There is a new status symbol in Hattiesburg, Miss.: the spoon. Normally reserved for use at kitchen counters and dining room tables, it is now being waved by hungry fans at Southern Mississippi's Green Coliseum, where the Spoon—a thundering junior forward otherwise known as Clarence Weatherspoon—has helped stir the upstart Golden Eagles into the mix of national title contenders. Weatherspoon, who weighs 240 pounds and stands 6'7" (maybe), is a commanding confluence of thick legs, broad shoulders and long, rock-solid arms who is capable of bending rims with his muscle and twisting minds with his ascents. "What do I think of Spoon?" says Southern Miss point guard Russell Johnson. "Automatic assist."
Since venturing 130 miles down the road to Southern Miss 2½ years ago from his tiny hometown of Crawford, Miss., Weatherspoon has been named the Metro Conference Freshman of the Year and, as a sophomore, the league's player of the year, an honor he is on course to receive again this season. At week's end he was averaging 18.1 points on 58.8% shooting and 12.0 rebounds a game.
Two performances last week typified Weatherspoon's prodigious prominence. At Southwestern Louisiana on Wednesday, a cadre of Ragin' Cajun fans arrived with plastic spoons, hoping perhaps to snap them in two at the moment of triumph. Instead, Weatherspoon racked up 21 points and 14 rebounds in a 97-91 Golden Eagle victory. The plasticware disappeared well before intermission. "I guess they must have lost them under their seats," suggested Southern Miss reserve guard Dallas Dale afterward.
Then on Saturday, against subpar but still dangerous Louisville, Spoon had 24 points with seven rebounds in a 77-66 win that marked the Golden Eagles' second coup de 'Ville in nine days and completed their first sweep of the Cardinals in Metro Conference play. (Weatherspoon administered six facials to the erstwhile Doctors of Dunk.) The 17th-ranked Golden Eagles thereby lifted their league-leading record to 7-1 and their overall record to 14-2 going into Monday's game against Appalachian State.
Off the court Spoon is mild-mannered and amiable, the sort of guy a friend calls in the middle of the night with a plea to pick him up at a bus station two hours away, as Southern Miss forward Ron Rembert did recently when he needed—and got—a ride to Hattiesburg from Meridian, Miss. On the court Spoon is hard-nosed and single-minded, the sort of player a teammate finds in his face screaming, "Dunk the ball!" after the teammate failed to go strong to the basket, as Rembert did recently in blowing a gimme. "In the locker room he gets a look, a take-care-of-business look," says Rembert. "Then when the game starts, he just metamorphoses some more. The first time I saw him, I thought he was the meanest guy in the world, but now his aggressiveness is what I enjoy most. His aggressiveness is my motivation."
In his own almost embarrassed words, Spoon is "hardworking...and sort of exciting...and kind of explosive." And, as he is always quick to point out, he is far from the only utensil at Golden Eagle coach M.K. Turk's disposal. On offense, Southern Miss relies heavily on a lethal two-man game: Weatherspoon planted on the right block as 6'5" guard Darrin Chancellor, the Golden Eagles' leading scorer with a 20.2-point average through last weekend, is floating on the right wing. For the defense, there is this quandary: 1) Collapse on Spoon and surrender the three-pointer to Chancellor, a 52.3% marksman from long range, or 2) cover the perimeter and concede the dunk to Spoon, a 100% marksman from point-blank range. Most teams opt for 3) none of the above, and hope for the best. "Spoon's being so competitive under the basket means they have to double-team him, and that opens up the floor," Chancellor says. "That's the biggest thing about him and me: We both want to win real bad."
Additionally, Southern Miss has a couple of 215-pound seniors who can exploit other openings; one is the body-blasting 6'2" Johnson, the other is the silky 6'11" center Daron Jenkins. The four-deep bench includes freshman guard Bernard Haslett, who filled in for the injured Chancellor in the win over Southwestern Louisiana. Haslett coolly buried seven of eight threes against the Ragin' Cajuns and scored 29 points.
In sum, the Golden Eagles are a balanced and harmonious bunch who rebound hard—39.6 a game to 38 for their opponents—and shoot proficiently: 50.4% from the floor, 43.1% from behind the three-point arc and 74.7% from the free throw line. They defend variously with zones and a ruthless man-to-man, and, anchored by Jenkins and Spoon, who have combined for 3.35 blocks a game, they protect the basket well. They also apply themselves end-to-end with an underdog's ardor that comes from playing third fiddle in the state to Mississippi State and Ole Miss, both of which are members of the more prestigious Southeastern Conference. But despite its humble origins as a teachers college and a $5.1 million athletic budget that would be postage money for many major college powers, Southern Mississippi has dominated its intrastate rivals in football over the past decade, winning 10 of 15 games against the Bulldogs and Rebels since 1980. Neither of those schools will even schedule the Golden Eagles on the hardwood. "We've been on the back shelf down here for a while," Jenkins says. "We're ready to come out front now."
When Turk came on the scene in 1976, Golden Eagle basketball was in the dustiest corner of the storage room; in '71-72, for example, Southern Miss had finished with an 0-24 record. To entice Turk into signing on, then athletic director Roland Dale offered a $19,000 salary and his hardest sell: "How would you like to be the coach of the worst Division I school in America?" Says Turk, "I was an assistant at Memphis State, chomping at the bit for an opportunity." A native of Kentucky, the 48-year-old Turk resembles actor Paul Sorvino, but his accent is more good ol' boy than goodfella. "I tell you this," Turk says. "I would never take over a program that shaky again. The odds are astronomical against making it work."
Turk's fortunes finally turned in 1982, when hitherto independent Southern Miss joined the emerging Metro. That lent the Golden Eagles a measure of respectability. Turk then tapped in to the overlooked talent pool within a 100-mile radius of the campus, an area that includes New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., and the Gulf Coast. His '86-87 team, led by Randolph Keys, a future NBA first-round draft choice who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets, won the NIT—the only national title ever won by a Mississippi school in any Division I sport—and last year he guided the largely underclass Golden Eagles to an NCAA tournament berth for the first time.
Through Sunday, Turk was 226-185 in 14-plus seasons with Southern Miss and had carved out a comfortable sultanate in Hattiesburg, a micropolis (pop. 40,900) known as the Hub City. "We've had a policy of three steps forward, one step back," he says. "When you do that, you're ahead of where you started."
The Golden Eagles took a great leap forward with the signing of Spoon, who averaged 28.2 points and 16.0 rebounds as a senior at Motley High but was overshadowed in the state by guards Chris Jackson, who played two seasons at Louisiana State before being drafted by the Denver Nuggets last spring, and Litterial Green, who is now starring at Georgia. Weather-spoon was pursued by schools throughout the South, though some backed off because he was labeled an inside player too short to be effective in the paint. He chose Southern Mississippi because he wanted to play right away and to stay near home.
Weatherspoon is the youngest of 10 children. Their father, Rosevelt, a sharecropper, died when Clarence was only nine, and the children were raised by their mother, Coraine. Spoon was driven in whatever he pursued. He was the salutatorian of his high school class (at Southern Miss he's a C student majoring in business), and once when Golden Eagle assistant coach Ralph Moore came on a recruiting visit, he found Spoon moaning about a 99 he had gotten that day on a physics test. "I told him, 'You can't be the best all the time,' " Coraine says. "But he wants to do everything just right."
That desire is even evident in practice and in pickup games. "I thought he was crazy when I first saw him," says Johnson. "Someone would foul him, and he'd be outbursting." Weatherspoon went up so strong for a jumper in a pickup game before this season that Haslett, trying to block it, tumbled to the floor and broke his wrist. "If I'm going to go out there, I won't go out there half-stepping," says Weatherspoon. "The only way to learn as a player is to take it seriously."
When Weatherspoon arrived on campus, he had raw power and the second-best pair of hands ever to come out of Crawford (pop. 500), which is also the hometown of San Francisco 49er receiver Jerry Rice. But his shooting range maxed out at eight feet. Still, Spoon scored 14.7 points a game as a freshman and won the first of his two conference rebounding titles. Since then, he has added another eight feet to his range; this season, he has even nailed five of seven threes. Last summer he played for the NIT All-Stars—a group chosen from among the preseason and postseason NIT participants—and the U.S. Goodwill Games team, broadening his experience and raising his own already high expectations for himself. "I came back knowing I had to put the ball on the floor better, because I was seeing guys bigger than I am handle it," he says.
"We used to foul him and take our chances at the line, but he's even improved there," says Ragin' Cajun coach Marty Fletcher; indeed, Spoon has raised his free throw percentage from 59% as a freshman to 74% this season. Adds Fletcher, "He's on his way to being another Charles Barkley."
That weighty name is often foisted on Weatherspoon, who is certainly in Barkley's league in leaps-and-'bounds explosiveness and mysterious heights. Barkley is listed at 6'6" but is closer to 6'4". Getting an accurate measurement of Spoon is an equally tricky matter. One teammate calls him a "legit 6'5½"," and Turk says, "I thought we needed 6'7" forwards, so I made him 6'7"." But Turk points out that Weatherspoon has, along with a 36" in-seam and a 38" waist, a 39" sleeve; by comparison, the 6'11" Jenkins's sleeve length is 37". As for Spoon's vertical jump, Turk says it's "very high."
Opinion on Weatherspoon's most dramatic dunk is about as murky. Some Spoon watchers prefer one from this season's first game against Louisville: Operating out of the low post, Weatherspoon spun toward the middle past his defender, gently dribbled around the backside help and then soared over a third defender flying in from the lane. Others like one from an 84-72 win last month over Florida State: Going full-steam toward the rim, Spoon gathered in an off-the-mark alleyoop pass from behind his head one-handed and whammed it home. Then there's the one that earned him the slam-dunk title 3½ years ago at an all-star summer camp in Carnesville, Ga.: On the dead run, Spoon bounced the ball off the floor and onto the backboard, grabbed it in midair, spun 360 degrees, and then reverse stuffed.
"The kid is just a physical monster for his size," says Trail Blazer scout Brad Greenberg. "When he goes up for the ball, people just ricochet off him. He does things with an air of authority that's unique for guys on the college level."
Says Spoon's high school coach, James Granderson, "The thing I always worried about is he gets so high. Thai's 240 pounds coming way down on normal ankles. You'd think it would hurt him. It's frightening."
Almost as fearsome is the Golden Eagles' collective desire. Chancellor, as loose as Weather-spoon is reserved, has been roaming the dorm, sizing up his ring finger for the bauble that will, he is sure, signify Southern Miss's first Metro Conference title. Beyond league play lie the NCAAs, where last season the Golden Eagles, still giddy after getting their inaugural invitation, were eliminated 79-63 by LaSalle in a first-round game. "This year we've got a different mind about it," Chancellor says. "We're not going to be satisfied by just going, but by going as far as possible."
If Southern Miss can overcome its turnover tendencies (a sloppy 15.3 a game), it could enjoy a prolonged stay in postseason play, which would also help on the identity front. During the 1990 East Regional in Hartford, Conn., a local newspaper labeled the school SMU (it's USM), USA Today referred to its coach as M.L. Turk, and a stat sheet called its star Charles Weatherspoon.
By March, Clarence Weatherspoon and the rest of M.K. Turk's Golden Eagles should no longer be plagued by such a lack of recognition. "I see us being real competitive the rest of the season," says Spoon. Hence this advice to opposing fans: Leave your plastic spoons at home.