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NBA DRAFT

Rhodes Likes His Mentors in Houston

Locals: Learning from Barkley, Olajuwon and Drexler appeals to former Trojan, draft's 24th pick.

June 26, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's there on his left arm, tattooed for all time, "Everything happens for a reason."

The reason he's a first-round draft choice of the Houston Rockets, taken 24th overall, said Rodrick Rhodes, is "because it was meant to be."

"It's a dream that every kid has from the first time he steps on a court. I've had it since I was 7."

It wasn't a certainty, even in his own mind.

Rhodes, who played one season at USC after transferring from Kentucky, had gone through a truncated postseason NBA show-and-tell period.

He had played in the Portsmouth Invitational in Virginia for a team that was eliminated in two games. He was not asked to tryout camps in Phoenix and Chicago, which seemed important in a draft in which the only sure thing was Tim Duncan's selection as No. 1.

Rhodes, who averaged 14 points and 4.9 rebounds a game as a 6-foot-6 swingman for the Trojans, got calls from Seattle and Houston and worked out for both.

The Rockets were looking for an off-guard, and they looked at Rhodes on Monday.

"They told me I was their man," he said.

Happiness became euphoria on the trip back to Los Angeles, then wavered Tuesday and Wednesday when he searched newspapers and listened closely to radio and television, wondering why nobody was talking about him.

"It's still a business, you know, so you don't know," Rhodes said. "Did they change their minds? Did they . . .? You don't know, and your agent doesn't know. Nobody knows but them."

And so he twisted in the wind.

"You don't want to get too excited, but you can't help it. And after a while, you expect the worst and hope for the best."

The worst?

"Not getting picked at all," he said.

And the best?

"Out of all the picks in the draft, I think I got the best situation," Rhodes said. "How many people will get to practice every day with three Hall of Famers? How many people will get to play with [Charles] Barkley, [Akeem] Olajuwon and [Clyde] Drexler? That's three Hall of Famers, man."

Rhodes' selection is a triumph of patience.

He had come out of Jersey City, N.J., as a sure-fire NBA player who merely needed to get his ticket punched at Kentucky. Once there, though, he clashed with then-coach Rick Pitino, who suggested he sit out a season after his junior year to get his mind right.

Instead, Rhodes opted to declare himself eligible for the NBA draft and went through all of the requisite postseason auditions, only to find the NBA declaring he wasn't ready for its draft.

And Pitino declaring Rhodes wasn't ready to return to Kentucky.

So he headed for USC, where he sat out a season, watching on television as Kentucky won a national championship, and then helped the Trojans to a surprise NCAA tournament bid.

And now he goes to the NBA.

"So many people have had faith in me," he said. "And so many people know where I've been, where I've traveled, from the No. 1 team in the country to a team that wasn't even probably in the top 200. There's a lot of satisfaction in that. A lot."

*

Other Southern California collegians drafted include guard James Cotton, who left after his junior season at Long Beach State and was selected by Denver as the 33rd pick. He was quickly traded along with a 1998 second-round pick to Seattle for guard Bobby Jackson, the 23rd pick overall.

UCLA forward Charles O'Bannon was taken just before Cotton, by Detroit, and forward Kebu Stewart of Cal State Bakersfield was taken 36th overall by Philadelphia.

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