Joe Small wears his occupation on his back.
That is the objective every time Small sets up behind the three-point stripe, the magic number Small is supposed to provide with a flick of a wrist, the best-laid plan in the Cal State Fullerton playbook.
And there it was again, only 27 seconds into Thursday night's game against Cal State Long Beach.
Basketball cocked behind Small's head.
Basketball catapulted high over the University Gym floor.
Basketball rippling through the net for an instant 3-0 Cal State Fullerton lead, simple as that.
For more than half of their 1991-92 season, the Titans have played with half of Joe Small. Or Joe Very Small, as his contribution to Fullerton's previous 14 games had threatened to re-christen him.
In those 14 games before Thursday, Small was shooting 33.7% from the field and 32.5% from his native three-point land. A year ago, he was the best shooting guard in the Big West Conference, but those figures ranked him fourth among starting Orange County Division I guards, which is not good, considering there are only four--and two of them lay bricks twice a week at UC Irvine.
Small, who averaged nearly 22 points as a junior and was at 20.5 after his first eight games as a senior, plunged to 12.9 during the 14-game slide. Included in that slump, now approaching a full two months, was a seven-point effort against Houston, back-to-back three-for-12 finishes against UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach in January, back-to-back five-for-15s against the University of the Pacific and New Mexico . . . and the ebb of all ebbs, the lowest of all imaginable lows, zero points in 30 minutes of air time against Nevada Las Vegas Monday night. For the record, that was 0 for 7 from the field and 0 for 6 from three-point range.
Incidentally, that was Fullerton's worst loss of the season. Final score: UNLV 76, Fullerton 47.
"The longest night of my life," Small calls it. "That never happened to me before and I hope it never happens any more."
Much to Small's misfortune, the game was broadcast back to Orange County and into the Westminster living room of Small's mother, Betty Harris.
The next time mother and son spoke, Betty had a few choice words for Scoreless Joe.
"She told me, 'I know and you know you can play better than that,' " Small said. "She said, 'I don't even know who that was out there.' "
To borrow from the collected works of Al McGuire, Small had just played 30 minutes of basketball and tied a dead man. With the Titans living and dying on those jump shots of Small's, the cemetery was filling all too fast.
Small mounted a comeback Thursday. Kind of. In a relative sense.
In the first half, he sank every shot he attempted--from the field, from the free-throw line. For the game, he scored 19 points--his highest total since Jan. 11.
Now for the bad news:
He took only three shots from the field and and four from the foul line in the first half. In the second half, he was three for 10 for an evening's total of six for 13.
And, the Titans lost again, 85-71, lowering their season's record to 10-13 and their Big West mark to 6-8.
One more time, Fullerton is streaking. Five days ago, all was well on State College Boulevard, with the Titans showing signs of pulling out of their early-season dregs with three consecutive victories. Could it be, at last, that they are playing to their potential?
Say it ain't so, Joe? Today, Small and the Titans are saddled again with a two-game losing streak, with a Saturday trip to 16-6 UC Santa Barbara next on the schedule.
"I can't figure it out, either," said Small. "People say, 'Look at all the talent we have--why isn't our record better?'
"Too many times, one or two guys have just been off. Too many times, too many of us haven't been on the same page."
And what of those people who answer one question with another?
Wouldn't Fullerton's record be better if Small was having any kind of season?
"People are gonna be like that," he said. "You go good and they like you. If not, they'll go away from you fast.
"Just as long as my teammates don't lose confidence in me. They're still telling me, 'Shoot the ball.' If my teammates weren't on my side, this thing would be much worse."
Small's fellow Titans haven't lost confidence in their erstwhile catalyst--but their confidence may be a bit streamlined.
"Early in the season," Fullerton assistant coach Mike Bokosky said, "Joe was very important to us because of our mental approach. Joe was our leader. Everybody looked to him as the guy to win the game. He had the great reputation, being named all-conference last season. "We kept looking for him to do it and when he slumped, we went into a transitional phase. We had to look to other players. One of our best games this season was the game we lost to Pacific. Our three best players, Agee (Ward), Joe and Bruce Bowen go a combined 13 for 49, but we got everything we wanted, except a win. There, the rest of the players realized they can succeed without having Joe carry us."
No, Small isn't required to carry the Titans anymore, but he needs to be given one of the handles. Three shots in the first half Thursday? A total of eight until garbage time?
"Those are not enough shot attempts," Small said flatly. "I hit my first few shots and when you're shooting like that, you'd better ride that shooter. It's an insurance policy--stay with the shooter until he goes cold."
Fullerton's problem of late is that it had been staying with Small, waiting for him to get hot. The Titans waited for 14 games, began to mull other options, and then came Thursday night.
For Small, it was a big step.
Now, about getting everybody on the same page . . . * TITANS LOSE
Cal State Fullerton stayed close to Cal State Long Beach before falling, 85-71. C9