Thursday March 19th, 2009

MIAMI -- Jonny Flynn had seen the tape. The Syracuse point guard had studied the roster. He still couldn't believe it.

"Have you seen him?" Flynn asked Thursday afternoon. "Is he really 5-3?"

Stephen F. Austin point guard Eric Bell is indeed 5-foot-3, and even that may be a bit generous. Chris Dyer, Bell's coach at DeSoto (Texas) High, said Bell needed "about three phone books" to properly pilot the Mazda Protégé that Dyer calls the Silver Skateboard. Bell's mother, Wendy, claims mom and son are the same height, though Bell said his mom is closer to 5-1. Given the magnitude of the moment, Wendy will give her son the benefit of the doubt. "He made it to the Big Dance," she said. "I'll let him be the big man."

The smallest player in this year's NCAA tournament has made one of the biggest contributions to his team. If not for Bell, the 14th-seeded Lumberjacks might not have earned the first NCAA berth in the program's 84-year history. If not for the guy who barely reaches the armpit of Southland Conference Player of the Year Matt Kingsley, Stephen F. Austin probably wouldn't be facing third-seeded Syracuse at 12:15 p.m. Friday.

Two years ago, Lumberjacks coach Danny Kaspar watched too many leads evaporate in the closing minutes. As Stephen F. Austin hit the stretch run of its conference schedule in 2006-07, the rest of the Southland had solved Kaspar's team. Late in the second half of games, opponents pressed without mercy. A conference title contender wound up finishing third in its division because the Lumberjacks couldn't cross midcourt against a press.

In the process of recruiting 6-5 guard Walt Harris from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, Kaspar looked down and saw Bell waterbugging his way through every trap. Bell's height was of little consequence. Kaspar needed him in the piney woods of Nacogdoches, Texas. No matter what opponents threw at Bell, he almost always got the ball into the frontcourt. "I was hell-bent to get somebody who could bring the ball down the floor and break presses all by himself," Kaspar said. "When I saw him play, I thought he could do that."

Few others could look past Bell's height. Though he starred in a quality program at DeSoto and ran in the same travel-ball circles as former Kansas star Darrell Arthur and former Texas Tech football star Michael Crabtree, no Division I staff would lower the You-Must-Be-This-Tall requirement. "There was always that 'but,'" Wendy said. "You had to brace yourself because you knew the "but" was coming."

For a moment, Bell considered quitting hoops. He had the grades to attend just about any college he wanted. "He was taking classes in 10th grade," Dyer said, "that I didn't take in college." When junior college coaches began calling, Wendy asked her son to reconsider. "Don't let your height or someone else tell you that you can't play the game that you love," Wendy told Eric. So she made him a deal. He would play for a junior college his freshman year. If he didn't like it, Wendy and her husband, Anthony, would foot the bill for him to attend Stephen F. Austin.

Wendy and Anthony had to swallow hard when they made that deal. The couple had always assumed Eric would be their only child, but a little less than five years ago, the Bells learned a new addition to the family was on the way. The expense of a new baby hit the family finances hard, but Wendy and Anthony were prepared to follow through with their promise.

Four-year-old Erin is her not-so-big brother's biggest fan. She and Wendy cheer the loudest, because they know everyone else in the gym doubts Eric. Wendy hears the whispers in the stands, and she loves it when those same fans sit in stunned silence as guard barely tall enough to ride a rollercoaster tears their team apart. One day, Wendy had heard so much pregame chatter that she couldn't help but crow as the Lumberjacks pulled away. "Those Clydesdales can't handle that pony," she yelled.

Eric himself hears the talk before games. "I got some looks. I got some smirks. I got some whispers. I got some laughs," he said. "I pretty much got everything, but Division I athletes understand. They're competitive. No matter what size you are, they're coming for you."

Still, they can't always accept getting schooled by someone 63 inches tall. Last season, Bell had 12 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in a 66-62 win over Oklahoma in Norman. As he shredded the Sooners -- all his points came in the second half -- he could hear Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel ripping his players for letting the little guy beat them. "Eric frustrates a lot of coaches and a lot of players," Lumberjacks guard Girod Adams said. "When he gets going, there's just nothing you can do with him."

Bell won't crack the scoreboard -- he averages only 3.6 points -- but he might make an opposing point guard crack. "When he gets going, if you put the ball on the floor, it's gone," DeSoto coach Dyer said. "He's that quick." He also rarely falls for a fake. Coaches spend years trying to get their players to watch their man's belly-button, because no matter what the head, the arms or the legs do, the torso doesn't lie. Bell never had a problem with that concept. In a defensive crouch, he's usually at eye-level with his opponent's belly-button.

That's what worries Flynn, the Most Outstanding Player in last week's Big East tournament. Flynn must prepare to defend the ball as Bell darts in and out of his personal space. "You've really got to be careful," said the 6-foot Flynn, who estimates he hit 5-3 in sixth or seventh grade. "You might even have to turn your back to him and dribble because he's going to be all jittery and active." Orange assistant Mike Hopkins offered an even better description. "It's like playing peek-a-boo," Hopkins said.

As a 5-1 high school freshman, Bell dreamed of the growth spurt that would revolutionize his game. For a while, he stretched every day with the hope of triggering that spurt. "I kind of hoped it would come," he said. "But as we know now, it never came."

Instead, Bell turned his height into an advantage. On Friday, Bell will try to prove that even the tiniest underdog can slay a giant. "I know he gets frustrated because he's not their size, but Eric plays with his heart," Wendy Bell said. "In his heart, Eric thinks he's 7-feet tall."

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