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SOUTHERN SECTION BASKETBALL PREVIEW : Hart Seeks Maximum From Peek Performance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ali Peek stands out like a giant among his perspiring peers during afternoon basketball practice in the Hart High gym.

At 6-foot-5 and a trim 250 pounds, Peek plays the part too.

Peek hitches to the low post and gathers in a lob from the perimeter. His biceps bulge as his huge hands squeeze the ball. The muscles in his long legs ripple as he dribbles once, then lurches toward the basket and deposits a thunderous dunk.

Opposing players and coaches had better get used to that play. It is a scene that Peek, an agile yet still developing senior forward, intends to play out repeatedly this season.

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Perhaps in a throwback to the early days of Wilt Chamberlain, when teams--and games--revolved largely around the efforts of a dominating player in the middle, Hart Coach Greg Herrick promises to reduce his strategy to a ridiculously simple level.

“There are going to be no secrets,” Herrick said. “We’re going to dribble down the floor and pass it in to Ali. There is no one who can stop him one on one. I honestly believe he can score 50 points in a game this season.”

Weighty proclamations? Perhaps. But it is doubtful that Hart will encounter a defender who can measure up to Peek’s physique--which, some opponents might be horrified to learn, might become more imposing as the season rolls on.

Peek, who will not turn 17 until February, is smack in the middle of a tremendous growth spurt, both in physical stature and playing ability.

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Seems like growing is all Peek has done since he first picked up a basketball as a 6-1 13-year-old and decided he wanted to dunk. He did and hasn’t stopped since. As a varsity newcomer last November, Peek weighed in at 220 pounds and stood 6-4. By the time Hart reached the Southern Section I-A Division playoffs in February, Peek tipped the scales at 235 and stood 6-5.

Peek averaged 13 points a game last season as Hart rolled to its first Foothill League title in seven years. However, he bloomed toward season’s end, averaging 25 points over the final four games, including a 35-point playoff performance against Buena.

Over the summer, Peek continued to grow dramatically, consuming large portions of food and hitting the weights so hard they nearly hit back.

“Every chance I got,” Peek said. “Lots of curls. Not a lot of weight, but a lot of repetitions. I kept adding weight every day. I started working out on my legs when I was a freshman because I wanted to dunk. But then I wanted to build my upper body because I wanted to be a physical inside player. I wanted to survive.”

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Peek’s shoe size is 16, or thereabouts. His waist, he guesses, is about 35 inches--although Herrick claims it’s closer to 32.

Estimations will have to do for now when it comes to sizing up Peek. He’s growing so fast, even he is uncertain about the true tale of the tape.

“I honestly don’t have any idea what some of my measurements are,” Peek said. “But I feel myself changing over a period of time.”

Peek, whose goal is to top 6-7, is as surprised as anyone by his physique. Neither of his parents is exceptionally tall, Peek said. His father is only 5-8.

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But Peek is no freak. And he’s every bit as conspicuous because of his dominating skills as he is his size. Peek is among the top 50 seniors, according to Cal-Hi Sports magazine. He also has been nominated to appear in the 1992 McDonald’s all-star basketball game. He has drawn the interest of several Division I colleges, including USC, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State.

At school, Peek is literally and figuratively a Big Man on Campus.

“I stopped at a (fast-food restaurant) the other night and people were saying to me, ‘I can’t wait to come out and see Ali,’ ” Herrick said. “Not, ‘I can’t wait to see Hart,’ but ‘I can’t wait to see Ali.’ ”

Herrick, who coached Cleveland High to City Section 3-A Division titles in 1981 and ’82, rates Peek among the top four players he has coached. That list includes former UCLA standout Trevor Wilson.

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“In his environment, he’s as dominant as Trevor was,” Herrick said. “Because he plays for us, people might look at him as suspect. But if he was playing at Crenshaw or Cleveland, he’d be just as spectacular.”

League coaches aren’t doubting it.

“They’re going to be very tough to beat with Peek in the middle,” Burroughs Coach Art Sullivan said. “I don’t think it’s their outside shooting that is going to make them good.”

Peek, eager to please and eager to play, smiles bashfully at praise. Off the court, he is a gentle giant. He speaks softly--at times almost too softly to be heard. He politely excuses himself upon uttering a misstatement. And he’s openly apologetic for his respectable 2.5 grade-point average.

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Herrick maintains that all great players have that “I am a little better than the other guy” attitude when they take the court. Yet he admits that if there is a chink in Peek’s armor, it is in adopting a killer instinct. Basically, Peek is meek.

“He’s always been basically kind of quiet and shy,” Herrick said.

Said Peek: “There’s a lot of pressure on me but I welcome it. I want to see what I’m made of.”

More than just muscle, it would seem. Earlier this month, Peek had the opportunity to sign a letter of intent to attend the University of San Diego--something he might eventually do anyway. Yet he decided, after much contemplation, against signing, partly because he felt he needed to mature.

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“I didn’t think I was ready,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be on my mind. Some players, they sign early and then they feel they don’t have to work to their full potential during the season. They figure, ‘Hey, I have a scholarship now, so I can kick back.’

“I don’t think that would get in my mind if I signed early, but I just wanted to concentrate on this season and see who really wants me and who doesn’t. I want to make the right decision. And I want to work on my grades too.”

And his jump shot--which, if Herrick has his way, almost always will be a short one. “Once we get it inside to Ali, it’s either two points or a foul,” he said.

Peek, incidentally, shot 64% from the free-throw line last year and has emphasized free-throw shooting in practice.

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Herrick concedes that the Indians’ outside shooting is merely adequate. But that should suffice. Anyway, he figures the long-distance stuff is overrated.

“When I was at Cleveland, the years when I had several good shooters, we didn’t win anything,” he said. “Years when we had guys who could put it in from two feet, we won something.”

But can Peek really score 50 points in a game? No Hart player has. Informed of Herrick’s boast, Peek’s face showed uncharacteristic animation.

“He said that?” Peek said. Peek smiled, considered the task, then responded. “I’d like to see that happen.”

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