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Complex Clipper : Vaught Wasn’t Sure He Belonged, but He’s Starting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was one thing to be a high school star in Kentwood, Mich., when simply being 6 feet 9 was enough. It was another to carry that over to the University of Michigan.

So Loy Vaught, introduced to college basketball by having to play Roy Tarpley in practice, didn’t consider himself a Division I player and contemplated transferring during his freshman and sophomore years.

It was one thing to finish second in the country and first in the Big Ten in shooting as a junior and then start the next season for the Wolverines’ 1989 NCAA championship team. It was another to become a first-round draft choice.

So Vaught went 13th, and wondered if he belonged.

Vaught was the power forward without the power of confidence. He had dreamed as a youngster of becoming the next Harold Carmichael, a lanky NFL receiver, and wound up an NBA starter, a 240-pound wide body getting 20 rebounds his first night in the opening lineup and then, 14 games later, 18.

The Clippers said it would be like this. Vaught wasn’t so sure.

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Said assistant coach John Hammond, summing up the feelings of the entire organization: “He’s got kind of an innocence about him. Sometimes he wonders if he really does deserve to be in the league. I mean, he’s got to know he is a pretty darn good player to be the 13th pick and in the starting lineup. Obviously. But he has no idea about his potential.”

The Clippers, who have a pretty good idea, have spent the better part of his one-plus seasons in the NBA working on Vaught’s mind. But making him a full-time starter was another story.

It happened when Charles Smith, the team’s leading scorer last season and foremost front-line defender, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery during training camp. He figured to miss at least all of November, so Vaught moved into the opening lineup. Guess who was surprised.

“I figured Coach (Mike Schuler) would just go with Ken Norman,” Vaught said. “I didn’t even give it a thought, just that he would move Danny (Manning) to power forward and have me off the bench. I guess he had more confidence in me than I thought.

“He pulled me aside one day and said he was putting me in the lineup and that I wouldn’t have to worry about losing the job if I didn’t play great at the start and that he was going to stay with me. He told me that and I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”

All Vaught has done, despite declining minutes the last week and a half as Smith works his way back into condition, is contribute 10 points and 7.8 rebounds an outing to the Clippers’ 14-10 start.

That’s not matching Vaught’s preseason goal of averaging a double-double by the time his caretaking of Smith’s job ends, but beyond the numbers and the praise from coaches and teammates, his unexpected stint has proven to Vaught that he belongs.

“I’m not going to fill Charles Smith’s shoes by any means,” he said the other day. “But I let everyone know Loy Vaught could hold down the fort.”

And just when he was lifting anonymity to an art form.

Vaught didn’t begin to play organized basketball until his sophomore year of high school. Most of his time before that was spent in football, his first love, and growing, from 24 inches at birth to 6-6 in the 10th grade. His shoe size equaled his age when he was 11, was 12 and so on until age and size were 16.

He was labeled a “role player,” at Michigan, which, it turns out, really meant “underrated.” He played with Tarpley, Rumeal Robinson, Glen Rice and current teammate Gary Grant, blending in as part of the supporting cast, even while winning the conference shooting title.

But at draft time after his senior season, Vaught was a hot commodity, a wind-up rebounding doll who didn’t need a lot of shots or publicity. Point him in the direction of a loose ball and watch him grind out a couple extra possessions a game for your team.

He was as blue collar as a Detroit auto worker and proud of it. Vaught vividly remembers his father making coffee at 6 a.m., preparing for his shift as foreman at a Grand Rapids furniture factory, returning home tired and dirty at 7 p.m. and then getting under the hood of the family car to give it a tune-up. Loy Vaught Sr. was, and is, his hero.

“That’s my dad,” he said. “I always wanted to be like him. He could work all day. I admire that.”

A lot of teams admired that same ethic in Vaught. He traveled the country in the weeks before the draft, working out for interested teams. Exhausted by the pace and feeling fairly confident that he would be taken by Golden State at No. 11, he told his agent, Bob Woolf, to cancel the rest of the trips.

But Vaught hadn’t visited the Clippers yet. So they--specifically Barry Hecker, director of scouting--went to him.

The Clippers had been watching Michigan closely for years while scouting Grant, so they knew Vaught could rebound. Hecker went to Ann Arbor to see the rest of the package and spent the majority of the hourlong workout drilling Vaught on medium-range jump shots and ballhandling.

Hecker’s report came back loaded with positives: Vaught was a much better offensive player than most had given him credit for being, and his attitude was perfect for a young, improving team that had enough stars-in-waiting.

“He was real enthusiastic,” Hecker recalled. “I called him up and he found a gym for me. We worked out in an intramural gym on campus, and he was ready to roll. Once we got there, you could tell. He had that enthusiasm where you could tell he wanted to learn.”

When the Warriors took Xavier’s Tyrone Hill with their No. 11 pick, the Clippers nabbed Vaught. Not only have they not regretted it, Vaught has turned out to be a much better player than Hill.

Not that it has helped everyone get to know Vaught. In live television interviews with two Los Angeles stations, he has been called “Floyd Voit” and “Lloyd.” Even the player who is used to living without acclaim rolled his eyes over those.

His first name is unusual and has gotten its share of attention, most of it misguided. According to the story, Vaught was named after several relatives, each letter having come from one.

L was for Uncle Louie.

O was for Uncle Oliver.

Y was for Aunt Yvonne.

Oh yeah?

F is for the falseness of that fanciful tale.

According to Vaught, a writer at Michigan’s student newspaper came up with that story while doing a profile. Vaught says he doesn’t even have relatives named Louie or Oliver, although there is an Aunt Yvonne.

Anyway, the story spread from article to article. When Brent Musburger referred to it during the Wolverines’ championship run, the family, watching on TV, laughed. They knew he was Loy Stephen Vaught Jr.--his name was handed down--and it became an inside joke.

Everything else about him is plain fact and little flash. He is hard-hat material who has become the Clippers’ best draft pick since 1988.

And the future is bright. Hammond says he wasn’t simply using a line during a summer clinic in Palmdale when he pointed to Vaught and said he had All-Star potential. Driving home, Vaught asked Hammond if he had been serious.

It was heady stuff for a 24-year-old who never planned on it, never even dreamed it while in college. After all, this is someone who took up basketball only because his mother made him quit football after seeing him go over the middle, stretch out to catch a pass and get blasted in the stomach so hard he had the wind knocked out of him.

“I’ve gotten where I am almost by accident,” he said. “I don’t like to think that far ahead.”


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