Andre Chevalier has a weakness, though it is difficult to detect even for the most observant.
But look now. See as he turns and searches the bleachers? There.
Her name is Shirley. To Chevalier, Mom.
Note to Cal State Northridge basketball opponents looking for an advantage: Kidnap Shirley. No need to overdo it. Just move her from behind the Matador bench.
Not having her nearby drives Chevalier crazy.
Hear her shouting encouragement? All is well.
Hear her fretting over a mistake? The sound is as soothing as a lullaby in her son's ear.
The way Chevalier sees it, his mother has as much right to critique, however sternly, as he has the right to play. "My mother, she's everything to me," he said. "She's been my strength, basically."
Certainly, he would not have become point guard, team captain, leading scorer and the pulse of a Division I basketball team without the strength of her influence.
Chevalier also is an honor student, an accomplishment for some and a prerequisite for others.
Pete Cassidy, Northridge's coach, said Chevalier has no choice but to get high grades. "If he didn't, his mother would kill him," Cassidy said, rather earnestly. "She's a very strong lady."
Which is one reason why Chevalier has persevered to conquer both physical disfigurement and the accompanying emotional trials.
Chevalier was born without the two middle fingers on his left hand, a detail that is easily missed watching him dribble and pass his way through flailing waves of defenders.
Some teams have taken special note of this alleged handicap and, as a result, opposing guards have been directed to overplay Chevalier's right side. This encourages, almost forces, him to use his left hand.
So, he does. "People find out that if they overcompensate to his right he goes blowing by them to his left," Cassidy said. So much for the cutthroats.
"They try to force people to their off-hand anyway," Chevalier said. "Me not having a full hand, they're going to do it even more."
These are the facts of Chevalier's basketball career. Not even his mother can help him beat the press.
She has, however, taught him how to sidestep a trap.
"I always told Andre he had two choices," said Shirley, a single parent. "He could either deal with his hand as a handicap, or he could just deal with it."
Sometimes, that was easier said than done.
"It's not a big deal now," Chevalier said, "but when I was young, in elementary school, my hand was a big deal. Kids like to tease, and they can be cruel."
To hide his deformity, Chevalier stuffed his hand into the pocket of his jacket or pants "so people wouldn't notice." Old habits die hard. Even now, Chevalier occasionally puts his hand into his uniform jersey during free throws or other breaks during a game.
Chevalier lived at his grandmother's house in the projects of Landover, Md., until he was 12. Shirley stayed with them until Chevalier was 8, then jobs in the music business took her first to New York and then to Los Angeles.
The family was separated for four years. For the three years Shirley lived in New York, mother and son took turns commuting by train for visits.
They were reunited in Los Angeles once Chevalier finished elementary school. But after only a short time living in a North Hollywood apartment, Chevalier was begging for a return to Maryland.
He had too many friends back there. And too many unknowns here.
"I had to go through all the questions about my hand all over again," he said.
Shirley said she insisted he stay with her because she knew, in the long run, it was for the best. "You cry with them sometimes," she said, "and sometimes you don't let them cry."
First in youth leagues and then at Cleveland High, Chevalier flourished. As a high school senior, he guided the Cavaliers to a 22-6 record and a Northwest Valley League championship.
Even then he had his doubters.
Near the start of his senior season, he heard that a Cleveland assistant was telling people Chevalier wasn't talented enough to play Division I basketball.
After confronting the coach, Chevalier set out to prove him wrong. But some recruiters had similar impressions.
Chevalier was invited to Cal State Fullerton for a visit but did not receive an offer. Cal State Long Beach, for which former Cleveland Coach Bob Braswell was an assistant, also was interested--but only if another recruit declined the school's offer.
Even Northridge, which was preparing for its first season of Division I competition, was hesitant. The Matadors' offer came only after it became apparent that Dorian Manigo, an early signee, would not meet academic entrance requirements.
Chevalier finally had his scholarship. Then, through a sequence of events his mother describes as "a fate kind of thing," he became a starter in only his seventh collegiate game.
Eugene Humphrey, the senior incumbent at point guard, left the team before the season. Cassidy tried Keith Gibbs at the position, but Gibbs, a talented junior, was far more suited to a wing position.
After an adjustment period, the 6-foot Chevalier admirably filled the
void. He averaged 9.8 points, had 127 assists and put to rest the notion that he wasn't good enough to compete.
Chevalier's game has continued to improve. As a sophomore, he averaged 10.3 points and passed for 106 assists. His 86.8% free-throw percentage ranked 19th among Division I players. This season, he leads the Matadors with a 13.5 scoring average, 42 assists and 17 steals.
Northridge's fledgling major-college program has made similar strides but not soon enough for Chevalier. In more than two seasons, the Matadors have won one less game than did Cleveland during his senior year.
Chevalier considers this season's 2-6 start particularly disappointing because Northridge had high hopes after winning 11 of its final 18 last season.
"We didn't see winning less than 15 or 16 games based on the recruiting class we had," Chevalier said. Misfortune squashed those hopes.
Geoff Gorham, a 6-7 swingman, decided to take a year off to allow a broken leg to mend. John Flowers, a 6-4 swingman, was injured in an automobile accident and lost both legs. Victor Camper, a 6-9 center, was declared academically ineligible. And, for the capper, Percy Fisher, a 6-7 three-year letterman, quit.
"Our team was depleted before we even got a chance to get started," Chevalier said.
However, Chevalier also knows that Northridge's record could be worse. "I guess we're playing with pure heart, because if you look at the matchups we're supposed to get blown out of just about every game," he said.
Northridge's 80-73 loss against 12th-ranked UCLA on Tuesday was a prime example. The Matadors were within a basket, 71-69, with less than two minutes to play. None of Northridge's losses have been by more than 10 points, although seven games have been on the road.
"We don't have a full team and we're sticking close to everybody," Chevalier said. But he also added, "The fact that our team is depleted ain't going to compensate for us losing."
Last season, Northridge lost its first 10 games. Chevalier made sure the Matadors didn't suffer a similar dry spell at the start of this season. In Northridge's fourth game, against Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, he scored 22 points, including 10 in the final six minutes.
His performance defied logic. In the thin air of the mountains, at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, Chevalier played all but three minutes, yet appeared his strongest at the end.
"My adrenaline was going, I guess," he said. "I wanted to win."
He wasn't the only one. Cassidy at one point became so caught up in the fray that he shrieked at Chevalier at top volume for blowing a defensive assignment.
"Coach was yelling, 'Don't let him penetrate like that! Stop the penetration!' I was like, 'I wish I could,' " Chevalier recalled. "Toward the end of that game my mind was ready to go but my body was like, 'Nope, you can't move that fast.' "
Chevalier recovered quickly enough to needle Cassidy after the game when the coach and a trio of players sat down to answer questions from reporters.
When at one point he was asked about playing through his fatigue, Chevalier shot a glance at Cassidy and chided, "Yeah, Coach got mad at me one time for being tired, though. . . . Hint, hint, coach."
Cassidy smiled knowingly. The coach might have guessed that had Chevalier's mother been in attendance--she travels only to games within driving distance--she would have been yelling the same thing.
"She's a critic, you know," said James Morris, Chevalier's backcourt mate and a close friend. "Regardless of what you did good she always lets you know what your bad points were."
And usually, Morris conceded, her critiques are right on target. "She knows basketball," he said. "Yes she does."
After all, hers are eyes of experience.
"Before the game starts I always look up to make sure she's there," Chevalier said. "I guess you don't expect that. I'm going to be 21 on Dec. 31 and I still look for my mother."
Last season, when Shirley inexplicably missed a home game, Chevalier said he "got past it," but only with a considerable amount of distraction.
"My freshman year I was even worse," he said, laughing. "When we were on the road I called her all the time, when we got to the hotel and again after the game.
"I think I'm growing out of that."
Admitting such, Chevalier knows, leaves him vulnerable to good-natured teasing.
He couldn't care less.