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Turnaround May Be More Than a Jump Shot for Toro's Blackmon

December 25, 1987|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

He is strong and powerful and can drop a 15-foot jumper from just about anywhere.

And Cal State Dominguez Hills, 4-4, needs every bit of his talent to be in the hunt for its second consecutive California Collegiate Athletic Conference basketball title.

Now is the time for 6-7 center Anthony Blackmon to play up to preseason billing as an All-American candidate.

But Blackmon, who has shown flashes of brilliance, has been in a slump, one that led to his benching two weeks ago.

Still, he is the team's leading scorer. He ranks second in rebounding. Most of all, he says he isn't feeling pressure. But there is the slump, which has seen his rebounding average and team lead falter.

There were signs last week against Azusa Pacific that he may be shaking out of it. Not a minute too soon for the Toros.

Blackmon's picture appears on the school's media guide. He is portrayed as its budding star, a role most juniors only wish upon themselves.

Not that he doesn't have the tools to be a Division II standout. Blackmon believes he could be one of the best if not the most dominant post player in the CCAA. His coach agrees. But Blackmon admits that he will have to prepare himself to play each game as if it will be his last.

"I can do what I'm capable of doing if I want to do it," he said.

As the only returning starter off last year's conference championship team, Blackmon has become the focal point of the offense for Coach Dave Yanai. He can be sweet. His 15-foot fall-away jumpers from the base line are pretty, reminiscent of National Basketball Assn. play. He does not give up ground on defense. But at times he does not move his feet and that often leads to holding fouls.

"Anthony Blackmon knows how he is supposed to play. I expect him to do well," Yanai said.

Blackmon is seldom ruffled. He is intelligent and poised. There is candor about him. Yet clenched palms and protracted grimaces in recent games have been signs of frustration.

Blackmon can come back quickly, though. He scored 21 points against Azusa Pacific University last week, although he drew two quick fouls in the first four minutes. Yanai stopped short of saying Blackmon was back on track. But with a twinkle in his eye, Yanai offered: "Blackmon will be fine. He's his old self again."

Blackmon readily admits that he hasn't lived up to his preseason billing. On a four-game road trip two weeks ago, in which Dominguez Hills went 1-3, Blackmon was in early foul trouble most of the time. In an 87-81 loss at Sacramento State, he missed a layup that would have tied the game in the waning moments. And he has missed key free throws on a team that is making nearly 80% of them.

The situation came to a head in practice the day before an 84-66 win over San Francisco State. Yanai was not happy with Blackmon's attitude and benched him for the first half.

When he started the second half, Blackmon looked out of it and Yanai quickly pulled him to the sideline. Blackmon said later that he was "off."

Yanai and his center agree they can't afford more off nights.

"I've got to score 20 points a game and get at least 10 rebounds a game," Blackmon said.

Against Azusa Pacific the big junior had only three rebounds. Yanai criticized the team for its poor effort in that area.

After the San Francisco State game Blackmon took a long walk back to his dorm on a chilly pitch-black night. He never removed a stereo from his athletic bag as he tried to sort things out in the quiet night air. The next day he read a newspaper story explaining why he had been benched. With a yellow marker he highlighted that part of the story and it hangs in his room as a reminder that Anthony Blackmon can be a lot better than he has shown.

Later Blackmon called the benching "a wake-up call. I have to recharge my batteries."

"Mentally, Anthony allowed himself to slip into freshman mistakes," Yanai said. "These were not smart plays."

Just how much could he mean to the team?

"Our opponents know he is critical to our success," Yanai said.

Blackmon agrees.

"I'm a much better player than I have been showing," he said. "I have to come ready to be a leader in scoring and rebounding. I've got to come ready to produce in order for us to win."

Surprisingly, Blackmon was unaware at first that he had fallen into a slump.

"I felt I had been playing pretty well," he said.

Blackmon looks back on the situation and says he is glad it happened:

"Players only see what they want to see, but in a coach's eye, if they are not seeing what they want they have to take steps to correct it."

Blackmon says he welcomed the benching because it gave him a chance to watch his teammates play.

"They did a hell of a job. I could see they can win without me," he said.

Yanai agreed.

"Sometimes it is important to exert pressure on him," Yanai said. "He realizes that we'll win with you, but we'll win without you, too."

Blackmon enjoys his relationship with Yanai.

"He's like a father to me," he said. "No team works harder than we do. Yanai makes sure you get the job done in practice."

Blackmon was the only star on a so-so team in high school at Los Angeles Wilson. He lived in a rough neighborhood and thought the best he could do was play at a community college. Yanai noticed him at a postseason all-star game and saw some promise, although Blackmon played little that night. He quickly signed him and Blackmon worked into a starting role midway through his freshman season at Dominguez Hills.

But it wasn't as easy as it sounded, despite the close bond between coach and player.

"There were times in my freshman year that I just wanted to walk off the court (in practice)," Blackmon said. "I thought (Yanai) was picking on me. I realize now he was not. He just wanted me to get better."

Yanai feels the benching of Blackmon was a positive move.

"I think Anthony is really focused now," he said.

Which led Blackmon to observe: "I feel I am human. I've got to look past what happened."

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