UCI's Heady Player : Mike Hess Keeps Anteaters Loose, Clamps Down on Opponents

Times Staff Writer

Mike Hess is a throwback. In fact, if college basketball recruiters judged their catches the way anglers do, he might have been thrown back.

Hess is listed at 6-feet 1-inch, but if they start a 6-foot-and-under league, he'll qualify. He's not very quick and sometimes he's an erratic shooter.

Hess, a UC Irvine senior, is a reminder of a time when young men with crew cuts and set shots ruled college basketball. A time when vertical jumps weren't measured in yards and the game was won or lost on the court, not in the airspace above it. A time when a quick intellect was as important as a quick first step.

But it's 1988 and this isn't a set for the sequel to the movie "Hoosiers." It's Irvine's Bren Center, and Hess is being introduced as a starting guard for a Division I basketball team because . . . well, let his coach explain.

"He's smart," Bill Mulligan said. "He does just about everything right. He's our best defender. He does exactly what you tell him to 99% of the time, and when he does make a mistake, you don't have to point it out. Do you realize how rare that is?"

OK, Hess is a master of intangibles. Sometimes, though, you watch him play and you can't help but wonder about all the missing tangibles--such as size, jumping ability, speed and shooting touch.

But Mulligan has proof of Hess' worth.

"Early in the year, even the assistants were saying, 'Why is he in there? What does he do for us?' " Mulligan said. "But all you have to do is see the videotapes to know. After I saw the tape of the Pacific game, I realized he just about won that game by himself."

There are those who will say that if a 6-1 guard who's averaging 7 points and 3 assists a game can carry your team, your team is light on talent. But this is a young man who is determined to take everything he has to the limit. Sometimes, sheer willpower gets the job done.

"Mike approaches basketball like he approaches everything else in his life," said center Wayne Engelstad, who roomed with Hess for two years. "The guy is incredibly disciplined. Basketball, academics, whatever. He works his butt off.

"Mike prides himself in doing everything well and things he can't do well, he avoids. Like dancing, you'll never see him dancing."

Hess, 23, is a fifth-year senior and already has earned a degree in social ecology and is working on a master's degree in business administration.

Ask forward Steve Florentine what Hess contributes to the team and he says, "Well, he keeps the team GPA up."

But Hess is not as one-dimensional as even he would have you believe. Underneath a staid exterior lurks an effective, if-less-than-spectacular, basketball player and master prankster.

Engelstad, who is 6-8, 250 and hears more than his share of fat jokes, fell asleep on an airplane once.

He probably won't do it again.

A few minutes after he dozed off, a flight attendant stopped to read the note stuck to his chest:

Please don't wake me when the meal cart comes. I'm an overweight basketball player trying to diet. Thank you.

Soon, the whole crew and a number of passengers were enjoying a good chuckle. The note was gone when Engelstad awoke, but you can imagine his surprise when he was leaving the plane and one of the flight attendants said, "Good luck with your problem."

"OK, yeah, that was a good one," Engelstad said. "But I like the time he piled snow up against (former player) Johnny Rogers' door in Utah. Johnny opened the door and was buried.

"And once he managed to remove all the pants out of our manager's luggage and he stole the trainer's boots. He'll never admit to anything, though, and you can never prove he did it, but you know he did.

"He's a clown. It helps keep the team loose."

Mulligan appreciates that, but he likes the way Hess tightens up the defense even more.

Hess, an All-Southern Section point guard at Corona del Mar High School, attended Texas as a freshman but left after one semester because of philosophical differences with Coach Bob Weltlich, a Bobby Knight disciple.

Tonight at Utah State, he'll make his 45th start in three seasons at Irvine. He will have played in all 79 games since he became eligible after redshirting in 1984-85. That means that a lot of players have looked at the guy guarding them and thought, "This is gonna be a double-figure kind of night."

Most of the time, it hasn't worked that way.

"Just because a guy is bigger or quicker, it doesn't mean you can't upset what he likes to do," Hess said. "Sometimes last year, I was introduced as a forward. Now that was a riot.

"Let's face it, it's not like I'm a better athlete than people I'm guarding, but there are a lot of things you can do with a little position and a lot of desire."

If that sounds too good to be true, Hess has some concrete advice for every player who gives up a little on the talent scale and has to try to balance it with quick thinking.

"Expend your best effort before your guy gets the ball," he said. "If he can't get the ball, he can't beat you. If players were allowed to do anything they wanted, it would make it a lot harder for guys like me. But the more structured the offense, the more chances you have to predict what's next and upset their timing."

Hess has 29 steals this season--twice as many as any teammate.

"If he were a consistently good outside shooter, Mike Hess would be a really great player for me," Mulligan said. "He's marvelous to coach. I'm really gonna miss that guy, they don't come around very often."

There's not much chance that Hess will spend the rest of his life hanging around the Y, looking for pickup games and reveling in past glories. But that doesn't mean he won't miss basketball.

An NBA career is out of the question--you can't guard Michael Jordan with brainpower or shoot over Magic Johnson with willpower--and it's not likely that he would consider the International Basketball Assn. (the 6-4-and-under league) a viable alternative to putting that MBA to use.

Hess believes there is a time for everything and, at the moment, he's focused on tonight's game and the rest of this season.

"I'm not thinking about whether I'll continue playing or not," he said. "I'm not sitting around saying my career might be coming to an end. That's not the right approach.

"I think we could do something at the end of this season. The last time we did it (Irvine made the National Invitation Tournament postseason playoffs in 1986) was the highlight of my life. We could do it again."

The Anteaters are 11-9 overall and 6-5 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., but if Hess wants it badly enough . . . who knows?

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