Shipp Finally Able to Set Sail

Times Staff Writer

James Knight is 78, but age has not diminished the moment in his mind, even though it occurred over a decade ago.

He clearly recalls standing on the sidelines as a coach in a youth basketball game being played in Westchester. With time running out and his team needing one more basket for a victory, Knight can still see one of his 8-year-old players confidently asking for the ball.

"So we got him the ball," Knight said.

The kid took off from midcourt, dribbled through a maze of opposing defenders and threw the ball up and into the hoop.

"You would have thought our team had just won a world championship or something the way they celebrated," said Knight, chuckling at the memory.

The youthful heroics reinforced his impression of the kid.

"I'd been around world-class athletes," said Knight, who played basketball at Kentucky State and had been an Olympic hopeful in track and field, "so I know there is something you can detect in athletes who have that extra drive. And he had it."

OK, so maybe Knight was a little biased. The kid was his grandson.

But the years have validated Knight's assessment. That kid, Josh Shipp, has wanted the ball in his hands ever since. And when he has gotten it, he has usually produced.

As a high school senior, Shipp led Fairfax to its first Division I state championship, scoring 22 of his team's 51 points in the title clincher, including five three-point baskets in the second half.

As a freshman last season at UCLA, Shipp earned a starting role, finishing among the team leaders in all the key statistical categories. His 5.2 rebounds a game were the most of any freshman in the conference.

"We all think our offspring are going to be superstars," Knight said. "But Josh just had an intensity about him, even when he was young. If he'd lose, he'd cry."

When it came time to choose a college, there was no reason to assume Shipp would be heading to Westwood. If anything, it was cardinal and gold that ran through his veins. His father, Joe, played tight end for USC in 1977.

Josh's brother, Joe, not only played for the California Golden Bears, but led the Pacific 10 Conference in scoring with a 20.4 average in the 2002-03 season.

"I just wanted to do my own thing," said Josh, explaining how he wound up at UCLA.

Or as his mother, Deborah, put it, "He just wanted to blaze his own trail."

An added bonus for Josh is having his grandfather, who still lives in L.A., in attendance at all of his home games.

Having built such a solid basketball foundation in his first season at UCLA, Shipp was expecting to reap the dividends this season when both he and teammates Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo would be sophomores.

Shipp spent the early summer preparing. If he wasn't in the weight room, inflating his 6-foot-5 frame to 231 pounds, he could be found on the court, honing his basketball skills.

And then, it all ended. Not suddenly, but gradually, his dreams of a big season reduced to the hope that he would even have a season.

The moment where it turned seemed innocuous enough. Playing at West Los Angeles College in July, Shipp was inadvertently knocked down.

No big deal. He'd been knocked down many times before.

But this time was different. He didn't feel any pain at first. He even finished the game. But the next day he felt an ache on his right hip.

He took a few days off and the pain went away. Shipp resumed playing and the pain soon came back. And so it went into August. Week by week, the pain visited more frequently.

Finally, Shipp went for tests. The result: Torn cartilage in a hip joint that would require surgery.

Playing basketball was suddenly second on his list of priorities behind being able to walk and run normally.

After undergoing the arthroscopic hip procedure Sept. 28, Shipp, on crutches, was told not to touch a basketball for a month.

But telling a gym rat to stay out of the gym is like telling the rats with the long tails to stay away from the cheese.

Shipp sheepishly admits that he would hobble over to a basket on crutches, get into a chair set up underneath, exchange his crutches for a ball, and shoot away as long as he could find a ball retriever.

Along with this clandestine activity, Shipp diligently worked at rehabilitation, pointing toward Dec. 29, the Bruins' Pac-10 opener against Stanford.

Sure enough, in the opening minute of that game against the Cardinal at Pauley Pavilion, when Afflalo stole the ball from a Stanford player and hurled it down court toward the UCLA basket, there was Shipp on the receiving end, taking the pass at full stride, as if he'd never been hurt, laying the ball into the basket and drawing a foul as well. He also made the free throw.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland had said he didn't expect to play Shipp for than 20 minutes that game. Shipp played 29. He came back Saturday against Cal and played 27 minutes. In the two games, he averaged 10.5 points and pulled down a total of six rebounds.

It hasn't, however, been as easy as Shipp sometimes makes it look. Howland estimates it will be a month before Shipp resembles the player he was before he took that fall.

"I've had pain and stiffness," he said, "but I'm just going to have to fight through that. There are a couple of moves I've tried to make where I just didn't have my legs under me. It feels weak in my [hip] joint sometimes and I don't have the explosiveness I had before."

But the intensity is still there. James Knight can see that from the stands. Just as he saw so many years ago in the eyes of an 8-year-old with a game on the line.

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