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BAD BLOOD : Tonight's Featured Matchup, USC's Bibby vs. Arizona's Bibby, Goes Way Beyond Basketball

January 16, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By way of cosmic intersection and hoops happenstance--O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!--the private lives of the Henry Bibbys will be put on public display tonight, for the cost of admission.

Arizona versus USC, a story of love, betrayal and a crossover dribble, comes as close as college basketball gets to Shakespeare.

Such as the Globe Theater is not available, the game will be played at the Sports Arena, in two halves instead of four acts.

"It's terrible," Virginia Bibby says quietly over the phone from Phoenix. "I hope the adults realize it's a kid out there."

The kid is her son, Mike Bibby, Arizona's phenom freshman point guard; quiet as a mouse, hard-working humble and the best player Wildcat Coach Lute Olson ever recruited.

The father is King Henry, USC's basketball coach. To give you a sense of the relationship, Henry called Mike last year to rekindle a standing scholarship offer. You know, father and son, sort of together again?

"No," came the stern reply.

"And that was the extent of it," as Henry remembers.

And there is Virginia, who will squirm courtside as she implores her son to knock the Trojans back to Troy one month shy of divorce court proceedings with Henry.

"Oh, I won't skip this," Virginia says with anticipation. "He can't keep me away from this."

Unlike her ex-husband to be, who can count on one hand the number of games he has seen Mike play, Virginia has never missed a game.

Take away the referees and the ballboys, and tonight's game amounts to one family's open wound.

The Bibbys saw this collision coming last March 15, the day USC removed the "interim' tag and named Henry coach for 1996-97.

Mike, a three-time Arizona player of the year at Phoenix's Shadow Mountain High, had long before committed to Arizona.

Jan. 16 has haunted the Bibbys since.

Virginia suspects Henry of orchestrating the public confrontation out of spite.

"When the kid signed [at Arizona], we didn't know he [Henry] would end up in this conference, to make it what it is today," Virginia says. "I think he did this on purpose. I think Henry looked for this this way. I think Henry is putting pressure on the kid. I wish he [Henry] was somewhere else, I really do, just to avoid having the kid go through this. But I guess this is how it worked out."

Through the USC sports information office, Bibby declined a request to discuss his son and respond to his wife's comments.

Last week, on a conference call with Pacific 10 Conference coaches, Bibby said he thought Mike would have been better off at USC.

"I think I could give more knowledge than probably anyone in the Pac-10 in what a point guard should do," said Bibby, a former All-American guard at UCLA. "But he's at a very good school, he's with a very, very good coach, and I'm pleased to see him progress the way that I thought he would."

Stuck in the middle of this mess is Mike, by all accounts an innocent kid who comes not to praise his father but to figuratively bury him at center court.

One gets the sense this won't be a problem for the younger Bibby, who directs the nation's sixth-ranked team.

Olson has tried to keep this circus under the tent. He saw Jan. 16 coming too and prohibited Mike from conducting pregame interviews.

"I know this young man better than you do," Olson told a reporter requesting an interview. "And I'm just telling you it's in his best interests [not to talk]. This thing has been over and over and over again. And I just don't think it's fair."

Mike's feelings about his father, however, are public record.

Arizona beat reporters recently asked Mike about the comparisons.

"That kind of upsets me," he said. "They don't have to say 'Henry Bibby'; they just need to say Mike Bibby. But every time after my name . . . there's his name."

Bibby has made a point in interviews to credit his success to his mother, noting she was the one who made him shoot jump shots every day after school at a bent rim.

Asked once what was the biggest misconception about him, Mike replied: "How people thought my dad was always there for me."

Father is, in fact, pictured with his son in this year's USC media guide--but it is with his oldest boy, Hank Jr., a USC student.

How did it ever get to Jan. 16?

Nineteen years ago in May, Virginia delivered the couple's third child, Mike, in Cherry Hill, N.J. After winning three NCAA titles at UCLA in the early 1970s and an NBA crown for the New York Knicks in 1973, Henry was playing out an NBA string with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Virginia recounts her husband's role in Mike's 1978 birth as follows:

"With Mike, he dropped me off at the hospital and went home, I guess," she says, "then came back after he was born. . . . I know he wasn't there for the actual birth."

Mike was 2 when the family moved to Phoenix and Henry began a decade of town-hopping as he tried to work his way into the coaching profession.

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