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RIGHT IN HIS BACKYARD

Times Staff Writer

Mike and Jeanne Novak had four children. Two boys, two girls.

When each was born in suburban Milwaukee -- first Andrea, then Steve, Chris and Maggie -- Mike Novak attached to the crib a little Marquette basketball backboard. And he nestled beside the babies a soft little blue and gold Marquette basketball.

So there was no doubt where Steve Novak would go to play college basketball 18 years later, right?

“Actually,” Steve Novak said, “I wanted to go away to school.”

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Novak, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 senior forward for the Golden Eagles, is a Marquette legend now, even before he graduates. With his team in its rookie season in the Big East, Novak led the conference in three-point shooting at 45.6%.

When the Golden Eagles upset Connecticut in their first Big East game, 94-79, Novak had 41 points and 16 rebounds. The points were a Big East record for a player in his conference debut.

He is swamped by young fans outside the Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee and in malls all around Greater Milwaukee.

Yet, Novak says, “I really almost went to Illinois or Florida. I looked at Notre Dame, Purdue and Wisconsin. In my mind, I kind of wanted to go away, to change my experiences and expand my horizons a little bit.”

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Mike Novak said, “He even talked to Henry Bibby a few times about going to USC. His recruiting was really wide open. And I didn’t know what he was thinking either. When the process started, Steve wrote down a list of things that were important to him, but he wouldn’t show me.

“When he finally picked Marquette I couldn’t stand it anymore. I asked him, ‘Was staying close to home a priority?’ And he said, ‘To be honest with you, Dad, location was important. But I never thought I’d be staying anywhere near home.’ Obviously, he changed his mind.”

Father coached son for four years at suburban Brown Deer High, and Steve was captain for three of those years. He averaged more than 22 points and 12 rebounds his junior and senior high school seasons, and he was the focus of Marquette Coach Tom Crean’s recruiting class four years ago.

But all the while, Novak was thinking about the sun in Florida or the big campus and chance to play in the Big Ten by going to Illinois.

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“I really always thought college was about getting away from home and what’s familiar and getting out on your own, doing stuff for yourself,” Novak said. “That’s just how I thought. But the more I saw what Coach Crean was about, and listened to what he wanted to accomplish at Marquette, it seemed more and more like the place for me.”

The Novak family is extremely close. Steve went to the backyard hoop because his older sister, Andrea, did. His younger brother, Chris, played because Steve and Andrea played. Maggie, 11, is now polishing her game against her older brothers.

Mike, who has coached at Brown Deer for more than 20 years, said he didn’t pressure Steve to keep playing college basketball at home.

“That wasn’t for me to do,” Mike said.

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Crean said that although some players might feel extra pressure to be a star if they stay at home in college, that hasn’t been the case with Steve.

“Some kids come with an entourage if they stay home, but Steve’s family and friends are just great people who are happy with whatever their son does,” he said.

Steve’s parents didn’t travel to New York last week where Marquette, unranked nationally but fourth-seeded in the Big East tournament, was beaten by 23rd-ranked Georgetown. But Mike Novak, who is also the athletic director at Brown Deer, did pull rank once this season.

“We had a league game scheduled on a Friday night this year when Marquette was scheduled to play Notre Dame,” Mike said.

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“So I got our game switched to Thursday so I could go. Steve hit a shot with one second left and Marquette won, 62-60. It’s a moment like that when you realize how lucky you are to have your son close by.”

Steve agrees.

“If you can do what you love at the level you want and be close to your family and friends, life is pretty good,” he said.

So does that mean he’s aiming to be drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks?

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“Hey, if there is any NBA team that wants me,” Novak said, “I’ll go anywhere.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

MARQUETTE ROSTER

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Team roster and hometowns:

*--* NAME P CL HOMETOWN Ryan Amoroso F So. Burnsville, Minn. Ousmane Barro F So. Dakar, Senegal Tommy Brice G So. Bloomingdale, Ill. Dwight Burke F Fr. New York City Joe Chapman G-F Sr. Chicago Hts., Ill. Dan Fitzgerald F So. St. Paul, Minn. Chris Grimm F-C Sr. Brighton, Mich. Dominic James G Fr. Richmond, Ind. Mike Kinsella C Jr. Rochester, Minn. Jamil Lott F Jr. St. Paul, Minn. Wesley Matthews G Fr. Madison, Wis. Jerel McNeal G Fr. Chicago Steve Novak F Sr. Brown Deer, Wis.

*--*


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