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Despite Changes, It's Still Good to Be Back : Norwegian Learning New Game, Country, While Contributing to Santana's Fast Start

December 25, 1987|STEVE BEATTY

SANTEE — When Oystein Back arrived at San Diego's Lindbergh Field last August, he looked to some more like a boy named Sue than one who would later be dubbed Stu.

Back had let his hair grow for almost a year. It was finally looking the way he wanted it, just like the shoulder-length cut of Bono, lead singer for the rock group U2.

That was fine in Back's home-country, Norway. But when he tried to play basketball at Santana High School, Back was given a choice: Cut your hair or don't play.

It seemed a strange rule, Back said, but he had come to the United States to play basketball. So he'd make some changes . . . and not just in his hair length.

Back has had to learn to cope with long practices and a better brand of basketball. He has learned to answer uninformed questions about Norway-- Do polar bears roam the streets there? --gracefully.

He has had to learn to expand his horizons from a diet consisting mostly of McDonald's to the more exotic cuisine found at Del Taco and Taco Bell.

It has not been easy, but the changes have produced positive results: At 7-0, Santana has one of the best teams in San Diego County. And Back, 17, is one of its most popular members.

Trimming his hair to a shorter, more modest style to fit Santana Coach John Bobof's rules was probably the easiest change to make.

"I didn't understand why I had to cut it at first," Back said. "But now it feels kind of good. I felt heavy playing basketball with all that hair."

There have been other, non-cosmetic changes.

Back's first name was first to go. Linda Panebianco, Back's host "mother," had decided his first name was too difficult to pronounce because the first letter, which looks like an O with a slash through it, does not have an equivalent symbol in English.

"So when I got in the car, they said, 'We're going to call you Stu," Back said. "I had been on a plane for 30 hours, so I didn't really think about asking why. I said, 'Sure, go ahead.' "

The name stuck. Back, a 6-foot 7-inch forward, said he was not sure if he liked it until last Friday night, when he threw down a two-handed dunk at Monte Vista. The large number of Santana fans filled the gym with "Stuuuuuuuuu!" Back decided the name could stay.

It was a big basket, giving Santana momentum at an important time in a 63-56, come-from-behind victory.

But Back has not had as many of those stellar moments this season as he had last year, when he played for the equivalent of a high school team in Halden, an Oslo suburb with a population of 27,000. Halden had one of the best teams in Norway, and Back averaged 40 points a game. He was also the best player on the junior national team, averaging 18.

At Santana, Back has been a good player who has averaged about 15 points a game. And he has had to work to get to that point.

"We practice three hours a day here, and I'm not used to that," Back said. "We practice a lot less in Norway. I get tired sometimes.

"My biggest problem is that I don't bend my knees, and I don't jump well enough. I have had to learn three different offenses, but it is starting to come. I have been told so many things about my defense and offense that there isn't time to do everything."

Bobof's coaching style is not atypical. The man yells.

"I'm not used to that," Back said. "But it is a good way to learn. I have so many new things to concentrate on, I can't concentrate 100% the whole time. I've gotten all this new information in a month or two since we started practice, and it is hard to use it all in the game. I hope (Bobof) understands that I can't absorb everything in such a short time."

Bobof does--to an extent.

"I don't think he's had in-depth practice every day," Bobof said. "During drills in practice, he does fine. But in games he gets a little lax when he gets tired.

"I've built things for this team for two years. I was not going to try to build everything around him. My attitude was if he fit in fine, if not . . . He had to adapt, and I think he's done a pretty good job of it."

Back has had to adjust to new things just about everywhere.

He has had to make new friends and use a foreign language, but those things have not caused many problems. He has several close friends on and off the basketball team. Back speaks English well and has four As and two Bs in his classes, including an A in U.S. History.

But it's the subtleties of American culture that have proven difficult.

Things such as people saying hi to him all the time. Back is used to being more reserved with passing acquaintances. It's nice, he said, but after a while . . .

"It gets a little tiresome," Back said. "I thought it would only be the first couple of weeks because I'm new. In one way, it's kind of cool . . . because it's been really easy to meet people. Everyone is very helpful. I'm just not used to it."

Said Matt Panebianco, a junior on the team: "Everyone at school loves the guy. When I tell other kids that Stu lives with me, they say, 'Stu lives with you ?' It's like he's a celebrity or something."

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