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So Far, They Can't Find a Way to Get Rid of Keith Owens : Lakers: The more Dunleavy sees of the former UCLA player, the more he likes him.

October 11, 1991|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For some men, much is given and much expected.

Then there's Keith Owens.

He walked on at UCLA. He's walking on with the Lakers. He even had to walk on with the Lakers' summer league team.

"The first time I saw him in summer, I thought, 'What's he doing here?' " Coach Mike Dunleavy said.

"We really took him because he's local, almost as a courtesy. Local guy, give him a chance. In my mind, not much of a chance.

"He came in the first day. I saw him, I thought, 'Two, three days, that'll be it.' But he improved every day. He got to the point where I wanted to see what he could do in camp against our veterans."

This is your life, Keith Owens.

There are all manner of rookies: No. 1 picks with guaranteed contracts and the cool look hiding their anxiety; \o7 kamikaze \f7 free agents who can't even let themselves think how long the odds are.

Owens, a B student who graduated in four years with a degree in history, is different.

Neither cool nor starry-eyed, he knows the odds, from experience.

A skinny 6-foot-5 center at Birmingham High in Van Nuys, he turned down scholarship offers from Cal Poly Pomona and Hawaii to attend UCLA because . . . get this: He liked the \o7 school\f7 .

"I never envisioned myself playing past high school," Owens said, "so it wasn't that big a deal if I didn't play. But I wanted the education.

"I was always brought up thinking of professional sports as a really unrealistic goal to have. You have to go with the percentages, and I really was. Basketball was always the sport I played just because it was in season. Baseball was my favorite sport."

Nevertheless, he went out for the UCLA varsity in Walt Hazzard's final season as coach and stuck.

Strong, bouncy, willing to do the dirty work so many Bruins wouldn't, he filled a vacant role. A year later, Jim Harrick put him on scholarship.

Owens, trying to blank out the name of the man he was guarding so he wouldn't be intimidated, still marvels at the experience.

"This was actually the night I was told I was going to be put on scholarship," Owens said. "I was a sophomore and I hadn't played much up until that time.

"Coach Harrick put me in a game. We were playing Stanford, and he put me on Howard Wright 'cause he was having a big game, and (Harrick) wanted to try something new, I guess.

"I held my own against him, and I remember running back on defense and the crowd was going wild, and I was thinking to myself, 'What in the \o7 hell\f7 am I doing out here?'

"Pauley Pavilion . . . playing with these guys. . . . It was really kind of a trippy experience."

Imagine him today, having traded in Don MacLean and Tracy Murray for Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

Owens grew up, filled out and began taking himself more seriously. In the summer, he played visiting pros at Pauley--Johnson, Worthy, Pooh Richardson, Reggie Miller.

They told him he had a chance to play at the next level, which he surely does.

Of course, that level has several tiers: the nitty-gritty Continental Basketball Assn. and faraway Europe, as well as the emerald city of the NBA.

Owens even turned down an attractive Belgian offer to try out for the Lakers.

Of course, the Lakers needed some time to discover he was alive.

"They said they were interested because they scouted my games, looking at other players," Owens said, smiling.

"They kinda liked what they saw, but for the summer league they already had 16 guys on the team, and I would make 17. And I probably wouldn't get a chance to play.

"And the first game, the first substitution, the coach calls me to put me in the game. Ever since then, they thought like maybe I was someone who could be used. Now here I am today."

Today the 6-7 Owens has a prototype small forward's body. He is missing only the jump shot that goes with the position.

At UCLA, his reputation was "can't shoot a little bit."

The Lakers found out in summer he \o7 can\f7 shoot a little bit. If he can shoot a little more, he will have a real--outside--chance.

"I was never given the green light to shoot (at UCLA)," Owens said. "It was like, 'Let the offense come to you, don't try to force it.'

"That means, 'Let the offensive rebounds come to you and put 'em back in and forget it.'

"I think I can shoot it. I still have that mind-set that I'm not supposed to shoot, so it's a little difficult to all of a sudden change. I'm still trying to work through that." He added, smiling: "I feel confident shooting the ball from the perimeter, despite what the experts say."

Here he is, all right.

For veterans, training camp is necessary drudgery.

For endangered rookies?

"It's fun, it's nerve-racking, it's all those things rolled into one," Owens said. "I think you have to tell yourself it's fun. If you think of it as a chore, you shouldn't be out there in the first place. When it's time to run in the last drill, get pumped up for it. Don't think of getting tired."

After morning drills, the rookies drag out, grab a few hours of rest before the afternoon practice and go again.

They compare experiences, except for the big experience.

"I don't think anyone wants to bring that up (getting cut) because we're all fighting against each other," Owens said. "We don't bring up business. We talk just general chitchat.

"We talk about the veterans, how amazing the things they do are. How we've seen them do it over the years. Now they're doing it against us."

Owens' father had tickets to Laker games. Keith sat upstairs with him. From the stands to the floor, the longest journey in basketball, but Keith Owens' boots are made for walking.

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