Dowell said he finally worked up enough courage to talk to Dr. J when the Philadelphia 76ers played the Lakers here a few years ago.

"I've always admired Dr. J. not only because of his ability but because he's so articulate," Dowell said.

Trojan Notes Tonight's game with Arizona State starts at 8 and will be broadcast by KNX radio and televised by Prime Ticket cable. . . . Arizona State, 6-14 overall and 2-10 in the league, is the conference's last-place team. The Trojans are tied with Washington State for eighth place. . . . USC had a goal of finishing sixth in the league to get a first-round bye in the season-ending Pac-10 tournament. That's no longer realistic, since the Trojans have lost their last three conference games. . . . USC beat ASU Jan. 10 in Tempe, 66-62, coming back from a 13-point deficit. The Sun Devils have won only two of their last 19 Pac-10 road games and haven't beaten USC at the Sports Arena since the 1983-84 season. . . . USC will play three games in six days, meeting UCLA and Arizona Saturday afternoon and Tuesday night, respectively, at the Sports Arena.

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