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PACIFIC 10 BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT : HE’S NO. 1 : Sean Elliott Keeps Drawing Rave Reviews

Times Staff Writer

Beads of sweat drip from Arizona All-American forward Sean Elliott as he towels off after a grueling practice.

Kevin O’Neill, an Arizona assistant coach, sits down next to Elliott and puts his arm around the player.

O’Neill kisses Elliott’s head.

“Sean is a sweet, sweet kid,” says O’Neill, who named his own son after Elliott.

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Other college basketball coaches and scouts apparently like Elliott almost as much as O’Neill does.

“I love Elliott,” said former coach Dick Vitale, the volatile commentator for ABC and ESPN. “I just think from a coach’s standpoint, he’s absolutely a great player. He’s every adjective you can use.”

A 6-foot-8 senior, Elliott is expected to go high in the National Basketball Assn. draft in June.

UCLA Coach Jim Harrick said Elliott could become the first Pacific 10 player to be selected No. 1 in the draft since Bill Walton, a former Bruin, who was chosen first by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1974.

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“I think Elliott is the No. 1 draft choice in America,” Harrick said. “If I were starting a pro team, he’s the first guy I’d pick.”

Marty Blake, NBA scouting director, ranks Elliott among the nation’s top players.

“I think Elliott and Danny Ferry (Duke forward) will go 1-2 and don’t let anybody tell you any different,” Blake said. “Elliott and Ferry have the talent to play right away.”

Said Paul Evans, Pittsburgh coach: “I think Elliott’s a tremendous player. In fact, he got my vote for player of the year.”

Jerry Tarkanian, Nevada Las Vegas coach, said of Elliott, who had 32 points and 15 rebounds against UNLV: “I think he’s a phenomenal player. I’m a big fan of his. He’s one of the best college players I’ve ever seen.”

So why all the raves?

Simple. Elliott has had an extraordinary season, averaging 21.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists for top-ranked Arizona.

THE PRICE OF FAME

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Sean Elliott closed his eyes, letting the warm water fall on his tired body.

Elliott had been battered in the Wildcats’ season-ending victory over UCLA and he was unwinding in a deserted shower.

Or so he thought.

As he reached for the soap, he suddenly discovered that he had company.

A radio reporter had joined Elliott in the shower area and was sticking a microphone in his face.

The intrusion startled Elliott.

“That’s the first time that’s happened,” Elliott said.

An Arizona official quickly hustled the reporter out of the locker room, but only after the reporter had threatened to fight.

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It was a bizarre scene and if the price of fame is losing the last vestige of privacy, Elliott apparently has paid the price.

“Last year, Sean was a deity but this year he’s a god,” said Harvey Mason, junior guard. “You can’t get much higher than Sean in Tucson.

In Tucson, where Elliott is top Wildcat, he stirs a commotion wherever he goes.

“When I go to a shopping mall, people don’t understand that I don’t want to sign autographs for an hour and a half,” Elliott said. “If I don’t sign, they think I’m rude.”

Even his mother has become a celebrity. Odiemae Elliott signs almost as many autographs as Sean.

Elliott, though, works hard on his image. He usually has four or five speaking engagements a week, talking about the evils of drugs to schoolchildren.

And he apparently has handled his acclaim well. His teammates say that Elliott is just a regular guy.

“Sean has never been egotistical,” said Jud Buechler, junior forward. “He has one of the best personalities of anyone I’ve ever met. He could easily be pompous because it’s so obvious that he’s in another league. But Sean treats you like a normal guy.”

Off the court, Elliott is the team comedian. He keeps the players loose with his jokes.

“We call him Silly because Sean is silly most of the time,” said Anthony Cook, the senior center who shared an apartment with Elliott for three years. “People look at him and think he’s shy, but when he’s around the fellows, he’s a different person.”

Elliott loves to play practical jokes.

On O’Neill’s birthday, for instance, Elliott threw a pie in the assistant coach’s face--in front of 450 people who were attending a basketball class being taught by O’Neill.

O’Neill got even on Elliott’s 21st birthday last month, when he hit Elliott with a pie after a game.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may not know who Elliott is--at least that’s what he said--but most of Arizona certainly does.

The Arizona Daily Star published an eight-page special section on Elliott after he broke Abdul-Jabbar’s Pac-10 scoring record last month.

“In Tucson, it gets real hectic,” Elliott said. “Sometimes it gets downright out of control.

“I’ve heard that it’s going to be worse when I get to the NBA, but I’m real sure it’s not going to be as bad as it is now. Tucson is a fishbowl. Everything you do is observed by people. Everyone knows who you are.

“I’d like to be a normal person. People say that being famous must be fun, but now that I’ve tasted both sides, I think there are advantages, but there are lot of disadvantages as well.”

When Elliott feels the world tugging at him, he escapes to his apartment, his sanctuary. He takes the phone off the hook and spends time alone.

SEAN THE MAGNIFICENT

Sean Elliott was trapped by two defenders in the backcourt. He whirled and threw a full-court pass to set up teammate Anthony Cook for an easy dunk.

On Arizona’s next possession, Elliott pulled up at the three-point arc and launched a shot that floated through the net.

After taking a pass, Elliott drove the baseline and glided to the basket for a dunk.

With the game in question, Elliott stepped to the free-throw line and calmly made two free throws, sealing the victory.

Elliott’s versatility has enabled him to become perhaps the nation’s best college basketball player.

“Elliott’s an excellent basketball player,” said Ralph Miller, Oregon State’s coach. “He has no weaknesses. I think the secret to his success is being versatile. He’s an excellent shooter and ballhandler and he’s thoroughly indoctrinated in the team concept. What more do you need?”

Indeed.

What does Elliott do best?

“The thing Elliott does best is everything,” said Billy Tubbs, Oklahoma’s coach. “He puts the ball on the floor well. He passes the ball. He shoots well. He’s a great athlete.

“I’m sure he has a flaw, but you’d have to ask (Arizona Coach) Lute Olson because I haven’t seen any of them.”

Olson hasn’t, either. He said that Elliott is as versatile as Magic Johnson.

So what motivates Elliott to excel?

“I’m afraid of failure,” he said. “Once I got to a level where people started recognizing me, I didn’t want to fall from that level. A lot of athletes get on the cover of Sports Illustrated and that’s the end of that. They don’t produce the way they’re supposed to. I didn’t want that to happen to me.”

Somehow, that doesn’t seem likely.


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