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For Croshere, It’s Payoff Time

Austin Croshere’s flight landed Tuesday afternoon in North Carolina, the aviation state, and the travelin’ man from Santa Monica hit the ground running. A tall, thick-haired basketball player with Elvis sideburns and a Batman jaw, his life has been in a transition game for several weeks, interviewing and auditioning with NBA teams.

Calling on the run by cellular phone, Croshere says, “You do 13 cities in 13 weeks, and never in one for more than 24 hours, man, it’s an adjustment.”

Croshere--rhymes with “grocer"--is in Charlotte to meet his future, most likely among the top 15 picks of today’s draft. A few years ago, he was a student at a small Santa Monica private school. A few months from now, he could be putting moves on Scottie Pippen, or guarding Grant Hill.

His schedule has been hectic. Indiana (picking 12th) and New Jersey (seventh and 21st) called the 6-foot-9 forward back for multiple visits. Each team drafting 10th through 17th--including the Clippers--had him in, as did Boston (which chooses third and sixth). He spent Monday of last week in Milwaukee, the next day in Orlando, the next in Dallas.

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NBA travel. Get used to it.

“I’ll have to,” Croshere says. “But your first time’s always the hardest.”

Many believe Indiana is his destination. Croshere apparently made a strong impression on the new coach there, a guy named Larry Bird.

Of the last few weeks, Croshere says, “That’s been the best part. To talk to someone who knows the game and loves it. To go to dinner with a Don Nelson, talk basketball all night, or with an Elgin Baylor, a legend.

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“I’m out there shooting shots, and Larry Bird is rebounding them. It would hit me all of a sudden. ‘Wait, that’s Larry Bird, rebounding for me.’ ”

It could be that Bird sees a little of himself out there.

Not in the part about attending a private academy--Bird was a farm boy who once worked on a garbage truck--but in the way Croshere made more of himself, through sheer manual labor. At Providence, the player’s work habits were positively Bird-like. The 500 jump shots each night. The 200 free throws each day. The hours spent, simply dribbling a ball, or pantomiming post moves. The barbells he lifted, until his college coach had to order Austin to lighten up.

Pete Gillen once described his star player as so focused, “He’s like a Cyclops.”

Yet recruiters couldn’t see what was coming. Major colleges didn’t exactly clamor for Croshere when his high school career at the exclusive Crossroads School was near an end. Connecticut did offer a scholarship, but by the time Croshere got in touch to accept it, UConn had already given it away.

He moved to that neck of the woods anyway, enrolling at Providence and trying to fit in, unsuccessfully at first. A teammate remembered how immature Croshere seemed, laughing when he should have been serious. Yet he played seriously, particularly in Santa Monica’s summer leagues. And, he was smart, a college business major. And, he put in long hours.

“Providence is not in a major market. The school is in a major conference, but kind of in the second tier of those schools,” Croshere says. “It attracts the diamonds in the rough, the players who work harder to get where they need to go. Providence’s coaches insist on that. That’s the only kind of athlete they’ll tolerate.

“It was beneficial to me, the same way my high school years were. Crossroads isn’t your typical school. You get to experience people from diverse backgrounds. The school is so small, only 10 to 20 students per class. And it’s more artsy. You meet drama students, art students, musicians. At a larger school, I probably would have just stayed together with the rest of the athletes, and I’d have missed out on a lot of interesting things. I consider myself very fortunate.”

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He wasn’t pampered.

Providence’s coaches caught him sneaking into the campus gym on summer nights. Croshere would unlock a window before leaving, return under a cloak of darkness each night, scale a five-foot fence, then contort his 6-9, 230-pound body through the tight space, like a burglar. There was no air conditioning, so the gym was often like a sauna.

The better he got, the better he did against Syracuse, Georgetown and the rest of the Big East. He lit up John Wallace--now a New York Knick--for 28 points and 14 rebounds in a 1995 conference tournament game. Then he lit up last year’s NCAA tournament, leading the Friars to a surprise drive to the Elite Eight.

Croshere fought off everything, including food poisoning.

“We got some bad fish,” recalls Croshere, who got sick during the Big East tournament. “We lost me, coaches and a manager.”

Croshere’s popularity at Providence grew and grew. As he turned pro, the first thing Croshere asked his agent, Leigh Steinberg, was for help in how to buy an advertisement in the Providence newspaper, thanking all the Friar fans.

That sent him on his way, and brought Croshere to today, to another crossroads in his life.


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