A Man Among Boys

Against the backdrop of the best freshman class in a decade, Wisconsin's fifth-year senior star Alando Tucker is building something much bigger than a case for player of the year honors
January 08, 2007

Sometimes, whenhe's not building his case for national player of the year, Wisconsin forwardAlando Tucker will close his eyes and imagine the scene at the community centerhe plans to open someday in his native Lockport, Ill., 35 miles southwest ofChicago. An indoor basketball court. A grass field for football and baseball.An asphalt track. Study carrels and computers for learning. And, not least, asteady stream of children and adults from the neighborhood. "I want to haveevery sport there to bring out the best in each kid, but I also want to base iton academics," says Tucker.

"The facilitywill be for everyone in the community, including a fitness center for the oldergeneration. The idea is to feel safe in the area, because there's a lot ofviolence."

Tucker is hardlyunique in wanting to build a community center in his hometown--NBA star CarmeloAnthony is the latest to have done so--but he may be the first athlete who puttogether a detailed proposal for one while still in college. Last year Tucker,a communications major, wrote a 19-page paper using the works of hoopsphilanthropists Magic Johnson and Kevin Johnson as models for his own project."He's already got a business plan in mind," says his academic adviser,professor Larry Meiller. "I was impressed with the amount of thought he hadgiven to this for someone his age, and I don't mind telling you I gave him an Afor the paper. I really believe that at some point in his life there's going tobe a large facility that Alando will create and spend a lot of time in. He'sthe kind of kid you hope all your students could be."

It's hard todecide which of Tucker's manifold attributes is the most refreshing. Maybe it'sthat the BMOC of Playboy's No. 1 party school is a State Street regular whosays he has kept a decadelong vow never to drink alcohol, smoke or get atattoo. Or that, eschewing the usual staples on most summer tripsabroad--hoops, video games, McDonald's--Tucker rallied his teammates duringlast year's tour of Italy for early-morning visits to the Leaning Tower of Pisaand the Colosseum in Rome. ("This is the chance of a lifetime!" he'dscream.) Or maybe it's just that at a time when the best freshman class in adecade has hogged nearly all the attention, this 22-year-old fifth-year seniorand leading candidate for player of the year knows what it means to have acollege career.

"Is AlandoTucker the best player in the country? Yes," argues Wisconsin coach BoRyan, whose Badgers were 14--1 at week's end thanks in large part to Tucker's20.6 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. "He has elevated this team with acombination of rebounding and defense and offense, and he makes all the playersaround him better. I'm prejudiced toward guys who've had to pay their dues,maybe suffer through a few things and come out the way Alando is coming outright now. He'll get national attention because he's earned it, just like theysaid in the old [Smith Barney] ads."

Badgers guardKammron Taylor says the only Cheese State athlete bigger than Tucker these daysis Brett Favre, who may also be the only one who's more battered. Tucker hasbroken his right foot twice and he fractured his nose last year, which forcedhim to wear a mask. Only after Tucker underwent facial surgery in theoff-season was he able to start breathing through his nose again."Immediately after the surgery I could tell a difference," says Tucker."I have so much more energy this year, and I'm finally the player that Iknow I could have been in previous years."

At 6'6" and210 pounds, Tucker compensates for his size disadvantage down low withsurpassing quickness, Brew Country hops (he broke Michael Finley's schoolrecord with a standing 38-inch vertical leap) and enough strength tobench-press 360 pounds. Because Ryan's trendy swing offense requires nearlyevery Badger to develop post moves, Tucker had to change the way he played uponhis arrival in Madison. "I came here never having posted up in high school,but it didn't take me long to realize I could do a lot of damage in thepost," says Tucker. Which is not to say that he's ignoring his perimetergame: He's shooting 33% from three-point range. Never was Tucker's versatilitymore evident than during his 32-point (with three treys), 10-rebound tour deforce in an 89--75 win over then No. 2 Pittsburgh on Dec. 16.

"He's beendouble- and triple-teamed every game, and the numbers he's putting up areunbelievable," says Taylor, "but he's also just a great leader."Last summer Tucker was chosen to represent Wisconsin at a five-day meeting inOrlando of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, a national leadershiporganization. Likewise, Tucker has performed at so many public-speakingfunctions in Madison that the university now has to screen his requests.

Ryan tells thestory of a recent engagement when he prepped Tucker by advising him to scan theaudience from left to right as a way of establishing a quick rapport. Tuckerbrought the house down when he told the crowd of Ryan's advice and shook hishead. "Coach," he said, "it's my major!"

Tucker carriesthat easygoing confidence wherever he goes. He doesn't mind that 80% of thecampus (including, strangely, his roommate, Badgers forward Marcus Landry)pronounces his name as a-LON-do when it's really a-LAN-do. Tucker laughswhenever anyone cracks wise about his appearance on SI's season-preview cover,which called him a "sidekick" to teammate Brian Butch. ("Peoplewill say, 'How you doin', Sidekick?' 'What's up, Robin?'") And he literallysings on the court, kicking off every Badgers pre-game huddle with lyrics fromLil Wayne's Stuntin' Like My Daddy (Tucker: How you want it? Team: Show me myopponent!)

Tucker traces hisleadership instinct to the day in seventh grade when his older half brother,Antonio, left Lockport to join the Army and serve in Kosovo. Suddenly Alandowas the man of the house, helping his mother, Lisa, and grandmother Dorothyraise his three remaining siblings. But Antonio, now a police officer, hadalready left his mark, developing Alando's intellectual curiosity byencouraging him to read great books on his own as an early teen (the Koran, theIliad, the Bible). At night they'd discuss ways to improve their town, andthose talks were the genesis of Alando's idea for the community center, as wellas the pact they made--Alando was 12; Antonio, 16--to forswear drinking,smoking and tattoos.

Tucker has keptthat vow, and each day's passing is a helpful reminder that in an Age ofInstant Gratification, building something lasting takes time, whether it's areputation, a title-contending basketball program or the best damn communitycenter Lockport will have ever seen.

EXTRA
Magic 8
True contenders? Grant Wahl guarantees a national champion will emerge from hislist of eight teams.
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TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by John BieverBIG PLANS Tucker's drive extends beyond the court to his hometown, where he has ambitions to erect a new community center. PHOTOBOB ROSATOSHOWDOWN The Buckeyes' Oden looms large in the Badgers' future.
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Eagle (-2)
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