Sixth Sense : Reserve Chatman Has Been Key Man in Big USC Victories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodney Chatman's teammates on the USC basketball team tease him because he talks too fast. But Chatman, who has three sisters, learned early that speaking quickly was the only way to have his say.

"I guess he takes after me," said Chatman's mother, Shirley. "I'm the same way. We always run our words together. We're fast talkers."

But Chatman scores points as quickly as he speaks.

Perhaps the most productive sixth man in the Pacific 10 Conference, the 6-foot-3 junior guard has played an important role this season as the 10th-ranked Trojans have earned their second NCAA tournament bid in a row. It will mark the first time in 31 years that USC has made consecutive appearances in the event.

USC, 22-5 overall and 14-3 in the Pac-10, trails first-place UCLA (24-4, 15-2) by one game with one game remaining. USC will share the Pac-10 championship with UCLA if the Trojans upset No. 2 Arizona today at 1 p.m. at the Sports Arena and Arizona State upsets the Bruins at 3 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion.

The Trojans might not be in position to win their first Pac-10 co-championship in seven years if not for Chatman, who came off the bench to score 14 points in an 83-79 victory over UCLA two weeks ago at the Sports Arena. Chatman had six points in the final four minutes, including two free throws with 11 seconds left, as the Trojans swept the Bruins for the first time since 1985 and only the second time in 50 years.

USC's second-best three-point shooter, Chatman also played a key role in the Trojans' first victory over the Bruins this season, hitting a three-point shot from the right corner to halt an 8-1 UCLA run as the Trojans defeated the Bruins, 86-82, at Pauley Pavilion.

"Rodney Chatman is the kind of player that every coach in America probably wishes he had on his team," USC Coach George Raveling said. "He has a low ego level and a high level of basketball intelligence. He's a great leader and he's a prime-time performer when the heat's on.

"I think he'd be a great coach. He sees the game through a different set of eyes. He's a great listener, which most of us aren't."

Chatman is averaging 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists a game, and scored a career-high 15 points in a victory over Oregon earlier this season.

Chatman had 14 points in a reserve role in the Trojans' 81-66 victory over Arizona State Thursday night, making four free throws in the final 1:01 to help secure the victory.

"I think he's the key to our team because he comes off the bench and he gives us a lot of scoring and he plays good defense," Trojan guard Duane Cooper said. "He gives us a versatile player who can rebound and and play defense. He's been a key component to our success this season."

Chatman said being a reserve is an advantage because he is able to observe the game before entering the contest.

"I get a chance to watch and talk to the coaches, and that really helps me," he said.

Although Chatman has a higher scoring average and a better shooting percentage than Phil Glenn, the third starting guard in the Trojans' three-guard offense, Chatman is content to remain a reserve because it's best for the team chemistry.

"He's so mentally stable that he can accept coming off the bench and contributing," Raveling said. "A lot of guys couldn't do it. I don't think Phil Glenn would be a good sub and I think Rodney Chatman is the classic sub.

"I asked (Chatman) about it, and, in fact, I told him he should be starting. But he said that it's best for the team if Phil starts."

Glenn is Chatman's closest friend on the team, and they share an off-campus apartment, where they kill time arguing over which soap operas to watch on TV.

"Phil and I are like brothers," Chatman said. "If something's happening, we're going to be there. We don't hardly go anywhere without each other. L.A. can be a rough place to live, and we think it's better to go places together."

Chatman and Glenn were recently confronted by five gang members who accosted them as they were walking home from a barbershop near the USC campus.

"They thought we were gang members, too, and they started harassing us," Chatman said. "They wanted to race us for $100, but we told them we played basketball at SC, and they (apologized) and wished us good luck."

A football and basketball star at New Smyrna Beach High, 15 miles south of Daytona Beach, Fla., Chatman won Central Florida's Mr. Versatility award in 1988.

In football, he was a quarterback and free safety and earned all-state honors as a senior after passing for 957 yards and rushing for 567 yards.

Although he was recruited by Notre Dame and Miami as a defensive back, Chatman opted to play basketball in college.

"In my mind, I said that I wasn't going to play the first sport I got hurt in, and I hurt my ankle playing football, so I decided that I was going to play basketball in college," Chatman said.

Chatman was voted the Central Florida prep basketball player of the year after averaging 18.4 points, 9.5 assists, seven rebounds and five steals in leading his team to a 28-2 record and a berth in the state regionals in 1988.

Chatman signed with USC because he liked Raveling.

"Coach Raveling is a great teacher and motivator," Chatman said. "I wanted a challenge. I wanted to come to SC and help them build something, which I think I have. Plus, I wanted to get away from home. "

Chatman said he matured quickly after his father, Rodney Sr., died of brain cancer in 1986 at 48. Chatman was only 16 when his father died after being in a coma for three months.

"He was in a coma for a long time and I got used to it," Chatman said. "I was playing basketball when my cousin came and told me he'd died. I didn't cry when he died and I thought I was strong for doing that.

"Deep down inside, I really felt it, but I didn't cry. I think it made me stronger, and that's why I'm the person that I am today. I can go through a lot and be strong. (His death) taught me that life is short and you have to take it day by day."

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