DePaul's Quentin Richardson was soaring along the baseline trying to time an offensive rebound when the ball caromed high off the back of the rim to the opposite side. His head nearly grazing the hoop as he passed under it, he let playground instincts take over. Richardson grabbed the rim with his right hand to hold himself in place above the floor, and reached out with his left hand to spear the ball and jam it through the hoop in one fluid motion. Then he dropped to the floor as if he had executed a two-handed dunk. The referees, who could have called a technical on Richardson for hanging on the rim, or at least waved off the basket for offensive interference, let it stand. At first there was some consternation, even among DePaul fans. "How did they miss that?" said one guy seated behind me. Yet people kept buzzing about what they had seen, and that buzz persisted in the media interview room long after the game was over.
"I really didn't realize I was grabbing onto the rim until I had it," Richardson said. "Then I just grabbed the ball and put it in to see if they would call me. I thought they would call a technical. I don't know how I got away with that one."
Such is the wonder of youth: to do things one has never done before and isn't even supposed to imagine. That is in large part the wonder of DePaul's men's basketball team right now, which is starting a front line of freshmen, each a product of the Public League and each averaging in double figures in his first college season. Richardson, the best of the bunch, is very much an unfinished product--physically perhaps even more than mentally or emotionally. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, he looks much smaller in the baggy shorts and droopy jersey that are the current style, especially because he has a head that seems a little small for his body and a face that appears to have been pulled out of a third-grade class photo. Yet he also has meaty arms and solid calves--he is nowhere near as slight as he seems with his uniform flapping around him on the run--and he has developed a versatile set of skills to go with his physical attributes. Richardson has a deadeye outside shot, an instinct for the ricochets of the ball around the basket, and a nifty stagger-step, between-the-legs dribble on the drive. The star of Whitney Young's state and Public League champions of last year, he is a remarkable player--if not the fill-it-up scorer that Mark Aguirre was as a freshman 20 years ago perhaps an even more rounded player.
Last Saturday I went to the United Center for my first up-close look at Richardson, his classmates, and his teammates as they took on DePaul's longtime Milwaukee rival, Marquette. At the time I set the date I was thinking it would be nice to get out to the UC for at least one basketball game this season, but of course the NBA lockout was solved in the days leading up to DePaul's UC appearance. No matter. DePaul was so impressive and such a pleasure to watch, I resolved on the spot to start making trips to the Rosemont Horizon to see the Blue Demons--especially now that the Bulls won't be returning intact to defend their NBA title.
The game was an almost perfect introduction to Richardson and his mates. The crowd was a respectable 8,692, many there to see the day's special event--the halftime induction of the 1978-'79 Final Four team into the DePaul hall of fame--but augmented by a sizable contingent of Marquette backers. Everyone was pumped up by the horn section and the cheerleaders being lifted and tossed around and the other traditional touches that supply college basketball with its unique pageantry. Coach Pat Kennedy, subjecting his young team to trial by fire, has filled this season's schedule with highly ranked opponents like New Mexico, Maryland, and Duke in addition to home-and-home Conference USA games with the likes of Cincinnati, which had just walloped DePaul 84-67 on the strength of a pressure defense. DePaul's freshman front line of Richardson, Simeon's Bobby Simmons, and Julian's Lance Williams--sometimes playing with a fourth freshman, 5-9 dervish backup point guard Rashon Burno out of New Jersey--has been susceptible to pressure, especially on the road. But Marquette, entering the game with a record of 8-7 to DePaul's 7-6, offered up a big, slow team that didn't figure to pressure the Blue Demons. Clearly suffering an off day, Marquette turned up the defensive pressure too late and also proved inept on offense, and DePaul's freshmen had their way.
As if following a script, Richardson scored on a nice turnaround bank shot on the game's first possession. Early on the Demons pounded the ball inside to center Williams, a 6-8, 230-pound bruiser with a deceptively soft two-handed shot. To see him bounce off a Marquette defender, step back a little, and then launch that shot was like seeing a cannon fire a blast of confetti. Unfortunately his touch did not extend out to the free-throw line, where he looked more like a howitzer spraying salvos of ground beef. Williams and 6-7 power forward Simmons both affected cutoff T-shirts that made it seem as if they'd somehow tucked shoulder pads--the fashionable 80s style staple for women, not the football equipment--into their jerseys. Both played tough however, and Simmons grew on me throughout the day. And not just me--he was named the player of the game.
Surprisingly, Marquette showed more inclination than DePaul to run early on, and through some spirited back-and-forth action took a 10-9 lead. That's when the Golden Eagles' day went south, however. Simmons, hustling after a fast break, took a wraparound pass from starting point guard Kerry Hartfield, was fouled, and made both free throws for an 11-10 lead. A basket later, Richardson spun off the baseline into the middle with one big dribble and tossed in a jump hook. With the defense playing off him, he then launched a pro-size three-pointer. Marquette stopped the DePaul run at ten points, but after a short breather on the bench Richardson and Simmons came back and put the game away. Richardson came down on a fast break and made a gliding cut to the hoop for a lay-in that a Marquette player blocked on its descent, after the ball had kissed the backboard. The refs made no goaltending call--but then Richardson would get that back later. Simmons made Marquette pay at once with a lovely arcing three after an offensive rebound that moved DePaul in front 32-13. His jump shot has an elegant form--not much lift from the floor, but all high elbows and good rotation--and he popped another to make it 34-15. Williams was fouled in the final seconds on a rebound with Marquette in the penalty, and as he trudged the length of the floor for his shots Richardson took his head in the crook of his arm as if to shake some sense into him. Williams made both free throws for a 36-17 score at the break.
The induction ceremony was respectable if low-key, perhaps because of the absence of former coach Ray Meyer, who's been estranged from the university since it fired his son and coaching heir, Joey Meyer. It took master of ceremonies Al Maguire, the old Marquette coach, to mention Meyer by name, and he got off the line of the day: "His face was Chicago." And it still is, I might add.
Any hopes of a Marquette comeback ended when its players had four or five shots at the basket from right under the hoop during a flurry early in the second half and couldn't convert one. Before long they were completely out of sorts, turning the wrong way as passes sailed out of bounds. Meanwhile, Richardson and Simmons continued on their merry way. Richardson faked an outside shot and passed to off guard Willie Coleman alone under the basket to make the lead 20, at 38-18. After a steal he fed Simmons with a long, arcing pass for a tomahawk dunk and it was 44-22. Richardson's rim-hanging coup de grace put DePaul up 52-30, and minutes later he finished his scoring for the day with a three that extended the lead to 61-36, his own 25 points accounting for that margin.
Marquette's final push got the lead down to the mid-teens with a few minutes to play, but every time the Golden Eagles seemed about to put on some serious pressure, Simmons came down with a rebound and was fouled, and he was almost infallible at the line. He came into the game an 85 percent free-throw shooter--that's a remarkable figure at any level, much less for a college freshman--and when it was over he had made 11 of 12 free throws, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. That's the sort of player one wants on the floor at the end of a game. Williams had 16 points and 13 rebounds, and Richardson also added 13 boards. Plain and simple, DePaul's freshman front line dominated, especially with Coleman, the token senior, holding Marquette's top scorer, Brian Wardle, to eight points on three-of-ten shooting from the field.
After the game, sitting in the interview room listening to Kennedy, I looked up and saw a kid dressed in black gym shoes and a green sweater-shirt-pants set that I would have bet all the money in my wallet was a Christmas present. The shirt was untucked and stuck out below the sweater as he leaned against the wall, looking every inch a college freshman. It was Richardson. Simmons stood nearby wearing a black designer baseball jersey, black jeans, and heavy black snow boots, also looking as if he had stepped out of some catalog. When they followed Kennedy to the podium they were bashful and soft-spoken, as they might have been in front of a speech class. "It's basically been a big learning experience for everybody," Richardson said. "We've got to keep improving and learn from our mistakes. We're definitely getting better, and we've got a lot of room for improvement--a whole lot." All of which reminded me--if their clothes hadn't--that in spite of their mature play on the floor they are just 18-year-olds. Neither had even been born when DePaul last went to the Final Four.
"I know a little about it because my mama was always talking about it when I was making my decision about what college to go to," Simmons said, adding that Terry Cummings, who would follow Aguirre to DePaul, was from his neighborhood.
Then, as the questions ran out, Simmons offered up that he was dedicating his player-of-the-game performance to Ray and Joey Meyer and all the old DePaul players who had come out to see them play. When a kid that young does something so right, the normal response of an old-timer like me is skepticism--who is he trying to schmooze?--but then I thought, if one expects a kid to do the proper things on the basketball floor, why not off it as well? Simply put, it looks as if it'll be a pleasure to watch these kids and this team grow up over the next few years.