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Smooth Kentucky Mash : Jamal Mashburn Doesn’t Think He’s Anything Special, but His Coach, Teammates and Opponents Know Differently

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rupp Arena . . . Dec. 8. Kentucky forward Jamal Mashburn, his face awash with the glare of minicam lights, sits in front of his locker room dressing cubicle and delivers an unexpected postgame apology.

“I’m not happy with the team or with myself,” he says in glum, remorseful tones. “I haven’t really started playing Jamal basketball yet.”

Reporters smile, thinking Mashburn is kidding. He isn’t.

Mashburn says the third-ranked Wildcats “mentally relaxed” against that night’s opponent, little Eastern Kentucky of nearby Richmond. He says his team played selfishly and showed its inexperience. He says he is partly to blame.

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That done, Mashburn reaches for his coat and a red Clippers’ baseball cap. Into the winter night he goes, genuinely embarrassed by the evening’s events.

Told later of Mashburn’s confession, an incredulous Coach Mike Calhoun of Eastern Kentucky, his team an 82-73 loser, asks how many points the Wildcat junior scored.

“A career-high 38,” he is told.

“How many rebounds?” Calhoun asks.

“A career-high 19.”

Calhoun shakes his head in amazement.

“Well, if I’m not mistaken, we didn’t defend him very well,” he says. “Every time I looked up and they needed a big basket, they were lobbing it to him, pushing it to him.”

So predictable was the Wildcat attack that Eastern Kentucky players counted the moments until the ball made its way to Mashburn. It didn’t matter.

“I told some of my teammates, ‘If Mashburn gets it low, I’m going to foul him,’ ” Colonel senior forward Chris Brown said. “He did and I killed him. Killed him. I took his arm off. I’m saying to myself, ‘There’s no way he’s going to get his shot.’ Before I know it, it’s dropping through the net. I mean, you might not be able to lay a truck out there and stop him.”

Brown wasn’t through paying homage to the great Mashburn, who turned 20 a few weeks ago.

“I don’t know how much credibility you can put in me, but we’ve played a lot of big-time teams,” he said. “Syracuse. Alabama. Cincinnati. These guys. But if there’s a player better than Jamal Mashburn, I’d like to see him. I’m a basketball aficionado. I love it. And I’m telling you, every time Kentucky needed a basket, they went to him. I was just wondering if he ever was going to miss.”

Mashburn scored in the low post. He blocked shots. He dominated the boards. He stepped out and swished a jumper or two.

“He’s an ox,” said Colonel center Eric Maye, an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Mashburn. “Sometimes I thought I had him. I’d think there wasn’t any way he could get the ball. He did. He’s amazing. Whew.”

Other times, Mashburn dribbled his way past defenders as if he were a point guard. Once, while driving to the basket, he displayed a nifty little crossover dribble that would have earned applause from the acknowledged master of the move, Golden State Warrior Tim Hardaway. And as if that weren’t enough, Mashburn found himself covering an Eastern Kentucky guard during a defensive switch. He stayed with him step for step.

“It’s a real honor to be out on the same floor with him,” said Colonel forward John Allen, who fouled out in less than 27 minutes while trying to stop Mashburn. “You’re sort of in awe of him.”

Allen isn’t the only one. Mashburn’s teammates also know they are in the midst of a star.

Without Mashburn, Kentucky would probably have lost to the undersized Colonels, who didn’t play like double-digit underdogs.

“I think he won the game for us,” Wildcat point guard Travis Ford said. “In the second half, he knew he was an All-American.”

Truth is, without Mashburn, the Wildcats wouldn’t be 5-0, ranked third in the Associated Press poll, favored to win the Southeastern Conference title and expected to challenge for a national championship. They wouldn’t have advanced to the NCAA East Regional final last season and come within a point of upsetting No. 1 Duke and earning a trip to the Final Four. They wouldn’t have won 22 games in 1990-91, Mashburn’s freshman season.

In fact, had it not been for Mashburn’s decision to leave New York and sign with Kentucky, chances are Coach Rick Pitino’s program would still be feeling the aftereffects of NCAA sanctions imposed in 1989. Instead, it suffered only moderate damage, thanks mostly to the efforts of the ultra-driven Pitino and the shy, quiet, unassuming forward whose self-esteem could use a daily dose of steroids.

As for the rest of Mashburn, never mind. His upper body is as thick as a tree trunk. Detailed directions are needed to circumnavigate his biceps. A forklift would be useful, should you ever hope to budge him from the low post.

“I think Mashburn and (Duke swingman) Grant Hill are the most complete basketball players in the country,” Pitino said. “It’s like comparing Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. I think Mashburn is a lot like Bird, and Grant Hill is a lot like Jordan. Neither one of those guys is as good as the ones I just mentioned. They’re in training wheels, somewhat.

“Mashburn is a guy who can catch, pass, hit with range, post up and he probably has a much better low-post game than Bird,” Pitino said. “He’s not as good of a shooter as Bird is, but he has Larry Bird’s type of game. Very unselfish.”

Such is Mashburn’s evolving legacy, which grows in stature each day. So special are his talents that Pitino has all but ordered Mashburn to leave Kentucky after this season and declare himself available for the NBA draft. This probably isn’t what Kentucky’s legions of semi-fanatical fans wanted to hear, but . . .

The way Pitino figures it, why ignore the obvious? Mashburn is ready for the pros. Case closed.

“Jamal Mashburn can’t afford to wait,” said Pitino, who spent two years as the New York Knicks’ coach before coming to Kentucky. “He can always afford to come back to school and go to summer school and get his education. But his vocation is going to be basketball. If I was guiding my son right now, he would go hardship. The same way I make a decision for my son, I’d make it for Jamal. I’d tell Jamal, very candidly, that if he’s one, two or three in the draft, he should go hardship.”

And, barring injury or a last-minute change of heart, Mashburn will make the jump. Already Pitino has jokingly told Mashburn that he can’t return to Kentucky next year, that the Wildcats need his scholarship for “a fella on the West Coast.”

The fella? None other than Artesia’s Charles O’Bannon, who is on everyone’s recruiting wish list, especially Kentucky’s and UCLA’s.

Until then, Mashburn adds to his reputation as one of the most gifted and, in a way, puzzling players in the game. So good and yet so . . . different--but in a good way.

The game against Eastern Kentucky is an interesting case study. Mashburn scored 38 points, took down 19 rebounds, blocked three shots, made 16 of 17 free throws and added two assists. Then he proclaimed the night a failure. That’s typical.

As early as high school, when he was leading Cardinal Hayes to the final of the state tournament, when he was being named New York City player of the year, Mashburn questioned his own skills. Recruiters would watch him play and mistake hesitancy for laziness. He had ability, but was he scared of success?

“Everyone saw the talent,” said Pitino, who first watched Mashburn play as a 15-year-old high school sophomore. “He wasn’t a sleeper. Everyone just questioned if he would work hard enough to live up to the expectations.”

Mashburn could have gone almost anywhere. He chose Kentucky because Pitino promised to be in his face every day of the week. The typical recruiting pitch, it wasn’t.

The conversation that mattered:

Pitino: Jamal, you and I are oil and vinegar. We are just not a good marriage. I won’t allow you to jog up and down the court. I won’t allow you not to play defense. How are you going to react to that?

Mashburn: If that’s what I need to get to the next level, then I’m going to enjoy it.

Pitino kept his end of the deal and, eventually, so did Mashburn. It wasn’t easy. Rare was the day that Pitino, face contorted in anger or disbelief, didn’t confront Mashburn about some on-court mistake. As usual, Mashburn would simply nod and correct the mistake. Still does.

“A lot of guys have million-dollar bodies and 10-cent brains,” said former teammate John Pelphrey, who plays professionally in Spain. “But he was smart enough to know that when Coach says something to you, you can’t take it how he says it. It’s what he says that’s important.”

Shortly after Mashburn arrived at Kentucky, a psychologist conducted a series of personality profile tests on the Wildcat players. When Pitino received the results, he couldn’t believe what he was reading. According to the psychologist’s interpretations, Mashburn didn’t consider himself anything special.

Pitino questioned the results. Then he summoned Mashburn to his office.

“Jamal, look at this,” he said, pointing to the test. “It says here you don’t think you’re a great basketball player.”

Mashburn replied: “Coach I don’t think I’m that good.”

It showed. As a freshman, Mashburn tried to blend in rather than stand out. It was a nice gesture, but Kentucky’s roster wasn’t talented or deep enough to handle such generosity.

“We were basically rejects,” Pelphrey said of a probation-scarred Wildcat team that, at the time, featured a lineup with only one potential star--Mashburn. “We needed a big-time talent to get us where we wanted to be. That was the thing we really had to work on him for his (sophomore) year. We’d say, ‘For us to be good, Jamal, you have to be a dominant player for us.’ ”

For the most part, Mashburn did as he was told. If Christian Laettner had not made a stunning turnaround jump shot at the buzzer of the East Regional final in Philadelphia, perhaps the Wildcats, rather than the Blue Devils, would be wearing championship rings today.

But as a junior, Mashburn still picks his moments when to take over a game. It is an infuriating habit that Pitino can’t seem to break him of.

Example: Against Wright State in Kentucky’s season opener, 13 pro scouts watched as Mashburn scored his first point halfway through the second half. During a timeout, an angry Pitino told Mashburn, “Not only are you not going to start in the NBA next year, you’re not going to start for Kentucky next game.”

Mashburn finished with a dismal 10 points and four rebounds. One of the scouts later said it looked as if Mashburn didn’t care.

“It was a lesson learned for me,” Mashburn said.

The next game was against Georgia Tech. Mashburn scored 27 points in 27 minutes as the Wildcats beat the Yellow Jackets, 96-87. By the way, so much for threats. Mashburn started.

“I’m smart enough to only go so far,” Pitino said, smiling.

Mashburn then scored 27 points in an 88-68 rout of archrival Louisville. Included in the performance were five three-pointers.

At last, Mashburn considers this his team. He now understands he is often the difference between a Wildcat victory and a potential defeat. Accordingly, his scoring average is nearly five points higher than last year’s. His confidence level has also improved.

Of course, all it took were two seasons, countless Pitino lectures and a summer spent with the USA Basketball select team, which prepared the U.S. Olympic team for Barcelona.

“You look at his body and you expect Charles Barkley or Karl Malone,” Pitino said. “You expect this man’s man. But he’s not. He’s a young man. But he really matured when he went out and played against the Dream Team. For the first time, he understood who he was and where he could go.”

Yet, Mashburn isn’t entirely comfortable with the trappings of his success. For starters, he could do without the “Monster Mash” nickname given him by a breathless Dick Vitale. Mashburn is no monster. He goes along with the nickname hysteria because it seems like the polite thing to do.

“I don’t really take it to heart,” Mashburn said. “It’s just one of those nicknames that say the opposite of what you are. I mean, I occasionally play like that.”

Actually, Mashburn can’t remember the last time he lost his temper during a game. Maybe against Duke last year. Maybe not.

“As far as someone getting under my skin, it’ll never happen,” he said.

Mashburn is different, all right. He is the reluctant star, which is almost as refreshing as his humility. He hangs his head after a 38-point performance. He mopes if his team struggles. He never throws a tantrum, no matter how many times Pitino sets a new sideline decibel record for yelling. And he still isn’t sure what the fuss is all about.

“I’m a marked man,” Mashburn said. “They’ve got to put somebody on the chalkboard. I guess it’s got to be me.”

Typical Mashburn. For this, no apologies are necessary.


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