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He Elbows His Way Into Lineup : Basketball: Former Mater Dei standout Mike Hopkins earns a starting spot at Syracuse through hard work, and by holding his own in practice.

March 20, 1992|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Hopkins had played the patsy long enough.

Certainly he expected some hazing, even a little abuse, as a freshman at Syracuse in 1988. After all, he was playing basketball with Sherman Douglas, Billy Owens and Derrick Coleman--guys who now earn rather hefty paychecks in the NBA.

Yeah, Hopkins could almost tolerate being shoved, elbowed and even pummeled by them every day in practice.

But by Dave Bartlestein?

Dave Bartlestein.

"He was a walk-on," Hopkins said. "He started pushing me around in practice one day, and I'd had it up to here, so I punched him. After that, I didn't get pushed around anymore."

Respect always seems to come grudgingly to Hopkins. Eventually, though, he gets it.

Hopkins was supposed to be a flop when he left Mater Dei High School for Syracuse. This was the Big Bad East Conference he was heading into and, surely, they'd chew him up.

He would never even get off the bench, people said. Or worse, they predicted he would be back. Transfer out. Come home with his tail between his legs.

Instead, Hopkins, a junior, will be starting at guard tonight in Worcester, Mass., when the Orangemen face Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Does he feel vindicated? Does he ever.

"Coaches who had recruited me told my dad that I was in way over my head," Hopkins said. "They'd said, 'He'll never play there.' Well, I like a challenge. I don't back down."

Hopkins certainly didn't Sunday in the championship game of the Big East tournament.

With Syracuse sputtering against Georgetown, he drove to the basket and right at renowned shot blocker Alonzo Mourning.

Hopkins tossed up a shot that barely cleared Mourning's outstretched hand, rolled on the rim and went in to give Syracuse a 53-49 lead with two minutes left.

"All I wanted was get the ball over that hand," Hopkins said. "I laid it up high, soft and quick. And I was thankful that it went in."

He later made a key free throw, as the Orangeman won, 56-54. It was the first time Syracuse had beaten Georgetown in a Big East tournament championship game.

Hopkins, who averages 6.5 points, finished with 15 points, all in the second half.

"Mike made some real big plays for us," Coach Jim Boeheim said. "He drove right at Alonzo when we needed a basket. But that's Mike. He's not afraid of anybody."

Boeheim saw that day after day during practice in 1988.

Hopkins had arrived at Syracuse without much fanfare. His career had been a bit spotty at Mater Dei, where he had a broken foot as a junior and was in the doghouse part of his senior season.

"I didn't come in with all the accolades other guys had," Hopkins said. "I didn't average 30 points per game in high school. But those guys didn't play a lick of defense. I was better at the fundamentals."

Still, people took one look at Hopkins and doubted. He just didn't appear to be Big East material.

This is a conference that is so rough that it allows its players six personal fouls before being disqualified, instead of five like the rest of the country. Hopkins, who was frail-looking at 6 feet 6 and 170 pounds as a freshman, appeared down-right breakable.

Even Boeheim wasn't too sure how much Hopkins would contribute.

"I didn't think he could start," Boeheim said. "I thought maybe he could become a role player eventually."

Hopkins' first role was as a whipping boy.

He was put through a gantlet every day by his teammates. Starting guards Douglas and Stevie Thompson worked him over.

"I think they took turns on him," Boeheim said. "They beat him up pretty good. It was quite a baptism."

Practices were hard. Hopkins had to guard Douglas, the team's point guard, each day, and each day brought more punishment.

Eventually, Douglas relented and began working with Hopkins instead of working on him. Others weren't so easily won over.

"I was from suburban Laguna Hills and I was in a program with guys from Harlem, Detroit and other big cities," Hopkins said. "These were tough kids. There were days I was so frustrated afterward, I would cry. I had to earn their respect."

Hopkins didn't mind the established players getting rough. They had a right to put a redshirt in his place.

But, when some of the lesser players--the ones without scholarships--began taking liberties, enough was enough.

"The walk-ons didn't show me any respect," Hopkins said. "I had to fight back. It got to the point where the guys knew that I wasn't just going to take it. I was going to fight for my rights."

Hopkins has maintained that intensity in practice.

"Mike gets in another mind zone," Boeheim said. "You never know what to expect. Sometimes, he gets so worked up he can't even talk."

The hard work has paid off.

Hopkins was used off the bench the last two seasons. He averaged 2.9 points as a redshirt freshman in 1989-90 and 3.3 points last season.

His brightest moments always seem to come against Georgetown.

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