The recruiting process has come full circle in the Gardner family.
In the spring of 1963, Tom Gardner, a 6-foot-3 guard, was an all-state basketball selection as a high school senior in Columbia, S.C. With segregation still a fact of life for black athletes in the South, Gardner's college options were limited.
All-expenses-paid campus recruiting visits? Not in his wildest dreams. Phone calls at all hours from curious college coaches, fans and media? Get real. Fact is, Gardner had neither met the head basketball coach nor seen the campus the day he showed at Morgan State to enroll.
Fast-forward to the spring of 1994. On Friday afternoon, in the gymnasium at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Tom Gardner's youngest son, Jelani, a polished 6-6 point guard, will announce to an audience of family, friends, classmates and media his college destination.
Gardner, who averaged 25 points per game this past season while leading St. John Bosco to its first Southern Section championship in any sport, was one of the most heavily recruited players in the country.
A natural ballhandler who shoots accurately from three-point range, he has proved to be a leader on the court.
"I went through the process alone. A priority of mine was being there for Jelani," said Tom Gardner, who, along with his wife, Linda, and sports agent James Casey, a relative, has helped guide his son throughout the recruiting experience.
"I'm happy he chose to sign late (instead of during the November signing period). He's seen a lot of different programs, been to a lot of schools, talked to a lot of players. I think he'll be very comfortable with whatever decision he makes."
Comfortable? Now that's a feeling Jelani Gardner hasn't enjoyed in a while.
"I'm more confused than ever," he said by phone from his hotel in Troy, Mich., while preparing to play in last Sunday's Magic Johnson high school all-star game at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Several factors are weighing on Gardner's mind:
* At Arkansas, which recently won its first national basketball championship, he could be a key performer on a deep and talented team capable of winning a few more titles. But his patience could be tested, too, because the Razorbacks' top three guards return next season.
With the nation's No. 1 fan, President Clinton, cheering the team on, and a sparkling new 20,000-seat arena, Coach Nolan Richardson's program is the hottest in the country right now. "I was really happy for the guys," Gardner says, "but them winning the national championship is not going to affect my decision."
Just as they did with Kidd, the Bears have made a strong late run at Gardner, who for a long time rejected Cal because of the expected media and fan scrutiny likely to follow Kidd's successor. But a factor favoring the Bears is 30-year-old Coach Todd Bozeman, who is "like a big brother," Gardner says. "It would be nice to have that kind of relationship with your coach."
* At UCLA, it's the chance to play at home, in front of family and friends, for a school he admits has long been closest to his heart. "Coach (Jim) Harrick and I have had a friendship since he first saw me play in eighth grade," Gardner says. "In my mind, I signed my letter of intent with the Bruins back then."
Adds Gardner: "I know UCLA needs a shooting guard, Cal needs a point guard and Arkansas could use another guard, too. I think I can fit in very well at all three places."
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski had a dual purpose in Southern California last weekend: accompany senior All-American Grant Hill to the John R. Wooden Award ceremonies Friday at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and pay a visit to the home of Ventura College forward Brandon Jessie.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson also dropped by to see the 6-6 Jessie last week. Jessie was scheduled to visit Duke this weekend, but that trip has been canceled and the Blue Devils are out of the picture, as is UCLA. He still plans to take official trips to Georgetown and Arizona State and may also take an unofficial trip to UC Santa Barbara. Jessie recently visited Utah and Nevada Las Vegas.