There are a few things Richard Solomon, Cal's 6-foot-11, 240-pound senior center, can do that most guys his size can't. He can drop a man with a whirling karate kick to the midsection, and he can bust out a backflip, as surprised members of the football team witnessed one day last spring after Solomon scored a goal in a soccer game among Cal athletes. But as he enters his final year as a Golden Bear, Solomon is focused on doing the things people expect of a man of his stature: dunks, turnaround jump hooks, blocks, and rebounds. Especially rebounds.
"I want to get every rebound out there," says Solomon as he sits in a folding chair on the floor of Haas Pavilion an hour after the Bears have dispatched Southern Utah 75-47 on Nov. 18. Dressed in grey sweats, the 21-year-old social welfare major leans forward with his elbows on his knees, friendly and engaging, yet radiating purpose. "I want to beat my career high in rebounds every game, and I want to see how many consecutive games I can do that."
Alas, on a night when coach Mike Montgomery could confidently empty his bench, Solomon had played just 20 minutes, getting 14 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals. He had already blown past last year's career high in rebounds (14) in two of the team's first three games (16 against Denver and 17 against Oakland), and he's still averaging 11.4 boards as the Bears prepare to battle the Syracuse Orange in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.
He adds two blocks and 11 points a game, fourth on the team behind a backcourt trio of senior point guard Justin Cobbs, a two-time All-Pac 12 selection; versatile sophomore slasher Tyrone Wallace and freshman Jabari Bird, a McDonald's All-America who is shooting better than 50 percent from the three. As productive as those three are, Solomon's continued domination of the paint and ability to stay out of foul trouble -- the Bears' only other experienced frontcourt player is 6-9 junior David Kravish, who is contributing 9.3 points and 7.3 rebounds a game -- may be bigger keys to the Bears' success.
"Richard has become a grab-every-rebound guy," says Cobbs. "You look at everything that's a miss and who has it? Richard."
This is not the same Richard Solomon whom Cobbs first met when they were freshmen at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance, Calif. "Back then, I thought Richard was a goofball, a silly kid who did karate and didn't take basketball too seriously," says Cobbs. At least the second part of that is true. Solomon, who earned a junior black belt in karate when he was 12, didn't play organized basketball until he joined the Bishop Montgomery squad. At the time he didn't know how to do anything but dribble and shoot, and he was still years away from embracing the importance of practice and commitment. "Now basketball is what he eats sleeps and breathes," says Cobbs.
The Richard Solomon of this fall is not even the Richard Solomon of last season, when, thanks in part to his inclination to float out to the perimeter, he was the Bears' high rebounder only 10 times. (All-American shooting guard Allen Crabbe, Solomon's best friend, was high rebounder just as often.) And he is most emphatically not the Richard Solomon of two seasons ago. That Solomon was suspended from the team for a game in December for behavior "contrary to university and athletic department values," according to a school statement, and shortly thereafter declared academically ineligible for the spring semester. "That was terrible, the worst thing ever," says Solomon. "I feel like the more I play, the better I get. So to not be able to play, that really hurt. I felt like I had to take every practice as a game. But I feel like everything happens for a reason. I learned that you can't take things for granted, and there are no shortcuts. If you don't do things you need to do, there will be consequences."
On last year's perimeter-oriented team, he played with more focus and less beyond-the-block wandering to average 8.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. Yet it wasn't until the Bears' final game, a crushing 66-60 loss to Syracuse in the NCAA Round of 32 in San Jose, that he stuck in the paint long enough to finally realize that he truly belonged there. Nervous before the game, Solomon was astonished at the end, when the box score revealed that he had 22 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs. "I realized, that wasn't that hard to do," he says. "All I did was finish plays when I got a dropoff and put myself in a position to rebound the ball. When I did that, it was like, wow! That just showed me that I could be as good as I want to be."
Solomon spent the bulk of his summer at his home in Los Angeles, waking at 4 a.m. for the first of three daily workouts that included conditioning, shooting and skill work. He added muscle and heft to his slender frame without sacrificing any of his extraordinary agility, balance or ability to slither through tight spaces, all of which he attributes to his years of karate. "I know for a fact that I put in a lot more time in the gym than a lot of people," he says. "That gives me confidence, it gives me an edge."
In June, Solomon was invited to the Nike Big Man camp in New Jersey, along with a number of more highly touted college bigs, like Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein and Michigan's Mitch McGary. Solomon was prepared to be intimidated. "I actually surprised myself because, even though I'm skinny, I'm strong, and I was just as strong as most of the guys there," he says. "And I found out I was just as good a player -- maybe better, in my opinion."
Associate head coach Travis DeCuire thinks Solomon probably had another a-ha moment in New Jersey. "I think he realized that none of those guys were around the perimeter, they were all sticking around the paint," says DeCuire.
This season, says DeCuire, "Richard's OK with being a post player as opposed to a 6'10" perimeter player. He's changed his personality as a basketball player."
After launching 28 threes in his first three seasons (shooting 25 percent), Solomon has yet to fire from long distance this season. "We've asked him to stay more in the paint, and he's done that," says Montgomery. "Sometimes he tries to overthink things, but he's big, he runs, he's stronger at 240. You'd just love to see it all come together for him because, if it did, I think he would have a chance to get a look-see at the next level."
You won't find Solomon's name on many mock draft lists now, but that could change if continues to play every possession, as he says, "as if it's my last."
"I feel like I'm just grazing the surface of my potential," he says. "I finally found a love for this game, and you know what? It's a beautiful thing."