Rollie Massimino calls J.R. Rider "the Elephant."
"Because he's big," the Nevada Las Vegas basketball coach says.
Rider, a 6-foot-5 forward, is a thick, though fluid, 215 pounds.
But Massimino is not talking about that kind of big.
"You always make sure you take care of the big elephant," he adds. "Then the mice."
In his unique way, Massimino is saying that Rider, UNLV's headliner, is one of the best players in college basketball.
Statistics overwhelmingly support that claim. Rider, who was selected Big West player of the years, has played every position but point guard for the Rebels. "Believe me, he could do that, too," Massimino says.
He leads 16th-ranked Las Vegas in scoring (29.2 points) and rebounding (8.9) and is second in assists.
Thompson's opinion was expressed after a Jan. 23 game in which Rider scored 40 points, sparking UNLV's 96-80 victory over the Hoyas.
Rider, whose scoring average is second in the nation, contends that Thompson must have been "caught up in the moment" when he made the remark.
"I appreciate it, and it makes me smile, but I don't really believe it," he says.
"If that's what John Thompson said, I'm sure he meant it," says Massimino, who coached against Thompson regularly while at Villanova in the Big East. "J.R. is a big-game player, and he was terrific that day.
"Really," Massimino adds with a wide grin, "the Elephant is terrific almost every day."
And not only with his scoring.
"I'll tell you what was big, the Nevada game," Massimino continues.
Late in the game, with Nevada struggling to stay within striking distance, Raynold Samuel, a seldom-used reserve, checked into the Wolf Pack lineup. Almost immediately, he started bumping and shoving Rider in what Massimino says was an attempt to bait him.
"It wasn't like there was a play being set up," Rider recalls. "We were just running down court, and he was all over me. It was funny. I was laughing at first. But then I got fed up with it."
When he struck back, slapping Samuel's hand away, Rider was called for a foul. He and Samuel squared off, but Rider, larger and stronger, thought better of it and turned away.
"There have been times in my life where I wouldn't give an inch," Rider says. "Now I just let people shove and shove or do whatever they have to do, because I know it's all just to get at me or trying to take me out of my game."
Rider didn't back away from Samuel's challenge entirely. On the Rebels' next possession, Rider dribbled the length of the floor and threw down a ferocious dunk.
"That's how I took out my aggressions," Rider says. "It was kind of fun."
Massimino says the incident speaks volumes about Rider's maturity. For years, he has carried a reputation for being sullen and surly, but the coach says he hasn't seen it.
"In this world, there is perception and then there is reality," Massimino says. "Unfortunately, there is very little reality that comes about once the perception is established."
That Rider is an extra-large basketball talent has been apparent since he starred for Alameda Encinal High as a sophomore. His only rap has been his rap sheet.
Rider left Encinal after he was declared academically ineligible before his senior season in 1988-89. There were more academic problems--plus an arrest--in one year at Allen County College in Iola, Kan.
From there, he transferred to Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, where he averaged 33.6 points a game during the 1990-91 season and earned a scholarship to UNLV.
Rider led the Rebels last season with a 20.7-point average, but on Jan. 24, 1992, he was arrested again, this time for obstructing a police officer after an incident at a Las Vegas fast-food restaurant. He pleaded guilty and performed 40 hours of community service.
In Kansas, Rider's arrest was on misdemeanor theft and battery charges. The theft charges were dismissed, but he was given six months' probation and fined $201 after pleading no-contest to battery. Rider admits hitting a man, but, he said, only after the man used a racial slur. He said he believes the theft charge was concocted in retaliation for the fight.
"People start assuming things without knowing the whole story," Rider says. "They want to talk about things that happened a long time ago, little things that people turned into big things. Those things, they're not even really in my memory anymore."
Massimino, who took over the UNLV program last April, said his first impression of Rider was that of a soft-spoken, friendly young man who politely introduced himself and warmly welcomed both the coach and his wife, Mary Jane, to Las Vegas.
At that point, Massimino says, Rider started with a clean slate. He has kept it that way.
Last summer, Rider attended three sessions of summer school to retain his eligibility.
"People said there was no way he could do it," says Massimino, who graduated all 62 of his seniors in 19 seasons at Villanova. "Well, I'm going to tell you, there is a way. He's a very intelligent kid, and when he puts his mind to it he can do just about anything."
Tom Pecora, a UNLV administrative assistant, says Rider honed his basketball skills during the day and his study skills at night.
"The Elephant is a nocturnal creature," Pecora says. "He'd start about 9 at night and go until about 2 or 2:30 in the morning."
Since then, Rider says, everything else has settled neatly into place.
"I have a pretty good handle on things now, and it's the right time," he says. "It's my last year. I'm not behind in school anymore, and I'm playing good ball.
"Coach Mass always says, 'You have everything at your fingertips,' and he's right."
Massimino, a short, round bundle of nervous energy, seems to have had a profound effect on Rider, who carries on good-natured verbal exchanges with his coach.
"I was all over him this morning," Massimino says. "He comes into my office today looking like a star. He has a real nice plaid-colored shirt and purple Docksiders. He looked really sharp. He comes walking in and I just stared at him.
"He says, 'Coach, what's wrong?' I said, 'Can you imagine? Here's J.R. Rider, looking like a preppy!' "
More seriously, Rider says his talks with Massimino revolve around "basketball, life and family, the people who are close to us."
Massimino says "the next level"--the NBA--is also a popular topic.
Rider is considered a probable lottery pick.
"I like him as much as anyone in the draft," says Marty Blake, an NBA scout. "He can play up-tempo, he can pass the ball and he can rebound. He's a heck of a player, and he can be an important cog in the rebuilding of a team."
Massimino says Rider is "a mini-Charles Barkley."
"He's not as big as Charles, but they have similar inside moves," Massimino says. "His vertical jump (reportedly 41 inches) is unbelievable. And his quickness on that vertical jump. . . . Billy Cunningham and I just talked today. He couldn't believe the dunks J.R. takes. He said he's like Michael (Jordan) going over the rim to his elbows."
Point guard Dedan Thomas, the only UNLV player with more assists than Rider, predicts his teammate will surpass 50 points in a game sometime soon.
"You can pretty much get him the ball anywhere and he's going to score," Thomas said. "He'll hit a few threes, go down low, post up, and I think he was 16 for 17 from the (free-throw) line one game. He just does it every way possible."
When Rider scored a career-high 44 points in a rematch against Nevada on Feb. 25, he made 16 of 22 shots, including two of four from three-point range, and converted 10 of 11 free throws.
Against Georgetown, Rider displayed his entire arsenal before a national television audience. It was the first time he had appeared on network television in a Rebel uniform. UNLV was banned from television--and the NCAA tournament--last season.
Rider, a Georgetown fan as a teen-ager, said the Hoyas "juiced" him up with a barrage of trash-talking in the tunnel of UNLV's Thomas & Mack Arena before warm-ups.
"They were a lot bigger than us and they were bragging about how they were going to whip us little Vegas boys," Rider says. "There's a new song out by Naughty By Nature called 'Hip Hop Hooray.' They were singing it. 'Heeey . . . Hooo . . . ' They thought they were so cool."
The Rebels led by as many as 35 points. Rider, who grabbed seven rebounds and had five assists between flurries of points, was unstoppable.
"After the game, they were as quiet as a church mouse," Rider says of Georgetown. And the Rebels? "We were singing, 'Heeey . . . Hooo . . . ' "
Rider already has plans for his NBA money. He wants to move his mother out of Oakland and into a new home.
"I want it so she can just take care of her yard and relax," Rider says. "That's what I'm shooting for, to take care of my family."
Rider's father, Isaiah Sr.--J.R. is a derivation of Isaiah Jr.--moved to Texas when J.R. was a junior in high school.
"All he wants is a truck so he can go fishing," Rider says.
But before the NBA money comes, there is some unfinished business at UNLV.
Earlier this season, a former assistant at Villanova told Rider the coach had said he could be the best player Massimino ever coached.
Like Thompson's remark, Rider didn't believe it. So he asked Massimino, who confirmed it.
"But I said, 'Could be,' " Massimino added. "Right now you're not."
Since then, Rider has been on a tear, averaging more than 32 points a game.
So has Massimino changed his mind?
"I'll let you know after the season," the coach says. "We have to give the Elephant something to shoot for."