From one end of the bench, where Judas T. Prada whispers assistant-coach advice into the head man's ear, to the opposite end, where Father George Crain sits tugging on his black fedora, Loyola Marymount has a whole row of true believers who now honestly feel that this cuddly little cabbage-patch basketball team can win the national championship.
Loyola's got Judas and the priest. Loyola's got Bo Kimble, who gets 37 points on a bad day. Loyola's got Per Stumer, one of those typical Swedish-streetball stars out of Taljegymnasiet High. Loyola's got Terrell Lowery, who takes 17 shots coming off the bench. Loyola's got Terrorist Tom Peabody, who plays with all the calm and control of a Middle East embassy riot.
And, Loyola's got Jeff Fryer.
The beach boy. The surfer. The kid with sand in his sandals from Newport Beach who puts on his sneakers and then stations himself 20 to 25 feet from the basket and says: "Tryin' one, dudes!" He's the drive-by basketball shooter whom even Coach Paul Westhead refers to as a hired gun.
Jeff Fryer shoots nothing but Hail Marymount shots. He considers his range to be someplace between the bench and the lobby. There is only one time Jeff Fryer refuses to shoot the basketball, and that is when he is taking a shower. He is a guy who has adopted an attitude that sounds as though it came right out of a fortune cookie, saying: "My philosophy is to keep missing shots until I make one, then keep making shots until I miss one."
Jeff Fryer also happens to be the guy who scored 41 points--\o7 without even trying one free throw\f7 --in Loyola Marymount's latest and greatest adventure, Sunday's 149-115 West Regional monster mash of a national-champion Michigan team that never knew what hit it.
On an afternoon when Syracuse was winning another NCAA regional game by the puny little score of 63-61, Loyola's tireless, relentless, bombs-away jumper-pumpers put 65 points through one of the hoops of Long Beach Arena \o7 by halftime. \f7 They scored their 100th point with \o7 11 minutes to play. \f7 And Fryer, who doesn't necessarily aim before firing, took 15 of Loyola's \o7 40 three-point shots. \f7
"Our offense," Fryer said, "is like playing in heaven."
Jeff Fryer, with understandable affection, thinks of scholarly Paul Westhead as the nutty professor. "Coach Westhead is an interesting coach," Fryer put it nicely. "He gets mad at me when I \o7 don't \f7 shoot. How many college basketball players have ever been treated like that? He's kind of a wacky coach."
Weirdest thing about Loyola is that a character such as Fryer can flourish on a squad that has given us back-to-back national scoring champions. You wouldn't think there would be enough basketballs to go around, but Fryer has been doing this all along. People forget that he got 27 points in a regional game against North Carolina two years ago. This season he scored 22 vs. Oregon State, 23 vs. Nevada Las Vegas, 27 vs. LaSalle, 28 vs. LSU, 29 vs. Oklahoma--tournament teams all. He lit up Pepperdine for 40, nailed DePaul last season with 42.
And Sunday, you could have blindfolded him and spun him three times. He still would have scored.
Michigan center Terry Mills said Fryer "shot as well as anyone I've ever seen."
All those sunny days shooting baskets around the Balboa Island courts paid off. Fryer remembers specializing in outside shots mainly because his older brother's buddies were usually too tall to take to the hoop. The way he shot against Michigan, it's hard to believe that he actually missed four games this season after breaking a bone in his right hand.
He's got the self-confidence of a superstar, on a team that already had two. Although Loyola's yearbook did list Fryer as an "All-American candidate," nobody else did. This was Hank Gathers' team, then Bo Kimble's, which Fryer freely acknowledges. And while nobody can take Gathers' place, Fryer has decided to take a rather unusual stand.
"Hank is on my side at all times, so that makes two of us out there," he said. "I wasn't about to have an off-day with him watching me--and I won't have one the rest of the way."
Since nobody knows how \o7 not \f7 to have an off-day, we wondered how Fryer could know that he won't.
"I just won't," he replied.
That is the kind of wishful thinking being done around Loyola Marymount these days. The belief that anything is possible. The belief that--thanks, Hank--the Lions really \o7 are \f7 playing everybody 6-on-5. That's what it feels like, playing in heaven.