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NCAA TOURNAMENT

Rhodes' Final Act: Big Role or Cameo?

USC: Opportunity to leave a lasting impression confronts senior as curtain rises against Illinois.

March 14, 1997|GEORGE DOHRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Arms reaching across a steel rail, children on tiptoe hope to slap the hand of the superstar.

Stais Boseman, the only All-Pacific 10 Conference player for USC, walks by without so much as a reach. He is not the one they want. David Crouse, Jaha Wilson, both fine senior players, leave practice at the Charlotte Coliseum without so much as a cheer from the young fans.

They look past them all to Rodrick Rhodes, wait until he approaches, and then reach as far as they can--for an autograph or just a touch.

"I remember him at Kentucky," said David Barclay, 14, who traveled from Pittsburgh for today's first-round games in the NCAA tournament's Southeast Regional. "In the East, we don't hear about him anymore, but I remember him."

What's to remember?

"That he used to be great."

Rodrick Rhodes is great no more. He will tell you that the minute you meet him. He stands tall in the USC uniform he first put on this season and tells you he is a role player, "just trying to get everyone involved."

And then he cracks a smile. It is only half the truth.

Not lost on Rhodes is the opportunity that comes with USC's game today against Illinois. Once the best high school player in the country, a sometime star at Kentucky, and now a fixture on a Trojan team few thought would be here, Rhodes can redefine his career.

Is he no more than a player who didn't live up to his potential? Will those kids who long for his autograph wonder years from now why they wanted it in the first place?

Or, will he be remembered for taking the team that adopted him further than it was meant to go?

"We all know, more than anyone, that making the tournament means the most for Rod," said Trojan forward Gary Williams, Rhodes' closest friend on the team. "It is important for all the seniors, but for Rod . . . well, this is his time."

So the sum of Rhodes' career will be figured today, when the 11th-seeded Trojans take on the sixth-seeded Fighting Illini. Teammates and coaches share one opinion about today's game: USC will win if Rhodes is great.

"We are counting on him to lead us," Williams said. "He has been [in the NCAA tournament] before. He knows what it takes to win."

Said Coach Henry Bibby, "We have tried to take some of the pressure off Rod. We don't want him thinking he has to win games for us. But he is one of our seniors. He is a veteran and we need him to play well."

There are indications, scant, but still visible, that Rhodes could be brilliant against Illinois. He scored 28 and 32 points in the final two games of the regular season, taking over the offense when it most needed his leadership.

Bibby believes Rhodes is at his best now, although he and the Trojans are playing a team that will press in hopes of frustrating him. He is a senior, though, composed, not one to falter.

"He has played some of his best basketball lately," Bibby said. "I think he understands what we need him to do for our team to be successful. And that is not force the game, not try and do too much."

That was the case in Rhodes' last NCAA tournament game, and the image that most will remember if he does nothing to erase it against Illinois. In 1995, his final season at Kentucky, Rhodes played North Carolina and Jerry Stackhouse in the Southeast Regional final.

Rhodes tried to do it all that game, admitting that he wanted to take over the way Wildcat Jamal Mashburn used to do. He failed miserably, making two of 10 shots, and was benched by Coach Rick Pitino as Kentucky lost.

"When he [went] to Kentucky, I think everyone looked at Rod as the great savior," Bibby said. "And when he came [to USC] I thought the same thing.

"But Rod is just a kid who wanted to have a college experience and he is finally doing that. He's not a savior."

There is a newness to all of this for Rhodes, who seems to have traveled the world of college basketball three times over. USC and this trip to the NCAA tournament have been blessings because, for the first time, he has been the underdog and had only his own expectations to live up to.

"This year, I am feeling the whole college experience," Rhodes said. "At Kentucky, you knew you were going to get into the tournament. The only thing left was whether you were going to get a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Kentucky had a powerful [athletic director] and it wasn't whether you were going to get in or not.

"This year, the feeling is different. I feel like I earned it, like we earned it."

Said Williams, "[Rod] has been like a little kid these past few days. We all have."

He has been pressed to reflect on what he has been through, but Rhodes divulges little.

"I don't want to talk about the past," he said. "I am here with USC. That's all that matters."

Rhodes says he will enjoy his final moment at the center of the college basketball world, win or lose. He knows nothing is secure for him after today's game. The NBA is a longshot, and he says he will be content without a professional career. He has his young daughter, Ro'deira, and she, he says, is all he needs.

But if he is to be remembered, Rhodes would like it to be for this season, when he soaked in what is so special about college basketball--players and teams that exceed expectations.

"I want to be remembered as somebody who would do anything to win," Rhodes said. "If there is one thing people will say about me, it is that he would do anything to help this team win."

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