He's a Player Now

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It should have been the night of his life, the payoff for thousands of jump shots he launched in his driveway; the reason he left home in Seattle for the University of Arizona.

Michael Dickerson, your school just won the NCAA basketball championship, what are you going to do now?

What could Dickerson say?

Call my shrink?

Dickerson's relationship with Arizona's national title remains a cruel one. A year later, he has still not watched a replay of Arizona's dramatic overtime victory over Kentucky at Indianapolis.

He gave his national championship ring to his grandmother.

Yes, Dickerson paraded around as 'Zona zanies partied at the RCA Dome; yes, he hooted when teammates mussed Coach Lute Olson's immaculate white mane; yes, he stood dutifully by as toasts were raised and nets were lowered.

But, in truth, Arizona's memorable six-game run to the title is a stretch Dickerson would rather forget.

The Wildcats' leading scorer before the tournament at 20 points per game, Dickerson, frankly, froze in the headlights. Despite playing solid defense, his scoring average plummeted to a 10.8 in six games. His shooting percentage, .321, would barely be tolerable to Tony Gwynn as a batting average.

"It just got worse," Dickerson remembered. "I started pressing, started getting worried, started listening to the media and everybody else and my confidence just went down."

Dickerson could have used daily NCAA affirmation from Stuart Smalley--"You're good enough, smart enough and, gosh darn it, you deserve it."

But nothing worked. In the two biggest games of his career--North Carolina in the national semifinals, Kentucky in the title game--Dickerson was a basket case, missing 18 of his 20 shots..

The man who carried Arizona in December, January and February had buckled at the knees in March.

In the meantime, teammate Miles Simon made off with the Final Four most valuable player trophy while basketball anointed Arizona freshman Mike Bibby the new point guard king.

Dickerson returned to lead the Wildcats in scoring again this season, but his moment had passed.

"When you think Arizona, you think Miles Simon and Mike Bibby," Dickerson said last weekend between first-round West Regional games at Sacramento. "But I'm the leading scorer. A lot of people don't know that. There's nothing I can do about that. I'm in their shadow. I got lost in their shadow a couple of years ago, and right now it's too late to dig myself out. So I just live with it."

What he lives with: When Wooden Award semifinalists were announced this year, Dickerson's name was not listed among the top 30. FYI: Bibby and Simon made the final-15 cut.

What he lives with: When preseason All-American teams came out this year, Dickerson was an afterthought.

"Nowhere to be found," Dickerson said. "My teammates were because they scored. Scoring points makes All-Americas."

Simon and Bibby ended up first team All-American; Dickerson was third team.

Of Arizona's Fab Five ensemble of returning starters, Dickerson plays the part of the Fab Four's George, the underestimated, quiet Beatle.

Dickerson, a senior guard/forward, is the least wild Wildcat, never one to command attention.

"I think some of it has to do maybe with his personality," Olson said. "Michael Dickerson is a very, very quiet young man. If we look at where he's come from as a freshman to now, he's tremendously outgoing right now compared to what he was as a freshman. He's just not somebody who says a whole lot."

Yet, Dickerson's game is squawking it up plenty as Arizona mounts a defense of its NCAA title. Dickerson couldn't go the blackboard and erase last year's chalk, but he could do something about this tournament.

"It's not too late," Dickerson said. "This is the time here. The Lord blessed me with another chance, and I'm going to take advantage of it. I think you're going to see a totally different person."

So far so good.

Dickerson enters tonight's Sweet 16 West Regional semifinal game against Maryland at the Pond of Anaheim on a different kind of streak.

Bibby and Simon still command center court, of course, but Dickerson is playing like a man possessed to clear his NCAA name.

He made a loud pre-tournament statement with a 30-point performance at UCLA in the Pacific 10 Conference closer at Westwood, making all 11 of his second-half shots.

Dickerson, at 6 feet 5, was unstoppable off the dribble against UCLA, knifing his way into the lane for pull-up jump shots.

He--not Bibby, not Simon--was the star of the game.

Dickerson has carried that momentum into the tournament. He scored 17 points in 24 minutes in a first-round rout of Nicholls State and followed with 14 points in 28 minutes against Illinois State.

"It's like I want to redeem myself," Dickerson said after the Nicholls State game. "When I get the ball, I'm very aggressive with it. I think the most important thing is, I have confidence."

This can't be good news for remaining teams. If Arizona could win the national title with a freshman point guard, Bibby, and Dickerson mired in a terrible slump, what chance does the field stand with Bibby now a seasoned sophomore and Dickerson on a one-man crusade?

Confidence has always been the issue with Dickerson. Olson has never been quite sure what to make of the quiet Wildcat. Dickerson's demeanor, through good times and bad, never seems to change.

Was Dickerson envious of Simon and Bibby? Would last year's tournament slump affect his senior year? Did Dickerson feel unappreciated?

"I'm sure it's not been easy from Mike's standpoint, but I think people who understand basketball know how important he is to us," Olson said.

Dickerson was a wounded 'Cat after last year's tournament. He even sought counseling last summer to help restore confidence.

Dickerson, however, wants to set one matter straight. He did not give his national title ring to his grandmother, Ora, because he was ashamed of his performance in the tournament, as he says a recent Sports Illustrated article suggests.

"It was not because I did not feel a part of the team," Dickerson said. "That's how they tried to portray it. I gave her the ring because my grandmother is the most important thing in my life. I gave it to her because of that."

Dickerson returned better than ever this year after working out over the summer in Seattle with Gary Payton, Dale Ellis and Detlef Schrempf of the SuperSonics.

Dickerson had one more year to set his NCAA record straight--and wasn't about to waste it.

He finished fourth in the Pac-10 in scoring, averaging 18.7 points while shooting 52.7%, all but assuring his place as the most unsung superstar in Arizona history.

Dickerson has scored 20 or more points in a game 36 times and 30 or more seven times.

Yet, Dickerson is smart enough to know that fighting Bibby and Simon for publicity is a lost cause; smart enough to know he is a better player because of his star teammates.

"It's hard to concentrate on just Miles and Mike," Dickerson said. "Because [guard] Jason Terry is able to come out and score 20, as well as myself. I think we're a very hard team to contend with because you never know when we're going to be on. We're the type of team, if one player is on, we feed that person."

These days, Dickerson couldn't eat another bite.

OK, maybe a few more nibbles.

As Arizona inches toward a return trip to the Final Four, Dickerson appears poised to exorcise the demons of tournament past.

Not long ago, he told the Arizona Daily Star that last year's Final Four haunted him, "like a ghost I'm scared of."

So, Mike, what's it going to be this year?

Rim buster or ghost buster?

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