A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC
Ervin Johnson, a 6'11" sophomore center for New Orleans, is starting to make a name for himself, which is no small feat considering that there's already an Earvin Johnson, a.k.a. Magic, with whom you may be more familiar. Though Ervin may always be best known for not being Earvin, the Privateers aren't complaining.
Johnson is one of the biggest reasons that the Privateers had a 15-game winning streak and a 15-2 record through Sunday and were on top of the American South Conference with a 5-0 record. After averaging only 6.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game last year, Johnson was leading his league in rebounding (13.8), blocked shots (2.6) and field goal percentage (63.0%), and scoring 13.4 points a game. It's no coincidence that the Privateers lost their first two games this season: Johnson missed all of the first game and half of the second with a broken right wrist. He still plays with two pins in his wrist.
"It's been plain hard work," Johnson says of his improvement. "I would spend three or four hours in the weight room or with the coaches working on moves. I had to make up for a lot of lost time."
Johnson, who quit the basketball team at Block High in Jonesville, La., in the 10th grade because the sport "just wasn't that important to me," is 23 years old. He worked for 2½ years in a grocery store after graduation, but when he grew to 6'11" (he was 6'3" when he finished high school), he was encouraged to take up the game again. He walked into New Orleans coach Tim Floyd's office unannounced on the final day of the November signing period in 1988 and introduced himself as Ervin Johnson Jr. After Floyd confirmed that this wasn't a joke, he gave Johnson a scholarship on the spot. Johnson then spent a redshirt year learning the fundamentals of post play. "It's amazing [what he has done] when you consider that he didn't know what a pivot foot was when he came here," says former New Orleans assistant Scott Sanderson.
Johnson doesn't pattern his game after anyone, but there is one NBA player he wants to meet. "I'd like to see the look on Magic's face," he says, "if I walked up to him and said, 'Hi, I'm Ervin Johnson.' "
RETURN OF THE THIN MAN
Utah coach Rick Majerus has transformed last season's mediocre Utes (16-14) into the leaders of the Western Athletic Conference (6-0 in the WAC, 17-1 overall through Sunday). That turnaround is almost as remarkable as the makeover Majerus has done on himself.
Majerus had coached only six games last season, his first at Utah after arriving from Ball State, when he was diagnosed with blockages in his heart that would require seven individual bypass grafts. His heart condition also meant that he had to shed a lot of weight, which the 5'11" Majerus says was "somewhere around 275 pounds," the result of some legendary late-night eating binges.
"I shopped for my clothes at the local tent-and-awning supply house," he says. Majerus, 42, has lost about 50 pounds by running four to five miles a day and observing a diet that "limits me to one pizza a month. I used to eat two a night."
Since reclaiming the coaching reins from assistant Joe Cravens this season, Majerus and his Utes have been on a hot streak. At week's end they had won 14 straight games after knocking off Wyoming 90-83 and Air Force 57-47.
Utah has done all this with fairly ordinary talent. The closest thing it has to a star is 6'10" junior forward Josh Grant, 23, who spent two years on a Mormon mission to England and through last week led the Utes with averages of 17.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Majerus has a knack for taking teams with little talent and turning them around. Ball State had a 9-18 record before he took over in 1987-88, and one season later the Cardinals went 29-3 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Now that Majerus has shed some of those extra pounds, he's seeing to it that starting center Walter Watts does the same. Watts, a 6'8" senior, had ballooned to 318 pounds last spring and came back in the fall weighing 285. He was told by Majerus that he couldn't play unless he weighed 260 or less on game day. So far, Watts hasn't failed to make weight.
And Majerus says he isn't likely to return to his former size. "I'm embarrassed by the fact that I had to have surgery, that I let it get to that point," he says. "But the operation saved my life."
WHERE THE SCORERS ARE
Itta Bena, Miss., was the scene of a typical Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) shoot-out last Saturday night. The second-and seventh-leading scorers in the nation (through games of Jan. 14) got together for a chuck-and-duck duel, and when it was over, Mississippi Valley State's Alphonso Ford (No. 2) had pumped in 49 points—37 of them in the second half—and Alabama State's Steve Rogers (No. 7) had scored 34 in Mississippi Valley's 105-89 victory.
It seems as if every night features a high-scoring duel in the SWAC, a conference that has quietly brought us three of the nation's top 10 scorers. Ford, a 6'2" sophomore guard, was averaging 33.4 points a game at week's end, and Rogers, a 6'5" junior guard, was averaging 28.9. And the two don't even play for the conference's most prolific team, Southern, which has the nation's third-leading scorer, 6'4" senior guard Bobby Phills (31.4).
Ford is probably the most explosive of the three guards. His second-half outburst against Alabama State was business as usual. "I really didn't know how many points I had in the second half," says Ford. "Sometimes I just get this feeling like everything I put up is going in."
Phills is the most unlikely gunner of the group. A center in high school, he was converted first to small forward and then to guard by Southern coach Ben Jobe. "All I knew were post-up moves when I got here," says Phills, whose father, Bobby Phills Sr., is dean of Southern's agriculture school. "But I got comfortable facing the basket pretty quick. Then, when coach Jobe gave me a green light to shoot three-pointers this year, I really got comfortable." Evidently. Through Sunday, Phills was making an average of 5.2 three-pointers a game, tops in the nation.
Rogers, also Alabama State's top re-bounder, with 7.5 a game, might be the most complete player of the three. "I pride myself on being able to rebound, play defense and score," he says.
But it's high scoring that has become the tradition in the SWAC, especially at Southern, which has finished third in team scoring offense in each of the last three seasons. "We're the Loyola Mary-mount of down South," Phills says.
But this year is unusual even for the SWAC. Says Mississippi Valley coach Lafayette Stribling, "It seems like every time you turn around someone's scoring 40."
When the women's team at Webster University, a Division III school near St. Louis, beat Principia 60-57 on Jan. 12, it was the first win ever for the program. The team had lost all 63 of its games since it began play five years ago....
UNLV's All-America senior forward, Larry Johnson, a communications major who was refused admission to SMU four years ago when the validity of his SAT scores was questioned, made the dean's list for the fall semester....
A bad season promises to get even worse for Notre Dame (7-9 through Sunday), now that leading scorer and rebounder LaPhonso Ellis has been declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season....
In his first 16 games, Syracuse guard Mike Hopkins averaged a foul every 4.9 minutes. Said Hopkins, "I am the human hack."
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Malik Sealy, a 6'8" junior forward for St. John's, averaged 35 points and 10.5 rebounds while playing all 85 minutes as the Redmen defeated Providence 85-79 in overtime and squeaked past No. 16 Pitt 73-71.
Texas's 6'1" junior forward, Vicki Hall, scored 27 points, made 13 of 17 shots from the floor and grabbed 14 rebounds as the Lady Longhorns beat previously undefeated and fifth-ranked UNLV 89-67.
Scott Thompson, a 6'4" senior forward for Division III St. Thomas, in St. Paul, averaged 27 points and 7.7 rebounds in three road wins, 72-69 over St. John's, 84-77 at Bethel and 66-51 at Concordia.