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NICE GUY FINISHING FIRST : Usevitch's Work Ethic Pays Off, First at Ocean View, Then BYU

February 07, 1988|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

PROVO, Utah — The world's nicest guy learned to play basketball by having his face broken.

Typical.

Hard knocks are the one thing that have come easily to Jim Usevitch, Brigham Young University's 6-foot 9-inch senior center. Elbows, remedial reading classes, cuts to his face and from basketball rosters, scholarships offered and then taken away, blood. Through the years, short-term misfortune has stuck to Usevitch like a leaky paste pot.

And just as surely as the folks on campus stand at attention when the Stars and Stripes are raised and lowered each day, Usevitch's response to bad times is always the same.

Work.

He had to ask a high school friend to teach him how to run. He stayed behind after high school basketball practices to try to coordinate a body with appendages constantly pulling toward opposite poles. He had to bulk up that same body for the pounding of college ball.

It all has led the kid who couldn't make the freshman team at Huntington Beach's Ocean View High School to becoming one who many think is the key player on BYU's 17-1 basketball team.

"There's no doubt that the reason we are where we are is Jim Usevitch," said forward Michael Smith, the team's most talked-about player.

Talk and Usevitch have never been close. When he was a 6-4 freshman at Ocean View, his height stunted his social growth.

"I was real quiet," he said. "I guess I felt self-conscious about the way I looked."

Matters weren't helped by the fact that he was having troubles in school and had to take remedial reading classes.

"Jim was slow at everything when he got here," said Jim Harris, Ocean View coach. "He read slow, he walked slow, he talked slow."

Harris first saw Usevitch in a physical education class and asked the tall reed of a boy if he wanted to play basketball. Having played in eighth grade and scored all of three points for the season, Usevitch was less than inspired. But he went out and was dropped from the freshman team. He was placed on what amounted to a freshman reserve team.

He stayed late with his freshman coach, Roger Holmes, and learned how to move his feet and hold a basketball. Having troubles getting up and down the court, he asked a friend and track athlete, Stuart Lui, to teach him how to run. He learned that for him to be effective in basketball, he would have to go against his very nature and deal out physical punishment.

"You will never meet a nicer person than Jim Usevitch," Holmes said. "You may search the world and find someone as nice, but no one nicer. Still, he learned quick what life was about on a basketball court.

"I remember the first time he practiced against (former USC star Wayne) Carlander. Jim's under the basket and the next thing you know he's on the ground with his nose and mouth bleeding and Wayne standing over him. That was lesson No. 1. There were a lot more times like that. But he never got mad, he never got frustrated. He always got up and wiped away the blood."

Usevitch said: "I loved basketball so much that I was willing to work that much harder."

He developed into an effective, if unspectacular, inside player. By his senior year he was one of Orange County's best, though at 6-8 and 210, he wasn't the most awesome physical specimen.

A devout Mormon--he attended seminary classes each weekday morning at 6:20 throughout high school--the possibility of playing at BYU interested him. But did it interest BYU?

"They would offer me (a scholarship), then take it away," Usevitch said. "Finally, they told me they had three scholarships and I was the fourth player."

The three players ahead of him were guards, and it was only when Roger Reid, assistant coach to then-head coach Frank Arnold, suggested that BYU try to get at least one tall player that Usevitch was offered a scholarship.

That was six years ago.

His freshman year, he split time between BYU's junior varsity and varsity. He developed slowly but by his sophomore year had improved to the point that Coach Ladell Andersen felt he was the most effective center in the Western Athletic Conference. He scored in double figures in 11 of his last 15 games.

But just as he appeared to be hitting his stride, Usevitch left on a two-year Mormon mission in New Zealand.

Of all the players he has watched leave on missions--six on the present BYU team--Andersen said Usevitch was the only one whose departure he feared would have a devastating effect on his team--and his job status.

"When he came to say goodby, I said, 'I hope I'm here when you get back,' " Andersen said.

In New Zealand, Usevitch lived in a house divided into three flats. The floors were warped, the water pressure so weak that to take a shower, he had to sit in the tub and hold a hose over himself. He gained weight, playing basketball once every few months.

When he got back, the former best center in the WAC found out how far he had slipped.

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