Turning to Houston for His Third Chance : College basketball: Sam Mack, no stranger to trouble, looks to salvage career with Cougars, who play at UC Irvine tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sam Mack has an easy smile, and an eye for an easy basket. For far too long, he also had a nose for trouble.

Mack's first year of college basketball was the sort of season that sends word ahead: Watch this one.

"He was very good," Iowa State Coach Johnny Orr recalled. "You knew he was going to be a great player."

But Mack didn't become a great player at Iowa State, where he started on the team that reached the 1989 NCAA tournament before losing to UCLA. Nor did he become a great player at Arizona State--he never played a game after transferring there. Mack was out of Tempe in less than a year--leaving at a coach's request for the second time in his career--and then spent a year at a community college.

Now, after two years marked by serious run-ins with the law, Mack has landed at the University of Houston. It is his fourth school--and it will be his last.

"He's got a chance to salvage his career," said Houston Coach Pat Foster, who took Mack in on the advice of Mack's former coaches, who profess affection for the player despite his troubles. "That's his opportunity this year."

Mack seems to be embracing it. In his first game this season--only his second season in Division I--the 6-foot-7 swingman scored 23 points in a runaway victory over Villanova. In his second game, he scored 32 against North Carolina in a game the Cougars lost by three points after leading by 15 at halftime.

Mack winces at the thought of the loss to North Carolina, but is pleased with the Houston team and with his own prospects.

"I waited through two frustrating years to get back," said Mack, who brings averages of 25.5 points and 7.5 rebounds into Houston's game against UC Irvine at 9 tonight in the Bren Center. "I'm glad to be back here, and I want to do whatever it takes to get to the next level."

Mack's troubles began in Ames, Iowa, in March of 1989, when he was arrested and charged with armed robbery--he was later acquitted--in a holdup at a Burger King in the town where Iowa State is located.

Mack, shot in the foot and hip as he and his companion tried to flee police, was acquitted when a jury decided that Iowa State football player Levin White, a transfer from USC, had coerced him into participating in the robbery, forcing him at gunpoint to comply. White was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

"That's out of my life," said Mack, who blames his trouble with the law on "hanging around the wrong people at the wrong time.

"I'm going on with my life, and I don't want to think about it."

Orr, who still is in contact with Mack, told him he couldn't return to Iowa State on a basketball scholarship.

"I think he would have really been harassed everywhere we go in the league," Orr said, confessing to mixed emotions about the decision. "He's a very talented player, and a very nice person. He's not a dummy. He had good grades here. He's a good guy. The players liked him, the coaches liked him. I hope he's straightened out. He has a good future ahead of him in this game if he walks the straight and narrow."

Mack then transferred to Arizona State as one of Bill Frieder's first recruits. But in November of 1989, he was suspended from the basketball team during his redshirt season when it was discovered that he was being investigated in connection with a sexual assault. No charges were filed after the Maricopa County attorney's office found insufficient evidence to pursue an acquaintance's claim that Mack raped her in a university dormitory.

The final straw at Arizona State came in March of 1990, after Mack and a former Arizona State football player, Fedel Underwood, were arrested and charged with fraudulent use of a credit card as they attempted to purchase approximately $1,400 worth of jewelry with a stolen card.

"I have no more time for Sam Mack," Frieder said when the decision was announced.

That was strike two for Mack, who was out of a basketball home again.

"People need to use their discretion," Mack said of Arizona State's decision. "I guess they did."

Mack says he got into trouble because he was not careful who he spent time with, and partly because he is an athlete.

"When you're young and going into college, and you're an athlete, your first belief is that you have the world at your hands," he said. "You go in with a lot of publicity. Athletes are scrutinized so much. It's like you're in a fishbowl. If something happens to break the fishbowl, everyone in it is in trouble."

Among his regrets, he knows that he let Orr down--Iowa State wouldn't have gone 22-37 over the past two seasons if he'd been there--and that he has distressed his mother, Willie Mae Mack, to almost no end.

"She's been by my side through thick and thin," Mack said. "She's a single parent. She raised me alone. My heart goes out to her. I'm trying to satisfy her and get to the next level, and let her rest. It's been very hard. Very hard for her and my whole family. They just stayed behind me."

When Mack was no longer welcome in Tempe, George McQuarn, an Arizona State assistant and former head coach at Cal State Fullerton, recommended him to Roy Thomas, the coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas.

Mack averaged 24.6 points and 8.7 rebounds for Tyler last season, and bolstered his reputation as an accurate shooter, hitting 62% from the field and 42% from three-point range.

Thomas, a friend of Foster's, in turn recommended Mack to Houston.

"It was hard to believe some of the things I heard he'd gotten into," Thomas told the Houston Post. "The only problem I had with him was lack of 100% effort."

Foster, after pondering the situation, took Mack in.

"You think, 'Well, here's just another problem player.' " Foster said. "But he played for a friend of mine at Tyler, and I know this person to be a very demanding person. He wanted to help Sam."

Foster, aware of the potential for angry backlash, checked with the athletic director and university president, who both interviewed Mack. They gave the thumbs up.

Foster knew he could face public criticism for taking Mack, but said it wasn't the concern it might be in a smaller town.

"In Houston, people will write one story and go on to the next. It's not over and over and over," Foster said. "The situation in Houston is far more conducive to him succeeding. It's not Ames, Iowa, it's not Fayetteville, Ark., it's not Tucson, Ariz., even."

Mack, who is a senior because he lost his freshman year of eligibility under Proposition 48, is not the player he might have been by now.

"It's hurt him some," Foster said. "If he'd been in one place and played four years, he'd be further along."

But he's still pretty darn good. And the farther Ames and Tempe are behind him, the better to Mack, who wondered if his career could ever recover.

"I was concerned a great deal," he said. "I prayed about everything, and God saw me through a lot. God has helped me out so much.

"Athletes, we're in a fishbowl. You have to leave the outside alone. You just have to concentrate. You're here to play basketball and get an education. As long as you do that, your social life will be fine. That's all you need."

So far at Houston, so good.

"He's been very cooperative," Foster said. "He's not a problem-type player. He's got a chance to do something with his life. Whether that leads to basketball or some regular job, I don't know."

Foster knows he has taken a chance with Mack, but he accepts that.

"If you threw out all the guys in college and the pros who have been in trouble," Foster said, "you wouldn't have a lot of players, unfortunately."

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