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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN’S AND WOMEN’S FINAL FOURS : Hogs’ Old Man Has the Time of His Life

So, maybe you should know about Alex Dillard, student-athlete, University of Arkansas. Al is old. He is 25. That is old for a college junior, believe me. For a college basketball player, it is Medicare age. Al is older than Shaquille O’Neal, older than Chris Webber, older than Shawn Kemp. Older by several years, in fact. He says his teammates call him names like Father Time, Grandfather Time, Antique.

“The President of the United States comes to our practice and says he wants to talk to me,” Dillard says. “So my teammates say, ‘Of course the man wants to talk to you. Y’all went to high school together.”’

Oh, those youngbloods. Always teasing the old-timer.

They make Al Dillard laugh and laugh. Darnell Robinson, for instance. The fresh freshman from Oakland. Dillard says, “Somebody says something in practice I can’t hear, Darnell’ll say, ‘Yo, Granddaddy. You’re gettin’ senile, ain’t you?’ ”

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He eats it up. Old Al loves being one of the school kids, even if he is old enough to be their professor. He is so proud to be playing with the rest of the Razorbacks for the national championship of college basketball Monday night. Hey, not bad for a high school dropout.

Just goes to show, Al says, “Good things come to those who wait. And, believe me, I’ve waited.”

Al was struggling down in his home state of Alabama, and so was his family. His mother lost her job. Al lost interest in school. He stopped studying. He dropped out, took a job in a fast-food joint, didn’t pick up a book for three years. All he did was work and play basketball. The older he got, the less time he had to waste.

There he sat, 22 years old and no high school diploma. Al’s girlfriend got on his case. She kept pushing and pushing to make something of himself. Al insisted that he was making something of himself--a better basketball player. His girlfriend told him, “Yeah, a basketball player on some playground. What good’s that going to do you?”

She pleaded with him to take his high school equivalency exam. Al was reluctant. How could he sit there with all those textbooks and start over?

“Suppose it was you,” he says, sitting inside the Arkansas locker room after Saturday’s game. “Suppose you were to stop reading, stop writing. You might read a sports magazine sometime, but that’s it. So that’s you. You ain’t reading or writing. And you know you ain’t going to be doing no math. So what would it be like for you to be going back to high school again?

“My girlfriend kept after me. She was tougher than any instructor. She pushed me. She’d say, hey, you got to crawl before you can walk.”

Al is asked, “And that’s what convinced you?”

He answers, “That and three words: ‘I love you.”’

It never occurred to him that there was still time to become a college basketball hero. He passed his equivalency exam. It wasn’t easy. Neither were those junior-college classes he took. All the basics--Basic English, Basic Math, Western Civilization. He recalls them all. He recalls sitting there at a desk, oldest kid in class. He recalls thinking, “Even if I make it, I’m going to end up a 26-year-old senior. I’d only have, like, 10 years left on my body for playing basketball. And that’s if I’m lucky.”

There was one thing that made him think anything was possible. Al could shoot. Man, could Al shoot. His junior college coach at Southern Union couldn’t believe his eyes when Dillard came by for a tryout. Somebody had tipped the coach that this kid could really pump the rock. The coach said yeah, yeah, heard that one before. Then he gave Dillard a look and later said, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

It wasn’t long before Nolan Richardson, the coach from Arkansas, got the word. He gave Dillard a shot--literally. A green light to shoot from anywhere, any time. To come off the bench, ice cold, and heat things up. Which old man Dillard promptly did. Thirty-nine points against Delaware State in only 25 minutes. (Twelve three-pointers!) Twenty-three points in 15 minutes against Southern Methodist. Sixteen points in 10 minutes against Louisiana State. An incredible 72 three-pointers this season, in limited playing time.

And not any old three-pointers, but ones from far, far behind the three-point arc. Al Dillard’s bombs-away act made Arkansas crowds go crazy. The pep band struck up Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” as soon as he came into a game. No Razorback fan was calling him Father Time or Antique. Even President Clinton gave an interview in which he called Alex Dillard his favorite player to watch.

“Can you imagine that?” Dillard asks. “The man comes to our practice and says he wants to meet me. I’m there wanting to meet him and he says, ‘No, I want to meet you .’ The President of the United States wants to meet me more than I want to meet him.”

The First Fan was here Saturday for Arkansas’ 91-82 elimination of Arizona. Arkansas needed Dillard for only 12 minutes. The coach pulled Al off the bench and told him to do his thing. He did it, bang, bang, two trips down the floor. Three-pointer from 25 feet. Three-pointer from 27 feet. In a close game, Arkansas suddenly was up by a dozen points, and Richardson called Dillard right back to the bench until he would be needed again.

Asked Dillard’s shooting range, Richardson said: “When he walks into the gym.”

And now he’s going for a national championship. Has anyone older ever won one? Not lately.

“What about that guy (Ronnie) Highsmith, out of Georgetown?” Dillard asks. “How old was he?”

“Same as you, I think,” someone says.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know,” Al says. “Being the oldest, is that a good thing or not? I guess it is. Especially when I’m thinking about where I could be now.

“My girlfriend said there are three things you can be. You can be below average, you can be average, you can be above average. She said it all depends on you. I said I’d prefer to be above average. It’s, like, who wouldn’t? Only you just can’t sit there and wish for it. You got to go to school and make something of yourself.”


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