For Kelly Huston, the start of what looked to be his most promising basketball season at Chapman College actually turned out to be something of a misfire, in the form of a curveball.
In Chapman's opening game in November against tiny, unheralded Christian Heritage College, Huston had done everything but deliver the victory. In fact, although Huston scored 21 points, it was his errant inbounds pass in the final seconds that led to Christian Heritage's 72-70 upset of the Panthers.
Hardly an auspicious beginning for Huston and Chapman.
"I felt really depressed after that game," Huston said, shaking his head. "I had the ball and I wasn't nervous or anything. I just wound up and threw a curveball. It was one of the worst feelings I've ever had playing basketball."
Now, 24 games later, Huston can laugh about it . . . well, sort of. He didn't get where he is today--leading the Panthers and the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. in scoring and rebounding--without a strong work ethic and a streak of perfectionism.
Here are some more of Huston's statistics, demonstrating why the Panthers are 15-10 overall and still in contention for a conference playoff spot at 6-6, tied for fourth place with Cal State Northridge heading into tonight's game at Northridge:
--He has led Chapman in scoring in 19 of 25 games and led in scoring and rebounding 13 times.
--He has scored more than 30 points in four games, and 20 or more points in 15 games. He is averaging 21.8 points, and sophomore guard Dave Roth is next with 13.2. Also, Huston leads the team with an average of 8.6 rebounds per game; junior forward Russ Ortega is second at 5.2.
--A 6-7, 200-pound senior center, Huston has made the CCAA individual contest into no contest, averaging 20.1 points and 7.9 rebounds. In scoring, Anthony Blackmon of Cal State Dominguez Hills is second with 17.9 points. In rebounds, Todd Bowser of Northridge is second with an average of 7.7 per game. The last time a player led the CCAA at season's end in scoring and rebounding was in the 1980-81 season.
--Huston has fouled out in only two games. In contrast to his numbers last season, that is a drastic improvement. In his junior year, Huston fouled out seven times in 26 games.
To say Huston is important to Chapman's success is to make a drastic understatement. His presence makes his teammates look that much better, and there's more to it than that.
"When you have a money player to go to like that, it takes the pressure off some of the newcomers," said Dave Yanai, Dominguez Hills coach, who has watched Huston for three seasons in the CCAA.
"That's one of Kelly's real contributions, his steadying influence. It takes the heat off the other players."
And Chapman has plenty of newcomers this season, including five of the seven players who have started in 10 or more games. Huston worried about the relative inexperience of his teammates before the season opened. Roth also expressed some reservations when he saw some of the incoming recruits play last year.
"I was real apprehensive this year," Huston said. "I didn't know what to expect. I had seen a couple of the guys on recruiting trips, playing two-on-two or three-on-three, and I wasn't really impressed. . . . But we've really been able to play well together as a team, and that's what's helped us. Just a good attitude."
Also, before the season, Chapman Coach Kevin Wilson spoke in glowing terms about Huston's ambitious summer workout program, saying his player had been doing 500 sit-ups a night and would be the player to watch in the CCAA.
It turned out Wilson was a little off on the sit-ups.
"It was only about 200 a night," Huston said. "I'd do them watching TV, or I'd take breaks between innings of listening to the Dodger games. He (Wilson) exaggerates a lot."
As it turned out, Wilson wasn't exaggerating about Huston's capabilities on the basketball court.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised at what he's done," Wilson said. "I knew it could be done with hard work. In practice, he'd shows signs of brilliance and then there were times he'd bobble and kick the ball. There were games where he had six points, but I knew the guy had so much perseverance, he was going to get the job done. He's not really a naturally gifted athlete, but he's made himself into a player."
Said Yanai: "I would say he and Anthony Blackmon are the two best front-line players in the league. He's been in the CCAA for three years and he's improved every year. I've seen him, to his credit, rise to the task. He's consistent; he gets 20-some points and 8 to 9 rebounds per game.
"He's grown as a player. When he first started, the CCAA was not an easy conference for a new player. There were many excellent front-line players in the league that year. He was put to the task against tough players, kind of like what he's doing to everyone else this year."
And, tonight against Northridge with a conference playoff spot at stake, Huston will try to do it one more time, just the way he has been doing it for the last 25 games.
Todd Bowser, a 6-8 sophomore center who is Northridge's second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, will miss tonight's game because of an injured foot. He strained his right arch in last week's game against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is out for three weeks.