TEMPE, Ariz. — Kevin Flanagan wasn't a flashy player at Torrey Pines High. But at 6-foot-9, 230 pounds, he didn't need to be. He was bigger than almost all his opponents.
His repertoire consisted of a low post move and nice little jump hook. He perfected both moves well enough to average more than 17 points a game and be named 3A San Diego Section co-player of the year along with teammate Courtie Miller and to the Times All-County first team.
He was recruited by nearly every mid-level Division I school, including San Diego State and the University of San Diego, but Flanagan wanted to play against the best. So he scorned the local schools and signed with the University of Arizona, which has made six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances under Coach Lute Olson.
It took Flanagan all of one practice against 6-11 Brian Williams, 6-10 Sean Rooks and 7-0 Ed Stokes to realize that his repertoire was going to have to be expanded a bit.
"Every aspect of their games were better," he said. "They're not just good, they're great. I don't think I came to that realization until I had my shot blocked three times."
During his entire career at Torrey Pines, Flanagan didn't have his shot rejected three times.
"I remember one time at Torrey, some guy deflected my shot," Flanagan said. "Courtie Miller came down and said, 'Flanagan, you never get your shot blocked!' It was like a disgrace. Here, it's a common occurrence."
Another common occurrence in Tucson these days is the McHale Center fans chanting, "We want Flanagan! We want Flanagan!"
Unfortunately for Flanagan, they rarely get him. A redshirt freshman, Flanagan has played in just eight of Arizona's 17 games for a total of 39 minutes--not even a full game. He has scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds during garbage time.
But there was no garbage time to be had Thursday night in Tempe against archrival Arizona State. Arizona, 15-2 after beating Villanova on Saturday, won by three points, and its lead never reached more than nine.
But Flanagan was hardly invisible on the bench. As each Wildcat player came off the court, Flanagan was there to offer an encouraging word and a slap of the hand. With every Arizona basket, he was the first off the bench to raise his fist.
Cheerleading is hardly what Flanagan had in mind when he signed a letter of intent with Arizona, but unlike another San Diego product--Tony Clark--Flanagan has been able to keep his limited playing time in perspective.
"When I chose this program, I realized there were a lot of talented basketball players already in the program," he said. "I thought it would be a good learning experience."
For Flanagan, most of the learning takes place in practice against Stokes, Williams and Rooks. The quality of instructors couldn't be better--all three players could be first-round NBA draft picks.
"I realize practice is where I'm going to make most of my improvement," he said. "Since I don't play in the game, practice is it for me. I'll get mad if I don't have a good practice."
But Flanagan's coach, Lute Olson, said he has yet to see Flanagan mad.
"He's always got a smile on his face, and he's never sulking," Olson said. "He's a people's person."
The cheery personality and enthusiastic bench demeanor have made Flanagan a fan favorite.
"He's the most popular of all the kids on the team," Olson said. "He receives more mail and louder cheers than anyone."
And Olson says that makes it harder for him to keep Flanagan on the bench.
"It's a problem because he's so enthusiastic and he plays so hard," Olson said. "But he's the fifth guy in a four-man rotation. . . . He knows where he's at, and he knows I'm going to get him his time when I can. But I've got to take it slowly. Right now these people deserve to be playing ahead of him."
The harsh reality for Flanagan is that Stokes is just a sophomore and Rooks and Williams are juniors. Unless Rooks or Williams applies for the NBA draft, it appears Flanagan will spend at least another year on the bench.
Has Flanagan thought of transferring? Wouldn't he be better off at USD or San Diego State where his playing time would increase?
"There are a lot of programs in the nation that I could be starting at," he said. "That's not my goal."
But it apparently was Clark's goal. After just a month of playing behind small forwards Chris Mills and Wayne Womack, Clark left Arizona for SDSU.
Although Flanagan roomed with Clark for a semester, he said he was as surprised as anyone when Clark left the team.
"I guess he kind of came to the realization on his own that he needed a change of pace," Flanagan said. "I'm really sorry that he left the program, but he's got to do what makes him happy."
Flanagan considers his situation to be completely different than Clark's.
"I'm looking long-term," he said. "I'm really happy with the other aspects of Tucson. Academically and socially, I'm having a good time."
Even though Flanagan's parents live in San Diego, they also are sharing in the Tucson experience. They have seen some road games, including Thursday's game in Tempe, and every home game. And when they can't be there, they watch the Arizona games on their new satellite dish.
"The games are a big part of their livelihood," Flanagan said. "A lot of parents might get disappointed that their son's not playing, but they've been real supportive. I think they realize the same things I do."
But Flanagan also realizes that he can be a content cheerleader for only so long. Eventually, he'd like to get some quality playing time.
"I hope to continue to make strides," he said. "Every time I'm in the game, I have to show the coaches that I'm not a liability. I hope to be a big contributor some day."
Does Olson see that day coming for Flanagan?
"I see his career going kind of like Brian David's did," he said. "A guy who didn't play much early, but stuck with it and eventually became a contributor."