Three consecutive basketball victories at Cal State Fullerton can do odd things to a man, as evidenced last week when John Sneed stepped out of character, if not into trouble, with a very unSneedian pronouncement.
Alphonso Ford was coming to town, and Sneed had read up on the subject: Sports Illustrated player of the week after averaging 40.3 points in three Mississippi Valley State victories. A 34.1 scoring average after seven games. Black College Freshman of the Year in 1989-90. Playboy Preseason All-American in 1990-91.
Sneed promised that Fullerton was going to make Ford’s Saturday night experience in Titan Gym “miserable.”
Sneed guaranteed that Ford “won’t score 36 on us.”
Not exactly Joe Namath stuff but a major leap of feistiness for Sneed, who generally gets as bold as “That’s off the record” will allow.
This was the John Sneed Challenge.
This was John Sneed, rearing back and throwing down the gauntlet.
Too bad no one around Mississippi Valley State knew about it.
Apparently news travels slowly to Itta Bena, Miss. After Fullerton’s 109-100 victory Saturday night, Ford and Mississippi Valley State Coach Lafayette Stribling were asked about it, and both faces immediately went blank.
“I didn’t know that,” Ford said.
“I never read that,” Stribling said.
It took an elbow in the eye five minutes into the second half to give Ford an inkling that something was up. At that point, Ford had 21 points and was searching for more as he dribbled into the front court, scanning all possible openings.
Fullerton had tried just about everything against Ford--man-to-man, matchup zone, box-and-one, big defenders, small defenders--but this time, it tried a new one. Out went Bruce Bowen’s elbow, and down went Ford in a writhing heap, rolling on the court while pressing both hands to his left eye.
“For a minute,” Ford said, “I couldn’t see out of the eye. The trainer was telling me, ‘Look down,’ but I couldn’t look anywhere. I couldn’t even open it.”
Ford spent the next four minutes on the bench, waiting for his vision to return. It never did completely, but Ford did.
“We were down,” Ford explained, “so I had to play.”
Ford came back, scored on an offensive rebound, scored after following up his own missed shot and scored on one of his specialty three-point launches. Within seconds, he had 29 points, on his way to a total of 39.
Sneed was only half-right. Ford got his points, but he felt miserable doing it.
Sneed could live with that. His threat, Sneed claimed, was just a motivational stunt. No hard feelings, Al. “Ford’s a hell of a player,” Sneed said. “He knows how to get open, he’s a great one-on-one basketball player.
“It wasn’t that we had no respect for him . . . I just wanted my players hungry to play defense.”
Four players got the opportunity. Wayne Williams started on him, followed by 6-7 forward J.D. Green, 6-8 forward Kevin Ahsmuhs and 6-7 Bowen.
Green got the longest run, the best workout.
“It was hard when I first got on him (because) I had a sore throat, and he was running me around pretty good,” Green said. “I had to ask coach to take me out because I couldn’t breathe.”
Stribling has noticed opponents have begun playing Ford differently, fronting him with bigger, more physical players, with Bowen’s elbow providing this night’s chief visual aid.
“And they didn’t call a foul on that,” Stribling said, shaking his head. “If you play Al straight up, he’s going to hurt you, because he’s going to draw fouls and get the calls and shoot a lot of free throws. But tonight, he wasn’t getting the calls--not even when he got knocked out.”
Green said the rough stuff “wasn’t in our game plan, but it sort of worked its way in. It slowed him a little, but he still got his 39.”
And a postgame plastic bag of ice to hold over his left eye.
Still, Ford took 31 shots. Still, Ford made 15 of them. In the Delta Devil offense, which ought to be renamed Tazmanian, all action whirls around Ford and all outlets are directed his way. He runs, he guns, he shoots without stopping, he shoots without thinking. He is the eye in the Mississippi Valley State hurricane, but Saturday night, the Titans discovered an antidote.
They closed it.