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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Gopher Will Try to Make Uncle's Last Words Come True

March 29, 1997|GEORGE DOHRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — Look closely at the shoes of Minnesota forward Courtney James as he plays in tonight's Final Four game against Kentucky and you will see "RIP-TW," a tribute to his uncle who died here Thursday.

Tony Whitley, 45, died after suffering a seizure and hitting his head, said James. After hearing the news, James, an Indianapolis native, tried to go to the hospital, but his mother and Whitley's sister, Esther, asked him not to.

"She told me she knew I wanted to be there with her, but that I needed to stay with my team and concentrate on the game," James said. "I know my mother is very upset, and it is in the back of my mind, but I don't want it to affect how I play."

Whitley, James said, had taken the place of his father, Michael James, while he was growing up in Indianapolis and eventually leading Ben Davis High to a state title in 1995.

"My father left us when I was about 2 and [our relationship] has been downhill since then," James said. "I saw him once last summer on the playground at Ben Davis, but we really didn't have anything to say.

"But I have eight uncles and they took the place of my father, like Tony did."

Courtney James said his father has recently tried to become more involved in his life, even asking for tickets to the Final Four.

"Now that I am older, he calls all the time. He tries to make an effort, but I wonder why he is trying to make an effort now when he hasn't been there all along?" James said.

"He called my mom and asked if I could get him some tickets, but I told her I didn't want to give him any. My mom asked me to do it, so I probably will. I always try and do what she asks."

James said that if his father comes to his game tonight, he doesn't plan on speaking with him. He also said he last spoke with his uncle Wednesday, although only for a few minutes on the telephone.

"He was very sick and it was hard to understand him," James said. "But the one thing I do remember him saying is, 'Beat Kentucky.' "

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