With his startling size and red hair, John Hatten looms like a skyscraper with an airplane warning light. He is especially noticeable on a basketball court--as the 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior center for California State University, Long Beach--and in restaurants that feature all-you-can-eat buffets. He makes the motor bike he somehow scoots around on resemble an amusement park kiddie ride.
No longer the loud, obnoxious kid he says he was in his first two years at Long Beach, Hatten is a 21-year-old who for the first time is taking life somewhat seriously. Despite an August fire that destroyed his family's possessions, he is concentrating on the upcoming season.
Although Hatten does not exactly play basketball like Larry Bird, he has the country look of the Boston Celtic star and has often been mistaken for him. "At Magic Mountain or Disneyland, people start chasing me," Hatten said. "When I was in high school, taking recruiting visits, I'd sign his autograph at airports all the time."
Intimidation is Hatten's basketball specialty. He walks onto the court before a game without a smile or a warm-up suit, flexing his bulky arms and shoulders in preparation for the night's work.
"I like to play a little bit meaner than I really feel," he said. "I send across that mean streak. I push people around. I feel like I can rebound as well as anybody."
Playing 19 minutes a game last season, the left-handed Hatten averaged 7 points and 5.7 rebounds. He has a soft shooting touch for a big man, but last year made only 43% of his shots.
But his aggressiveness endeared him to 49er fans, who adopted him as a favorite.
"I don't know," Hatten said, trying to explain his popularity. "I've always been kind of the center of attention because it's hard to miss a 6-9 red-haired guy. I guess a lot of people like my style of play. People go to hockey games to watch a fight; they go to basketball games to watch people push."
He was having one of his bountiful lunches last week, shoveling in pizza, spaghetti and chicken. As a freshman, Hatten bordered on being slender, but after developing an additional appetite for weight-lifting, he soared to 270 pounds last year. That was too much.
"I'm in a lot better shape," he said. "I've finally run a 6-minute mile. My body fat's way down. Being lighter is going to help because of the type of game--run and gun--we are going to play."
Hatten is a well-liked giant away from the gym, too.
"I kid about being a big man on campus," he said, "but I say hello to a lot of people, I don't just walk around in my own little world."
Hatten lives in a dormitory but spends as little time there as possible.
"I'm not the kind of guy who likes to sit home alone and watch TV," he said. "I like to be around people all the time. Ask the coaches. I probably drive them crazy; I talk constantly."
Coach Joe Harrington, whose first 49er season starts Nov. 22 with an exhibition game against Malbus Club of Sweden, calls Hatten a "fun-loving kid who's always talking, always asking questions." But, Harrington adds, "He's a pretty smart basketball player."
Born in Los Angeles, Hatten starred at Cardinal Mooney High School in Venice, Fla. "I had schools from 30 states recruiting me," he said.
After deciding on CSULB, he transferred and played several games for Artesia High School.
"John felt extremely important then," Hatten's mother, Betty Ford, said by telephone this week from Osprey, Fla. "Everything was a joke to him. College has changed him a lot. When he got to college, he found he was just another piece of meat. He had to commit to getting himself up in the morning, doing his own laundry."
Hatten's family--his mother, stepfather, two brothers and a sister--had moved from Florida to California with John. They lived in Hollywood but intended to relocate in Long Beach this summer until the frightening early morning of Aug. 23.
"We had already sold the house, were ready to move the next day and loaded everything in a truck that was in front of the house," said Hatten, who had left his belongings in his room because he had planned to take them to school in his car. "About 3:30 in the morning, I heard everybody yelling and screaming. The truck was on fire. Pretty much nothing was salvageable. My mother thought, with no furniture, what good would it do to rent and decided she'd do better back in Florida."
Hatten, however, remains in Long Beach, secure with the new attitude he attributes to his girlfriend, Lori Lance, a USC graduate student.
"She's been a very good influence on me," Hatten said. "She's responsible for changing me around. I've always been real flamboyant and obnoxious, partying a lot my freshman and sophomore years. If it wasn't for her, I don't know if I'd still be in school. She really settled me down, made a human being out of me in a lot of ways."
Now Hatten talks about getting married and raising a family. A speech communications major, he hopes for a professional basketball career. If that does not work out, he would like to try football. Friends have suggested that he might be a hit as a pro wrestler or an actor.
He got some acting experience in the summer of 1986 when Hollywood deemed him worthy of a non-human role.
"Cannon Films was making a movie called 'Journey to the Center of the Earth, Part 2' and said they needed creatures; tall guys strong enough to wear a 200-pound fur suit," Hatten said.
He got the job and made $750 a week.
"The movie didn't come out," he said. "Last I heard, they were still editing it."