Pauley Answers Critic on Court : College basketball: Kansas' 6-10 junior, formerly of Savanna High and Cypress College, was unfazed by letter. He's now averaging 11.4 points for Jayhawks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kansas basketball Coach Roy Williams receives about 30 letters a day. Some politely ask for tickets. Others ask about the team, or request an autograph or a response from a coach or player.

Opening the mail is usually a routine chore for Williams, and rarely does a letter invoke a response as did the one he read in mid-February.

The letter's author attacked Eric Pauley, a transfer from Cypress College who had been struggling as the Jayhawks' starting center. How could this guy be starting for a team that reached the NCAA finals last season?

After all, he had averaged only three points in five games leading into the Big Eight Conference season. And Pauley, a 6-foot-10 junior, had been inconsistent in his first few conference games.

"It said I should pull him out of the lineup," Williams said. "But what bothered me was that the person who wrote it never bothered to sign it.

"Everyone was wondering why I was sticking with the guy, but not me. I just don't like other people singling out one of my players and criticizing him like (the letter) did. I'm critical enough of them."

Although Williams was upset, Pauley, about as low-key as a big guy can be, merely shrugged at the mention of the "fan letter."

"It wasn't a fan, that's for sure," Pauley said. "Coach never showed me the letter, and I don't want to see it. It's just one person's opinion and I won't let it affect me."

But Pauley did come to his own defense the following week, scoring a career-high 23 points and pulling down 12 rebounds in an 84-65 victory over Oklahoma. He followed with solid games against Oklahoma State (13 points, eight rebounds) and Missouri (13 points, 10 rebounds).

In the conference coaches' press conference the following week, Williams couldn't resist the chance to take a shot at the author of the "mystery letter."

"I just said that I hope that idiot out there was watching the Oklahoma game and saw what Eric did," Williams said. "Then I said that I hoped the idiot was listening to the press conference so he could hear what I was saying."

Williams admits he's a bit defensive about his big man.

He and his assistants had put in a lot of time and energy recruiting him from Cypress. But after a while, even Williams was wondering if the Pauley he was coaching was the same one he had watched set Cypress scoring records a year earlier.

"He hit a tough stretch of seven or eight games this season where the ball just didn't go in for him," Williams said. "He was two of 19 or something awful like that. He was 0 for 8 in one game.

"His problem is that he's a severe critic of himself and he doesn't have much confidence in what he can do. I just sat down with him one day and told him to keep working hard on the defensive end, which he had been doing. The shots would fall sooner or later."

They eventually did. Pauley is averaging a respectable 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds for the third-ranked Jayhawks (24-4), D the Big Eight regular-season champions.

He also kept his starting job with the Jayhawks, who defeated Colorado Friday in the first round of the Big Eight tournament.

After the slow start, Pauley has rebounded to lead the conference in field-goal percentage (59.3%).

"The last couple of weeks, I've gained my confidence back," Pauley said. "I've been more aggressive on offense.

"I played horribly up until the Big Eight season. I looked at the conference season as the beginning of a new year."

Pauley has been through new beginnings before--as a youngster and later as a player at Savanna High and Cypress College.

Pauley was 3 when his parents, Mary and Phil, were divorced. Phil moved to Oregon, and Eric stayed in California with his mother, a receptionist with an Anaheim dermatologist.

"Mom went through all the tough times and did everything for me," Pauley said. "She kept me out of trouble, and that wasn't an easy job for anyone. Being a single mother isn't easy, and some people aren't successful at it. Some are, and she was one of them."

Pauley grew up in Anaheim and Buena Park playing baseball and football. Savanna Coach Tom Gregory had to ask Pauley more than once to try out for the basketball team as a sophomore.

"Coach Gregory was my English teacher," Pauley said. "He kept after me to come out. I told him I would play just to get him off my back."

Pauley was 5-9 as a sophomore, but he grew to 6-7 by the start of his junior year.

He moved to center, and, as a senior, averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocks while leading Savanna to the Orange League title. He was an all-league selection and played in the Orange County all-star game.

"I started working hard the summer going into my senior year," Pauley said. "But I still wasn't a player in any shape or form."

San Francisco and Cal State Fullerton thought so, and offered him scholarships. But Pauley lacked core classes required under Proposition 48 and was academically ineligible for a Division I school. After graduating from Savanna in 1988, he enrolled at Cypress.

"That was the most crucial decision I've made in my life," Pauley said. "At any other stage in my life, I might have quit. And I might have quit had I gone to any other junior college.

"Coach (Don) Johnson and the staff made me a better player and a person."

Pauley sat out the 1988-89 season as a redshirt, but he started the next two years. He finished as Cypress' single-season scoring leader (744 points last season) and was second in career scoring (1,088).

He averaged 16.5 points and 8.4 rebounds and shot 61% in his two seasons and led Cypress to the State semifinals his sophomore year.

Johnson holds Pauley in the same regard as the Utah Jazz's Mark Eaton and former NBA player Swen Nater, two of the best centers to play at Cypress.

Yet Johnson also understands Williams' frustrations when coaching Pauley.

"Eric is sort of a different kid to work with," Johnson said. "He's coachable, and what we told him didn't fall on deaf ears. But we had to stay on him or else he wouldn't be doing something routine on Tuesday that we had taught him on Monday.

"He was very silent at times, almost to the point of being moody. But once you get him talking, he expresses himself well."

Kansas was the first school to recruit Pauley. Williams remembers squeezing early-morning and late-night flights to and from Orange County between Big Eight games so he could watch Pauley play.

"Kansas came in early and showed a lot of interest in Eric," Johnson said. "I think that made a big impression on him."

Kentucky was interested, too. So were Louisville, Washington, Clemson and UCLA. Pauley narrowed his choices to Kentucky and Kansas, scheduling visits to both schools.

He got the red-carpet treatment at Kentucky, touring the campus on a nice spring day and dining with Coach Rick Pitino at the coach's Italian restaurant in Lexington.

"I was star-gazed during that trip," Pauley said.

His visit to Lawrence, Kan., two days later was highlighted by a hailstorm. Meanwhile, the Kansas coaches and players were busy preparing for the Final Four. Pauley just tagged along and watched.

"I just went to practice and then out to dinner," Pauley said. "It wasn't clear to me where I wanted to go, even after the trips. I took a couple of weeks, then I made the decision."

Said Johnson: "Eric thought he could come in and play at Kansas. I'm not sure he trusted the Kentucky system and how he would fit into it. He wasn't sure how many other 6-10 players would be there the first day of practice."

Pauley's transition from junior college to Kansas hasn't been easy. Early in the school year, he had trouble adjusting to the lifestyle in Lawrence, a small college town about an hour's drive west of Kansas City.

"I was confused, not about basketball but about life in general," he said. "It was a lot of little things, school, personal things. I was having a hard time adapting here."

Johnson remembers Pauley calling the Cypress basketball office often last fall, usually to talk with assistant coach Bruce Randall.

"Eric was very, very homesick," Johnson said. "He kept calling Bruce, telling him he wanted to come home. Bruce told him to grow up and stay put. Now he's glad he did."

So is Williams.

"We stuck with Eric during all the bad times," he said. "And now he has turned it around."

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