Mark Aguirre leaned forward in his seat at The Seminary and bowed his head for a moment, as if to pray. Behind him the afternoon sun irradiated a stained-glass window. Except for the clatter of a passing El train, The Seminary was silent when Aguirre began to speak. "I don't know how all this got started," he said. "The things people are saying, that I have an attitude problem, that I'm a bad actor—who starts those rumors?"
If Aguirre, a forward from DePaul who is considered the most talented player available in next Tuesday's NBA draft, was feeling like the victim of character assassination last week, he was at least in the right neighborhood for it. The Seminary, for years a favored restaurant among DePaul players, is situated across the street from the old Biograph Theater. It was outside the Biograph that on July 27, 1934 the notorious Lady in Red betrayed the nefarious John Dillinger, sending him to an untimely reward in a hail of G-men's bullets. Aguirre, on the other hand, has been watching his reputation suffer a series of small deaths. He knows that pro scouts and general managers are puzzling over whether he is a jump-shooting angel or some kind of basketball gangster. And their decision could mean a difference of as much as a million dollars to him.
Since Aguirre burst upon the college scene as a DePaul freshman in 1978-79, he has been one of the most carefully watched, intensely feared and routinely gossiped-about players in the sport. That season he scored 24.0 points a game and led DePaul from oblivion to the NCAA's final four. As a sophomore he became college basketball's Player of the Year, averaging 26.8 ppg. DePaul was ranked No. 1 for much of that season, but Aguirre caused a furor by admitting that he found it difficult to get up for games against lesser teams. Then the Blue Demons took their top ranking into the NCAA tournament and folded in the first round.
Because DePaul failed to win the championship, there was speculation that Aguirre would turn pro on the strength of his season. But even then there were doubts about him in the NBA. "The way I heard it, I was 'questionable,' " Aguirre says. "I decided I couldn't go out on an if-and-maybe situation."
Instead, Aguirre played on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and returned to DePaul for his junior—and last—season. That was a decision calculated in dollars and cents. Pro scouts had rated him only as one of the top 20 college prospects after his sophomore year, and with another season of collegiate experience he moved to the head of the list. But again a highly touted Blue Demon team lost in the first round of the tournament and rumors about Aguirre's bad attitude persisted. "NBA teams realize that along with a talent evaluation there must be a psychological one," says one scout. "Aguirre's bad-actor reputation has teams thinking he could be a real detriment. The biggest misconception about the NBA draft is that a player's talent or size alone determines his worth."
And now there's also a question about Aguirre's size. Last season he was listed at 6'7", but NBA scouts insist that he's barely 6'5". That information has teams reevaluating his future role. Can he play small forward or should he be a shooting guard?
Dallas has the first pick in the draft and now seems likely to use it for Indiana Guard Isiah Thomas, rather than Aguirre. "To be honest with you," says Allen Stone, the Mays' director of public relations, "we're a little afraid of what we've heard about Aguirre's attitude problems."
If Aguirre is still available after three players have been taken, the Chicago Bulls would then be confronted with the unpleasant possibility of passing on a star who grew up on that city's playgrounds. "He's not a bad guy," says Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn, "he's just very emotional on the court. When things are going wrong for him, everyone in the arena knows it. Half the reporters in Chicago are anti-Aguirre, and the other half are pro. It's the same with the fans. Our general feeling is that it's not necessary for us to take him, even though he's the best offensive player in the draft."
DePaul Coach Ray Meyer has told some NBA people that Aguirre is difficult to work with, has prima donna tendencies, is self-indulgent and likes to be pampered. Last week he also said Aguirre's great talent has been the source of Aguirre's problems. "Mark could always turn it on and off whenever he wanted to," Meyer said. "That's what gave him the attitude problem. He's not going to be able to score whenever he wants to in the pros, but they can't stop him, either. His first year he'll rise to the occasion because he wants to show the world he's great. That's Mark. He has a tremendous ego. But what is he going to do after that first year when there's no challenge anymore?"
Joey Meyer, Ray's son and assistant, who has suggested to some pro scouts that his father may have contributed to Aguirre's attitude problems by not disciplining Aguirre early on, believes Aguirre will flourish in the pros. Most of the NBA people he talked to were worried that Aguirre would become the next Bob McAdoo, a talented but enigmatic head case. "They want to know," Joey says, "if he can't get ready for 27 games, how can he get ready for 82?"
There has been talk that Aguirre might be passed over until the eighth or ninth pick, and although that now seems unlikely, Aguirre is prepared for whatever comes. "My whole life I've never been a problem person," he says, drawing himself up to his full height, such as it is. "But if that's the rap on me, and if I have to pay for it now, then I'll pay for it now.
"If I'm chosen as late as eighth in the draft, it will hurt me moneywise on my first contract. But if I turn out to be the player I'm supposed to be, there are going to be a lot of general managers in trouble. And then it's going to hurt somebody else moneywise. Permanently."
What follows is an evaluation by Dallas Maverick Scout Richie O'Connor of other top prospects in next week's draft.
Isiah Thomas (G, 6'1", 180 pounds, Indiana) There's an old NBA axiom that if good centers are hard to find, then good point guards are even harder. Thomas is more than a good point guard, he's a great one. He's one of those gifted playmakers who can dominate the entire flow of a game, a rarity for a small man in the NBA. He's the first guard since Kansas City's Phil Ford who seems capable of creating his team's tempo, distributing the ball on the break, reading defenses and realizing who's hot and making sure that player gets the ball. Moreover, Thomas is a much better shooter than Ford; in fact, he's a better shooter than any point guard currently in the league.
Buck Williams (F, 6'8", 230. Maryland) Buck is your basic 10-10-10 man, meaning that over the next 10 years he'll average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds a game. Potentially, he's another Paul Silas, though he has much more natural ability. As a power forward, he's a relentless rebounder. His offensive game seemed limited in college, but that's attributable to Coach Lefty Driesell's helter-skelter offense; so many times last season Williams had great position inside and the Maryland players couldn't or wouldn't get him the ball. Yet he never sulked, which is why the pros love him. Like Silas, he has a great attitude. All he wants to do is win.
Rolando Blackman (G, 6'6", 190, Kansas State) A perplexing player. One game he's absolutely terrific, a real Otis Birdsong type, the next game he shows very little. He does possess the size and strength and shot to be an effective scoring guard. He doesn't penetrate much, and he often overdribbles.
Steve Johnson (C, 6'10½", 225, Oregon State) An iffy prospect. In the lane he has an excellent variety of offensive moves—hooks, turnarounds, up-and-unders. He runs well, but he lacks aggressiveness and his rebounding is atrocious; the only rebounds he gets are those that fall into his hands. His transitional game from defense to offense is good, but his transition the other way is weak. He's consistently in foul trouble, largely because of stupid fouls. Just once you'd love to see him commit a foul of authority, like smashing a guy as he drives the lane. The worry is he might be another LaRue Martin, Dana Lewis or Tom Riker. Remember them?
Al Wood (F-G, 6'6", 187, North Carolina) Along with having a great attitude and a winning college background, Wood is a superb athlete. He can play both small forward and big guard. He's sound fundamentally, plays good team defense and hits the 20- to 25-footer. Yet his most admirable quality often tends to be overlooked: At 6'6" he can rebound with the big boys. Because he's from North Carolina, everyone immediately compares him with former Tar Heel Walter Davis, now with Phoenix. Like Davis, Wood has a great jump shot, but he's a better penetrator and a better creator, mainly because he drives more.
Frank Johnson (G, 6'1", 175, Wake Forest) All year long the word was Johnson was too small. Baloney. At 6'1" Johnson is versatile enough to play both point and shooting guard, a la San Antonio's James Silas. He has a good background, having played in the tough ACC, and he's physical, extremely quick and, like his brother, Eddie, who plays for Atlanta, he can fly downcourt, stop and hit a 20-footer. After Isiah, the best point guard available.
Orlando Woolridge (F, 6'9", 215, Notre Dame) For a big man, Wool-ridge is an exceptional ball handler, almost guardlike. He has a good eye from the corners, he can fill a lane on the break and he understands the game, meaning he not only can see a play develop but can also make it. His biggest weakness is rebounding. The hope is he'll turn out to be a better pro than a collegian because he'll be out from under the Digger Phelps system. Then again, except for Adrian Dantley, no Irish player from the Phelps era has fared exceptionally well in the pros. Hmmm.
Danny Vranes (F, 6'7", 212, Utah) The big question is his size; he doesn't have the quickness of a small forward or the strength—he's not especially physical—of a power forward. He is, however, a good leaper, he has a deceptively quick first step, and he's considered a "coach's kid"—a player who isn't overly gifted but who will work hard and follow instructions.
Albert King (F, 6'6", 190, Maryland) The possessor of extraordinary natural skills. A fabulous outside shooter, with decent speed and great spring. His defense is suspect, and at times he forces bad shots. What's more, his offensive game is "robotized": two, maybe three, dribbles and then a shot. Though he can pass, he rarely drives and creates scoring opportunities. Last year he seemed to disappear at crucial moments in big games. Was that because he didn't want the ball, or because Driesell's troops couldn't get it to him?
Kelly Tripucka (F, 6'6", 210, Notre Dame) Before Kansas City's Ernie Grunfeld played superbly in the NBA playoffs, Tripucka's stock was so-so; scouts considered him a Grunfeld clone: a tough, schoolyard player who could be a ninth man and not cause headaches. Grunfeld's performances made scouts think more highly of Tripucka. And now, with an emphasis in the league shifting toward going "with the biggest lineup possible," Tripucka may see a lot of playing time next season.
Darnell Valentine (G, 6'1", 180, Kansas) Great body, but can't shoot a lick. Plays solid defense, knows how to run a team, but too often lapses into a runaway style, meaning that he'll penetrate the middle, leave his feet and, like Washington's Kevin Porter, will throw the ball away. But if he can be controlled, he can play.
Ray Tolbert (F, 6'9", 218, Indiana) Great court awareness. Because he played under Bobby Knight, he's perceived to be better than perhaps he really is. Because of Knight's disciplined style of play, the extent of Tolbert's offensive game is uncertain. He can run and jump, but he's slender and will really get banged around. Still, he's not a pussycat and he can play team defense, which in itself should ensure him a spot somewhere.
Howard Wood (F, 6'7", 230, Tennessee) A sleeper. Has a reputation for physical play, and deserves it. He really mixes it up inside. His shooting range is only 15 feet, and his defense is questionable. Could be a nice seventh or eighth man, and if he wants it bad enough, he might be another Reggie King.
Gene Banks (F, 6'7", 210, Duke) Had the draft been held two years ago, Banks might have been everyone's No. 1 choice. But he has improved little since his sophomore season. He has a great pro body and multiple skills. His biggest liabilities are a questionable outside shot and an enigmatic inside game. Because of his size, he should be able to get the ball low, turn and power it to the basket. Instead, he likes to do a lot of dipsy doo, double-pump nonsense, which, in the pro game, will result in the ball being slapped down his throat. Also, Banks is afflicted with Larry Kenonitis, meaning that when he gets a rebound, he'll race upcourt only to throw the ball away while trying to be fancy.
Jeff Lamp (G-F, 6'5", 200, Virginia) Everyone is worried about his speed. Forget it. Like Boston's Larry Bird, Lamp's a player whose strength lies in the fact that he's smart, fundamentally sound and knows better than most how to play a team game. He'll be a swingman because he's big, strong and has good range on his jumper. If he were a couple of inches taller he could be compared to K.C.'s Scott Wedman.