The fat man was going for broke this time as he raced around the perimeter of the court, slapping palms and windmilling his arms menacingly as thousands of fans cheered him wildly. The Chicago Bulls were about to pull one out late in the fourth quarter, and Super Fan—the Bulls' alarmingly overweight cheerleader—was about ready for a coronary after taking three hard laps around the court. Mark Aguirre, DePaul's remarkable 6'7" freshman forward who has a weight problem of his own, said from his seat in Chicago Stadium, "He looks like he's going to die."
Until recently, many college basketball people thought the same of Aguirre. He reported for DePaul's first practice this fall at 253 pounds, and half a dozen Chicago Aldermen immediately petitioned to have Aguirre subdivided so he could vote twice in their district. In fact, before DePaul's opener with UCLA in November, Aguirre was still such a butterball that Bruin Assistant Coach Jim Harrick felt sorry for him. "Well, he is kind of chunky," Harrick said. "Before the game I thought he looked like he'd be better off if he stayed on the sidelines."
It didn't take long for UCLA to find out that it would have been better off had Aguirre remained on the bench. Early in the game the Bruins applied a full-court press against the Blue Demons, who broke it by firing the ball the length of the court to Aguirre, who was alone in a corner with only UCLA's David Greenwood between him and the basket. Roly-poly Aguirre began to dribble in his roly-poly way toward Greenwood, and when he got close to the 6'9½" UCLA All-America, he rose majestically and dunked the ball in Greenwood's face.
"That told me something about Mark right away," says DePaul Coach Ray Meyer. "In the first minute of his college career he challenged probably the No. 1 forward in the country." Aguirre finished the game with 29 points.
As the season wore on the pounds wore off, and last week Aguirre was down to a semisvelte 234. Better, his scoring average has remained well up in the 20s; in the latest NCAA statistics, his 25.7 points a game were good enough for 12th best in the country. No other freshman is in the top 50, and Aguirre's scoring feats are made even more-impressive by the fact that he is no gunner, but has accumulated his points by shooting 58% from the field. Though the Blue Demons are unranked so far—they finished an inconspicuous third in the nation in the UPI poll last season—they were 10-2 after victories over Georgia Tech (77-71) and Air Force (86-66) last week. If Aguirre continues to improve at his present rate, DePaul could find itself in Fat City by the time the NCAA tournament rolls around.
Aguirre, who is of one-quarter Mexican descent, pronounces his name to rhyme with McGuire. Although he is a product of the playgrounds of Chicago's West Side, Aguirre is capable of doing more than going for a bundle of points. "He can score 30 anytime he wants to," says Meyer. "I told him after our first couple of games that he wasn't rebounding enough or playing good enough defense, and he's worked so hard to prove to me he can do those things well that sometimes he's forgotten to shoot." As a result, in DePaul's seven most recent games, Aguirre's rebounding has gone up from 6.4 to 7.4 a game while his scoring average has slipped a few points.
Meyer calls Aguirre an "O-ffensive machine" and says that for the first time in his 37 seasons at DePaul he has installed an out-of-bounds play that is intended to set up a 20-foot jump shot; Aguirre's 20-footers from the corner are almost automatic. "That kid is one of the great players in the country today," says Ray Scott, the coach at Eastern Michigan, which DePaul beat 96-68 as Aguirre scored 28 points. "He reminds me a lot of Elgin Baylor—he has a jumper just like Elgin's."
Aguirre's style is more often compared with Adrian Dantley's, but though there are some similarities—mostly physical ones, since Dantley, on occasion, has been pudgy, too—Aguirre's game is largely his own invention. With his friend Skip Dillard, who is now playing at Casper (Wyo.) Junior College, Aguirre used to show up at the playgrounds at two in the afternoon and not quit until three in the morning. "When it was bitter cold and the snow was falling," Aguirre says, "we'd shovel the court clean and then shoot some more. We were desperate to play." At Austin High School, Aguirre was what could generously be described as an indifferent student. Mostly he didn't go to class. "I just slept all day and showed up at 3:15 for practice," he says. "I was going about everything the wrong way, letting myself be influenced by the wrong people. If I had stayed at Austin, I probably wouldn't even have finished high school."
When his coach at Austin was fired, Aguirre transferred to Westinghouse High, whose team he led to the Chicago Public League championship his senior year. And it was there that he began hitting the books and getting a B average. It was also there that he began to put on weight. "I think my worst problem was that the Westinghouse coach was Italian," Aguirre says, "and I like Italian food. His wife would cook enough stuff to feed a battalion. When you were finished, you could practically roll away from the table."
Aguirre's mother Mary is no slouch in the kitchen, either. In October, when Meyer was still trying to burn the baby fat off his star pupil, he was flabbergasted one day to see Mary show up at practice carrying two bags loaded with things like fried chicken, chocolate cake, ice cream and potato chips. "If you'll just give me the key to Mark's room," she said, "I'll drop off these goodies for him." Meyer forthwith made sure that word got back to Aguirre's mother that there was to be an embargo on the flow of goodies. Even that edict, however, was not the solution Meyer hoped it would be. "We'd take seven pounds off Mark during the week," Meyer says, "then he'd' go home for a weekend and his mother would put it all back on him."
As things have worked out, Aguirre has needed most of his bulk to survive the knocks; almost all of DePaul's opponents have bullied him physically in an effort to neutralize his effectiveness under the basket. Aguirre came out of the 84-78 victory over Wisconsin with a black eye, a bloody nose and a split lip. "First we'll teach him how to take the punishment," says Meyer, who once taught young George Mikan the same lessons, "then we'll teach him how to give it back."
Aguirre is not all flab. He is so strong that he can soar to the basket and score with a defender hanging on his arm. Against Air Force, Aguirre gathered in a pass at the end of a fast break, held the ball outstretched in his right hand as he became airborne and hammered a windmill dunk on the head of some poor cadet who attempted to interfere with the proceedings. It was just one of four three-point-play opportunities he got against the Falcons.
That play also confirmed Meyer's description of Aguirre's hands as being "the size of toilet seats." He can control the ball completely with either one, which frees him to pull off all manner of twisting one-handed finger rolls and emphatic dunks. With DePaul leading Air Force 36-19, Aguirre took the ball on the dead run at the foul line and raced down the sideline. Then—whoosh!—he was aloft like a Boeing 747, his wings outstretched as he sliced between two defenders. Aguirre dipped his head slightly as he turned his palm and the ball upward and rolled the ball gently into the basket.
"Aguirre is one of the top prospects in the country," Air Force Coach Hank Egan said after Aguirre had hit on 10 of 17 shots while scoring a routine 22 points. "His control of the ball is incredible, and his court sense is excellent for someone his age. Just think how good he could be if he lost a few pounds."