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COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA TOURNAMENT

A Bear Necessity

The Onus Is on J.R. Henderson to Perform, Because Whether or Not He Likes It, as He Goes So Go the Bruins

March 13, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — J.R. Henderson, the bemused Bruin barometer, is not particularly enthralled with either the role or the unrequested responsibility, but--shrug, sigh, grimace--what can he do about it, anyway?

Reluctantly, with his team poised to take another leap into the NCAA tournament today, Henderson acknowledges the validity of this statistical and emotional theorem: Even with all the show-stopping talent on this team, as he goes, sleepy or super-charged, productive or plodding, so go the UCLA Bruins.

"I understand that," Henderson said this week, hardly savoring the thought.

Shrug. Sigh. Grimace.

"At first, I didn't want to believe it: Everybody said, 'When you do good, your team does good,' " the junior forward said. "I didn't think one player could really have that much effect on the team. But now I'm really starting to see it. When I have an off game, when I get into early foul trouble, it puts a damper on us."

Though Henderson is only the team's third-leading scorer at 13.9 points a game (behind Charles O'Bannon and Toby Bailey) and third-leading rebounder (behind O'Bannon and Jelani McCoy), whether they're playing Oregon State or Duke, Arizona or Morgan State, the Bruins have mostly risen and fallen along Henderson's orbit. When Henderson scored 13 points or fewer in the 28-game regular season, UCLA was 8-7. When he scored 14 or more, the Bruins were 13-0.

Why is this happening? Because the 6-foot-9 Henderson probably is UCLA's best offensive creator, Coach Steve Lavin says, forces the most dramatic defensive reactions and has the best feel for moving the ball around and attacking soft spots.

Though Henderson says he's not totally comfortable banging on the low post all game, when he is touching the ball often and finding shots and drawing a stream of fouls and kicking it back to outside shooters or O'Bannon slicing through the lane, UCLA is a fluid offensive team that puts up points in a flash.

Because he can score even when he is defended on the post (55% shooting from the field), Henderson is UCLA's most-fouled player and most reliable point-getter in the half court.

A startling 43% of his points have come from the free-throw line, where he has struggled (59.3% this season, after a combined 67.7% his first two seasons).

When he's uninvolved, the Bruins become stagnant and easy to defend. Often this season, particularly in day games when this admitted slow waker is still warming up, Henderson either doesn't get the ball or can't, because he has picked up two quick fouls in the first half.

He agrees that he has too many slow starts, pointing to dull openings in losses to California and Kansas, and his huge 16-point second half against Duke at Pauley Pavilion and 14-point second halves at USC and Washington State.

"I don't know why I do that," Henderson said. "I mean, I don't try to. I guess just lack of concentration, the way I prepare myself for the games. I've got to try different things."

Said Lavin: "I think sometimes with J.R., the fact that he is so gifted and so skilled, sometimes, he has to remind himself to assert himself, because the game does come very easy to him. Because of his basketball IQ, because he's mastered the fundamentals at 6 foot 9, it makes him a very dangerous combination.

"But sometimes, I almost want him to step up and force the action more. That's partly my responsibility, I need to get him involved early."

With UCLA now facing the tournament's win-or-gone challenge, and with teams sure to try to force the Bruins into half-court games, Henderson knows his performance is going to be highlighted even more.

In last season's first-round loss to Princeton, Henderson, who had sat out the last two games of the regular season because of flu, played 21 minutes, scored only two points, and had a mini-confrontation with then-coach Jim Harrick when Harrick tried to put him back into the game in the second half. Henderson did not go back in, and UCLA did not score in its final eight possessions.

"I was kind of upset that I had that illness and I wasn't able to perform as well as I wanted," Henderson said. "There's a lot of things I wish I could go back and do differently. But I've put that behind me.

"I keep it in the back of my head as kind of a motivator, when I get to that point again, I won't do that again."

So, what happened on the sideline between him and Harrick?

"I tried [to follow his orders to go back into the game], but when I got up, I was real stiff and I tried to tell Coach that, but he didn't understand that, he was caught up in the game and he kind of got upset at that," Henderson said. "But I would have hurt my team more than I would have helped them. I couldn't hardly feel my legs I was so stiff."

Milton Henderson said his son, who almost never shows outward frustration, was clearly bothered by the incident.

"It ate at him for weeks after," Milton Henderson said, "probably, it was months."

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