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The Courting of an Idol : Former Vaquero Forward Is Pure Shooter With a Passion for Presley

February 05, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

His hair looked wet and was combed back in the 1950s style of his idol. He wore sunglasses and a T-shirt with an American flag on it. Only his height--6 feet, 6 inches--suggested that this young man getting on a plane could be a basketball player.

John Hoffman II was going to Las Vegas with the rest of the Cal State Long Beach team last week. When he arrived, he remembered a time when he had seen his idol's guitar in a display case.

It was his idol who once sang "Viva Las Vegas."

He didn't need to be reminded of that, of course, for Hoffman has a burning love for Elvis Presley, one of two passions in his life.

The other is shooting a basketball and watching its tender, true descent into a white net.

A reserve forward, Hoffman has won three games for the 49ers this season with a flurry of long, left-handed jump shots.

Basketball is a stage on which each player has a part; 49er Coach Ron Palmer's role for Hoffman is designated shooter.

"One of the finest perimeter shooters in the area," Palmer said of Hoffman, a junior from Inglewood who was recruited from Glendale Community College where he once scored 46 points in a game.

Palmer said he has never coached such a pure shooter--or such a unique personality.

Not the typical modern athlete, Hoffman is usually off somewhere in the '50s. His passion for Presley permeates his personality and wires him with endless energy.

"I had the same color hair that Elvis had," Hoffman said in his Las Vegas hotel room. "He dyed his hair black; it was originally the same color as mine. Almost blond. Mine looks darker because I always have stuff on it. I loved his hair. It was too cool."

As he talked, he rattled the ice in his soda cup. Hoffman is the type of guy who constantly rattles the ice in his cup.

"I try to dress like him a lot," Hoffman said of his idol. "The collars on all my jackets are starched up. I've had a leather jacket for four years and the collar's never come down. And I have this real bright red jacket--he always wore a lot of red."

Hoffman was only 11 in 1977, when Presley died and Hoffman's obsession was born.

"I was with a bunch of (adults that were Presley's) age on a camping trip, and a man told us Elvis Presley died," Hoffman said. "All these women started bawling their eyes out. I tripped out by how many people were affected by this guy.

"Then all of a sudden I started seeing all the papers. Everywhere you looked it was Elvis this, Elvis that. You could get posters anywhere. People Magazine . . . had nothing but Elvis on the cover (for the next three months). The Enquirer. . . . . The L.A. Times had pictures of him. I started buying books and reading things. I loved to see old pictures of him when he was dressed in all leather and big old baggy pants."

Hoffman, who has a large collection of Presley mementoes, can usually be persuaded to do his Elvis routine. "I can imitate his movements pretty good," he said. "It makes people laugh."

Such behavior can lead to mistaken impressions.

"At first you look at him," 49er guard Tony Ronzone said. "Then it grows on you. You get in his car and all you hear is Elvis, and you get used to it and you kind of relate to what he believes in."

Ed Ratleff, the 49er assistant coach who recruited Hoffman, said, "He has his own individuality and stays with it. I think the kids (on the team) respect him for it, because they know he enjoys himself. He's a great kid, really polite."

His happy-go-lucky approach to life has insulated him from the pressure of being a college basketball player.

"I don't feel pressure," he said. "I'm even more loose when the games are close."

When he arrived at the Thomas and Mack Center for the game with powerful Nevada Las Vegas, he said, "Got to impress 19,000 fans," and then searched in vain for Dr. Pepper. Sort of his good-luck charm, he downs 44 ounces of it before every game and finds that it goes especially good with a tape of "Jailhouse Rock."

"He's one of those guys who can joke before a game," guard Billy Walker said. "He's just hyper."

Hoffman scored 14 points as the 49ers lost to Las Vegas, but his finest night this season came on Jan. 17. He entered a game with seven minutes to play and SCULB trailing, and put on a show that New Mexico State is probably still all shook up from. In four minutes he made five straight long shots, including three 3-pointers to lead the 49ers to victory, 80-75. His bombs detonated the 49ers' little gym and the fans could not help falling in love with him.

The next game, against Cal State Irvine, Hoffman played four minutes and was scoreless.

"That's kind of a putdown," Hoffman said. "To pull us out a win and come back and play four minutes is almost like saying, 'Thanks, that's it, we don't need you anymore.' "

Hoffman seemed to be painting Palmer as a devil in disguise, but Palmer does not think Hoffman's all-around game--he is slow and needs to improve on defense--warrants playing him most of the time.

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