If the briefing books for NBA scouts accepted advertisements, Elmore Spencer, UNLV's 7-foot, 265-pound senior center, could write quite a persuasive one for himself: "I have the natural advantage of being lefthanded," he says. "I look for contact in the post. I can play any style, full court or half. I know how to cat right. I've moved around and been exposed to most of America. I have a supportive wife who understands me and how I operate. I don't talk to refs, so I doubt I'd ever get a technical. Plus, I fall asleep easily on airplanes.
"If I was an NBA general manager," he concludes, "I'd draft me."
Someone new to the world of Elmore Spencer might conclude from this brief speech that Spencer suffers from acute egomania. Not so. (Fact is, he neglected to mention his hands; they're terrific.) A return visitor to Spencer's world—someone who knows about his 1987 hospitalization for symptoms of manic depression and his 'grim do-si-do along college basketball's edge since then—might assume that he just went off on another jag. Not true either.
The truth is, Spencer loves using words to make various cases. Occasionally the case is for himself, but it might just as easily be, say, against the NCAA. "Even if I wasn't an athlete, I'd be appalled." he says. "From [executive director Dick] Schultz on down, they're a group of unaware people trying to follow the 1930s status quo. First, they don't acknowledge that college teams are really professional franchises. The universities recruit the players and push them through the system so fast that they have no chance to get their degree."
February 10, 1992
Having been pushed through the system himself—from Georgia to Connors State (Okla.) Junior College to Clark County (Nev.) Community College before UNLV—with absolutely no chance of graduating before his eligibility expires in the spring, Spencer speaks with some credibility. "And those damn bureaucrats mouth off about standards, but I don't see the billion dollars from the television contract go to the small schools to help them fight deficits. I see a new [NCAA] office complex go up in Kansas City with new everything, all the way down to the company stationery. They probably fly first class now instead of economy when they go to investigate schools. And a coach can't give a player dinner even if he might need it for nutritional reasons? I think I could swallow the vomit better if they weren't so hypocritical."
There are other cases he'll make, like this one against UNLV president Robert Maxson, who would like to raise the school's academic profile even at the expense of its athletic one: "Maxson's a rookie at the president's game. The out-of-state enrollment here is wholly the result of basketball success. The schools he wants to compete with have alumni who have been CEOs and in the White House, and he thinks he's gonna get the crème de la crème? This university's a baby. If you're the crème de la crème, you don't send your child to a town where prostitution is practically legal. That's what kills me about Maxson. He's got a marketing tool, and he wants to eliminate it."
And he makes a very good case for the city of Las Vegas: "One of those little college towns just isn't for me. At Georgia there were stories in the paper about how I wore my hair. I need to be somewhere where there are more important things than tedious stuff like that. It has been a real pleasure being here. One of the things that make this a likable, inhabitable place is that most of the people who are here want to be here."
Once upon a time, before joining the ranks of the contented, Spencer insisted on being the center of attention. Today he's content being a center and letting the attention fall where it may. He plays for a team that, because of NCAA probation, can't be seen on live television and won't be going to postseason play—despite its surprising 18-2 record, including 10 victories in 10 games in the Big West. He prefers not to speak to the press after games, even when the questions might imply approbation, as they certainly would have after he went for 20 points and 12 rebounds in a rout of LSU and Shaquille O'Neal earlier this season. Spencer is only 22, but he goes home to a wife, Gwendolyn, who's in her early 30's, and an 11-year-old stepdaughter, Sheritta. It may seem like rank paradox that a college basketball player could find serenity in Las Vegas, where video cameras are squirreled away in air vents and your next soak in a hot tub could be an incriminating one. But to spend time around Spencer is to see paradox made orthodox. "In my life," he says, "I look at the supernegative, the potentially negative, the middle way, the potentially positive and the superpositive. I look at all of them because they've all happened to me."
Why sound off? "To share the light, to make it right. Not to create hostility, but so people are challenged by what I say and there might arise a solution that helps student-athletes down the road. If anyone responds, it would be the first time athletes and administrators here have had a dialogue on these issues."
Someone tells UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian of Spencer's comments about the NCAA. Tarkanian, who believes his own problems with that organization began when he uttered similar remarks, smiles thinly. "As long as he doesn't have any unpaid hotel incidental charges," he says, "Elmore should be all right."
Elmore Spencer III very quickly learned the value of words. Thirteen times his parents, Elmore Jr. and Marsha, moved him and his sister, Donna, around Atlanta's impoverished West Side. He soon discovered that a disarming comment could win him friends on an unfamiliar block. With this gift of gab and premature growth—he was 6'2" as an eighth-grader, 6'8" by the 10th grade and 6'11" and 315 pounds as a senior at Booker T. Washington High—he fit in naturally with an older crowd. People, in fact, forgot to remind themselves how young he was.
To his teachers, and especially to his mother, Elmore was maddeningly bright. He did reasonably well in math but failed home economics. (The cake that ended up on the classroom ceiling may have had something to do with it.) He passed college prep science yet flunked ROTC. (Spencer was commandant of the self-proclaimed Goon Platoon, which turned right on orders to face left and vice versa.) He pulled fire alarms. He goosed girls in the corridors. He catapulted peas off his fork in the cafeteria, then ducked under the table to avoid food-fight Armageddon. "Elmore even dressed the part of the clown," says Robert Bell, his coach at Washington. "He'd wear his pants off his rump and leave his tennis shoes untied."
Yet even as his precocious ability to catch, pass and shoot a basketball kept pace with his lurching growth, Elmore wasn't so sure he wanted to give up being the goofball. When teammates took the business end of his outlet passes and sailed in for layups, Spencer would throw his hands up in the air like an NFL referee signaling a touchdown, then point toward a fan in the stands who had been heckling him. (There were always plenty to choose from.) Once, during a game in his 10th-grade season, he was so put off that Bell hadn't played him that he left the bench in the second quarter, ripped off his jersey and sat pouting, shirtless, outside the gym in the winter chill. "Challenge," says Bell, "is not the word for what he was."
Soon enough the recruiters discovered Spencer, and as recruiters are wont to do, they overlooked his emotional immaturity for the compensating physical gifts. Mark Bradley, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, discovered him, too, and pronounced his "lively young mind" to be "an explorer's delight." To Bradley, Spencer described the clashes with his coach as "the clarification process." And he spoke of his girlfriends. There was a main squeeze and "this other girl...sort of the Barbara Walters of the situation. I go to her when I need advice. We as men sometimes need someone we can talk to when women confuse us. It keeps us from jumping off buildings."
All the attention altered how others viewed him. But Spencer was determined not to let it change how he viewed himself. "People started to put me in categories," he says. "It went from 'Elmore, you play ball?' to 'Elmore, you getting a scholarship?' to 'Elmore, you going pro?' Basketball had always been just something for me to do, and all of a sudden it turned serious. I didn't need social acceptance from basketball." No. He had been Elmore, Clown Prince of Washington High, long before he was making the papers.
Against this background Spencer's world would be changed forever. A few days before he began his senior year, his mother died of a stroke suffered while talking on the phone to a Minnesota assistant coach.
There is no way of telling for certain what suddenly put the starch in Spencer's loose-fitting clothes. He remembers that senior year only as a blur. He became swallowed up in responsibilities: helping his father look after his sister; negotiating a school where, Spencer claims, the principals packed .22-caliber pistols; keeping a wavering teammate away from crack; and delivering Bell his first state title. Within this latticework of obligation, Spencer found rungs and held fast to them. "I passed my core courses," he says. "I did well on the SAT. We won the state title. I didn't even catch a cold all winter. It was the first time everything had gone right for me, and the person who was the force behind me athletically, who believed in me, wasn't there to see the fruits of her labor."
How much of that 1986-87 season had been a mighty suck-it-up for Spencer, how much he had put off confronting his mother's death, would only later become clear. That spring he began to resist sleep out of fear that he would dream of his mother, only to wake up and find her dead again. His insomnia worsened as he traveled the summertime circuit of AAU tournaments and all-star games. When August came around, and with it the first anniversary of his mother's death, Spencer found himself with several weeks of idle time before the fall semester was to begin at Georgia, where he had chosen to enroll.
Shortly before four o'clock on the morning of Aug. 6, 1987, police picked up Spencer in downtown Atlanta and charged him with reckless driving. He had weaved outside his lane, run a red light and driven up on a curb. (He says he noticed the patrol car and wanted to find out what it would take for the police to stop him. "An inquisitive mind," he has said, "can be a dangerous thing.") At one point that morning he had also shouted something outside the offices of the Journal-Constitution about the newspaper's coverage of him. The police took him to Grady Memorial Hospital, where a blood test showed him to be sober. When Spencer's father arrived at the hospital, he suggested to the police and hospital officials that his son, who had a history of erratic behavior, be admitted for observation. The youngster was ultimately committed to the hospital's psychiatric ward.
"You wouldn't be normal if your mood wasn't affected when someone close to you died," he says. "Doctors can come up with the scientific terms, but if it isn't O.K. to be depressed over loss, then that's bad." Spencer emphasizes that he was treated only for symptoms of manic-depression, not for the affliction itself. "It's like the difference between calling someone a serial killer," he says, "and saying someone has the symptoms of a serial killer."
He spent 36 days in Grady. Bradley spoke with him for two hours shortly after he was released. Spencer was still taking lithium and the tranquilizer Haldol, and his hands shook uncontrollably as he clutched a glass of water. At one point he tried in vain to express himself. "They're trying to take my words away from me," he said. "Words are my life."
Spencer continued taking medication after enrolling at Georgia. But because of his size, doctors had prescribed a heavy dosage, which further tricked up his sleeping habits. One morning during his first month in Athens, headed for an 8 a.m. class, Spencer boarded the bus that circumnavigates the campus and took a seat in the back. The Haldol, the humming of the engine and the warmth inside the bus all conspired to put him to sleep. He didn't wake up until 3:00 that afternoon, by which time half the student body had seen him. His dosage was adjusted, but by now preseason workouts had begun and the ordeal had taken its toll. Logy and dispirited, Spencer took a medical redshirt.
Off the medication and seemingly right again, Spencer came back for the 1988-89 season. In January, when he broke his foot against Alabama, Georgia was 9-2, partly because of Spencer's efforts—12 points and five rebounds a game. But he had played erratically and comported himself even more so, getting into a fight with a student in a dormitory and drawing probation for an incident in which he bullied the same student out of his groceries outside a store in Athens. The Georgia staff suggested he spend the second semester focusing on academics. "So I did," he says. "I focused on academics to the point where I decided I had to catch up."
Georgia, in the wake of the Jan Kemp affair that rocked the campus in the mid-'80s, was a university divided against itself as it struggled to reconcile academics and athletics. Spencer remembers a counselor showing him two lists before the start of his freshman-year season: one of courses taught by faculty who could be counted on to be sympathetic to athletes, another of courses to avoid. Something about this struck him as very wrong. Virtually all his credit hours to that point were for remedial courses and therefore useless toward a degree. Suddenly, he felt like a playing piece on the board of the Eligibility Game. "It would have taken me seven years to graduate," Spencer says. "I decided that's too long, unless you're studying to be a doctor."
In February, Spencer made what he calls "the pilgrimage," lighting out for Connors State, a junior college famous for putting credits on a transcript in a hurry. "Warner, Oklahoma," he says. "More cattle in town than people." He lasted the spring semester, then enrolled in summer school. But soon his thoughts turned to home and his sister. It was July. He had no friends, no car, no means.
One day Spencer lugged a bag stuffed with his belongings out to the truck stop on the main highway. "Hitchhiking was definitely out," he says. "It was my first rural experience, and I could have been picked up by a Klansman." Spencer knew the nearest jail was 17 miles north in Muskogee, a town that at least had bus service, so he began his trek by walking into a nearby store. Making sure he took something valuable enough to force the store clerk to summon the police, but also making sure he didn't frighten anyone ("Here I am, a seven-foot black guy, and a lot of these folks packed guns," he says), he opened a quart bottle of beer, took a long and flamboyant draw and said, courteously, "Maybe you'd better call the cops."
The clerk obliged. The police did, too, transporting him to Muskogee. A sympathetic lawyer got him released on his own recognizance. Spencer spent three days at the Salvation Army shelter in Muskogee while hustling bus fare to Atlanta.
He returned to Connors State that fall and led the talented Cowboys to the 1990 national juco title. But the self-esteem he had known in high school had long since gotten lost in transit. He gave his tournament MVP trophy to school officials. "If I keep it," he told them, "it'll either get lost or stolen."
Then he blew off classes. "Mentally." he says, "I kind of went to Disneyland."
Thus Spencer, who arrived in Las Vegas in the fall of 1990, couldn't, play for the Rebels until January of last season. By then he had done B-plus work at Clark County Community College in Las Vegas and been named the school's Student of the Month for December. "I picked UNLV even though I knew I'd come off the bench my first year," he says. "That should show you that I don't BS. I knew that balancing my life would dictate success. Balance is the essence. Moderation is the key."
And so Spencer seems to have a role once more, and it's no longer his accustomed infantile one. When he's not helping Sheritta with her multiplication tables, he might be gently rebuking a teammate who savored a dunk too conspicuously or chattering about something he saw on Bravo or the Discovery Channel. "Some of us call him Pops," says the Rebels' Evric Gray. "He's Mike Brady of The Brady Bunch. We're the kids who need a daddy."
Other teammates, though, look at Elmore and Gwendolyn's marriage of more than two years and express their consternation. But as usual, Spencer makes a good case. "It's enjoyable because it's by choice and by preparation," he says. "Since I was 12 or 13, I've watched documentaries. I remember seeing one on wolves. When wolves mate, they mate for life. Having a way with words, looking like a teenager at age eight, I grew up real fast, especially the boy-meets-girl thing, so I was able to distinguish between sex and love at an early age. We both want monogamy. We're both motivated by non-material things. And we both like each other's core character."
Upon hearing the words pour forth, one might find contradictory this vacillation between talking and not talking, between unburdening himself to the media and then giving them no care. But Spencer says he wants to talk—loves to talk. He just doesn't want his intelligence insulted. "Being a worldly person, I don't think my haircut merits a second on the evening news," he says. "And if I say I don't want to be interviewed, there shouldn't be any time spent saying 'Elmore declined comment.' Spend it on issues like gun violence and possible solutions. You want to talk about basketball or how it relates to life, I'm game. But I don't see anyone asking Tark why he wears his hair bald. Now, if I'm in the NBA and my obligation is to sell tickets, that's different. But athletes are seldom given the chance to voice their opinions on anything of substance. That's how stereotypes get started. It wasn't until Magic got the HIV thing that people started asking intelligent questions about the NBA life-style.
"You see, this basketball popularity is still a joke to me. I know it's overblown. I'm immediately turned off by a crowd that approaches me after a game for my autograph and tells me, 'Ooh, you played so well tonight, Elmore,' when I know I stunk. Just don't expect the false smile and charismatic attitude from me. I love a fan who'll come up to me and say, 'Elmore, you played like a dog and your man lit you up.' "
Whether or not NBA scouts agree with all the points raised by Elmore the Copywriter, his skills and size alone will make it difficult for some of them to pass on him during the first round of the June draft. His effort against LSU is only one example of Spencer's playing up to his stature in big games. While at Georgia he played well against North Carolina and Georgia Tech; and last season UNLV wouldn't have slipped past Georgetown in the NCAAs if not for Spencer's six blocks and five rebounds against Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning.
Pete Newell, the Hall of Fame coach and scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers, likes the subtler aspects of Spencer's game—the way he keeps the ball high after clearing a rebound, for instance, and looks quickly upcourt—and has sought him out to tell him. "That's NBA stuff, you know," Newell said to Spencer after a game earlier this season.
But as with any young center, especially one playing out his first full season as a major-college starter, certain areas need work. And as much as he loves to talk, Spencer knows enough to listen as Newell, the Robert Bly of big men, offers a miniclinic on the hook. "In this game you spend about four minutes with the basketball," Newell says to him. "But you play 40 minutes with your feet. It's a game of footwork and balance, of stop and go. So work with your feet!"
Spencer looks down at Newell and nods. Feet? He can do feet. Anyone who has worked so long and hard on his head would be happy to do feet.