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Gardner Hopes to Get in Last Word

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jelani Gardner had just made perhaps the biggest play of his college basketball career to give Pepperdine a 70-67 victory at Loyola Marymount last Saturday when a Loyola fan scampered to the edge of the court.

“Hey, Gardner,” the fan yelled. “You’re overrated.”

If Gardner has heard it once, he’s heard it a thousand times. From fans. From sportswriters. Even from coaches.

An All-American and blue-chip recruit in high school, Gardner was suddenly perceived as a disappointment after his two-year stint at California ended in a morass of bitterness and scandal.

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His playing ability was questioned, temporarily shaking his confidence. But his transfer to Pepperdine in 1996 started him on a course that finally appears to be taking the shape of a comeback trail.

After struggling at times early in the season, Gardner has been on a tear the past month. The 6-foot-6 junior guard entered the week as the leading scorer in West Coast Conference play, averaging 18.8 points and shooting 55% from three-point range. In two games against Loyola last week, he scored 44 points and made nine of 12 three-point shots.

He earned the wrath of Loyola’s fans after his steal and breakaway layup with 8.8 seconds to play beat the Lions last weekend.

Gardner, who three days earlier blamed himself for the Waves’ 81-79 loss to Loyola after making a critical turnover and then allowing the winning basket in the final seconds of overtime, couldn’t resist getting in the last word with the crowd.

He stood defiantly on the court, shouting and pointing at the Loyola student section.

“The fans have really been on me and I try to have fun with that,” he said. “Off the court, I’m pretty low-key. I don’t want to bring a lot of attention to myself. I guess on the court is where I express myself.”

Gardner’s game is a picture of athletic grace, a combination of boundless leaps, cat-quick moves and high-arching shots. Watching him play, it’s easy to see why he was selected state player of the year by Cal-Hi Sports as a senior at Bellflower St. John Bosco High in 1994.

He averaged 25 points and seven assists that season and The Sporting News rated him the 11th-best college prospect in the nation. It wasn’t a matter of if he would play in the NBA so much as when.

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But in Gardner’s quest to make his dream a reality, he got sidetracked.

“At Cal, we were so talented, everybody’s goal was to get to the NBA,” he said. “I started to play for that instead of concentrating on each game and playing for the fun of it.”

He started as a freshman and played well, but the honeymoon didn’t last. By his second season in Berkeley, he was being pulled early from games by Coach Todd Bozeman. Frustrated, Gardner transferred after the 1995-96 season.

In the meantime, Gardner’s father, Tom, contacted the NCAA and admitted to accepting cash from a representative of the Cal basketball program before his son’s enrollment.

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The fallout from the revelation resulted in Bozeman being forced to resign and later admitting to making payments of $30,000 from 1994-96 to Gardner’s parents. Cal was put on three years’ probation, including a ban on postseason play this year.

Gardner said he did not know about the payments.

“When I was transferring, my father felt like Bozeman was trying to ruin my career by forcing me out at Cal,” Gardner said. “He felt that it wasn’t right to do that, to let [Bozeman] get away scott-free.

“He felt like if [Bozeman] was trying to punish us, we should punish him. I was all for that. We couldn’t sit back and let him hurt us.”

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Tom Gardner said it was difficult to admit taking the money, knowing the publicity would reflect poorly on everyone in the family and jeopardize his relationship with his son.

"[Jelani] was very disappointed,” the elder Gardner said, “but he has managed to rise above it. . . . I made a mistake, no question.”

Pepperdine Coach Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant who recruited Gardner for the Bruins, said he didn’t learn about the payments until after Gardner had transferred to Pepperdine.

“I was shocked by it,” Romar said. “It wasn’t the ideal situation to bring someone in, but knowing him and having talked with him, I felt it was something that was behind him.”

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Romar said Gardner’s image has unjustly suffered because of the scandal.

“Some people might view him as this kid in the fast lane who wants to take the money and run,” Romar said. “But he does well in the classroom. He’s well-liked around campus and on the team. He’s become much more of a leader.”

Gardner’s confidence absorbed a beating by the time he left Cal.

“In my sophomore year, every time I made a mistake, I was taken out of the game,” he said. “When I transferred, I had to start all over. I’d forgotten all my moves and how to be a good basketball player.”

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Forced to sit out last season in accordance with NCAA rules pertaining to transfers, Gardner worked on his game as well as his priorities. His dream is still the same, but he has other goals. A telecommunications major, he would like to work as a color commentator someday.

“I still want to be a professional basketball player, it’s just that my outlook has changed,” he said. “I want to get my degree. That really wasn’t one of my focuses in my first few years of college.”

Gardner has also made adjustments on the court. Once a player who looked for his shot first, Gardner now looks for his teammates since taking over as Pepperdine’s primary ballhandler in late December.

“He has begun to run our team,” Romar said. “He has begun to get people the ball and at the same time he has remained a scoring threat.

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“When he decides the most important thing is for him to score baskets, he’s not as effective and we’re not as good a team. When he decides to get the team involved, he’s a pretty awesome talent.”

Romar said one of Gardner’s best games was against San Francisco on Jan. 17. Although Gardner made only one of six shots, he made several key passes down the stretch to set up teammates for baskets and helped the Waves rally from an 11-point deficit for a 63-58 victory.

“That was the biggest statement he has made this season,” Romar said.

Gardner’s coming of age has included an improved work ethic on defense, which Romar says could help his NBA chances.

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“Offensively, Jelani is an NBA talent,” said Romar, who had a four-year career with the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks. “What will get him to the next level is continuing to do the little things defensively.”

With basketball fun again, Gardner relishes the opportunity to banter with fans and officials. Tom Gardner has noticed his son’s renewed enthusiasm.

“When I see him not being animated, I’m concerned,” the elder Gardner said. “When I see him having fun like he did at Loyola Marymount, I know he’s enjoying himself.”


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