NORTHRIDGE — Hushed and hidden, all senses on full alert, Derrick Higgins waits. He watches. He listens.
It was his way as a child growing up in Los Angeles, where he was the introvert among six siblings, the compassionate one who bonded with his invalid great-grandmother.
It was his way at church, where he silently absorbed the message preached by his father, the pastor and a gifted orator. From his place in the choir, Higgins' eyes stayed glued to the organist's fingers, and by the age of 14 he played hymns by ear.
And it is his way on the basketball court, where Higgins is Cal State Northridge's only senior, the captain and reluctant leader who prefers the background, the baseline and the back door to the basket.
Wait. Watch. Listen. And when it's time for action, there is no hesitation.
With the stealth of a big cat, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Higgins springs into motion at the first sign of opportunity, using his superior quickness on defense and his 37-inch vertical leap on dunks.
He leads the Big Sky Conference with 54 steals and is challenging his school record of 74.
He leads Northridge with a scoring average of 13 points and is shooting 56%, with most of his shots coming on fast breaks, alley-oops and offensive rebounds.
But the statistic sheet is meaningless to Higgins. He performs by feel, not formula.
He recalls phone numbers by studying his fingers while they tap an imaginary keypad. He doesn't read music, yet he plays the drums, the piano and the organ.
On the court, as with the choir, keeping harmony is his game.
"I try to get everyone involved, I try to get everybody happy," he said. "I can score, but I figure I can get that shot later."
Higgins communicates best nonverbally. Often he trails off in mid-sentence, unable to say what he can convey with a turn of his cheek, a twist of his hands or a wiggle of his shoulders.
During practice, he is quick with a pat on the back--a contrast to his coach, Bobby Braswell.
"Derrick is one of the most kind-hearted people I've known," said Braswell, the recipient of a Higgins hug at particularly stressful moments. "He doesn't like conflict. He wants everybody to be happy. If I'm on somebody, he goes over and picks them up."
Higgins is the only Northridge player Braswell did not recruit. But they bonded quickly.
Two years ago, Braswell's father and brother died during the season. Braswell missed practice the day his brother passed away, and when assistant Mike Johnson brought the team together, Higgins turned ashen-faced.
"Who in Coach's family died?" Higgins blurted out.
"Derrick knew something was terribly wrong and he was devastated," Braswell said. "He called and stopped by my house. It took a lot out of him, knowing I was hurting. There is a sensitivity about him you don't see in many people."
Rarely is a basketball player unselfish to a fault. Higgins can be.
"He was making turnovers on passes when he should have shot the ball," Braswell said.
Message received. Higgins is shooting 78% in the last six games, is averaging 15.5 points in Big Sky play and has consistently made big plays.
Against Northern Arizona, he made a buzzer-beating three-pointer from the baseline to force overtime.
Against Idaho State, he tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer to give Northridge a two-point victory.
Against Portland State, he blocked a shot at the buzzer to force overtime.
Against Eastern Washington, he made 10 of 13 shots and scored a career-high 26 points.
Against Cal State Sacramento, he made all eight of his shots. The next night, against Weber State, he made four of five shots and had three steals.
Sharing his senior season from the top corner of the Northridge stands at home games are Higgins' parents, four brothers and sister.
"We enjoy the games tremendously, not just watching Derrick, but all the Northridge players," said David Higgins, Derrick's father. "Basketball is nice because it enables us to continue doing something together."
The emphasis placed on family by David and Valerie Higgins, who celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary on Christmas, shaped the character of their children.
"Mom and Dad brought us up to stick with family life," Higgins said. "I isolated myself from other people to stay out of trouble. That's why I am so to myself. As I've grown, I've learned to mingle with everybody."
"I was around gangs and drugs. My closest friends from elementary and junior high, I'd see them at the park when I'd go there to play basketball. They respected me saying no to that stuff because I played ball."
Higgins' older brothers, David and Keith, preceded him as basketball stars at Locke High. Derrick was the center on a league champion team his senior year and continued to play the post at another winning program, L.A. City College.
He was recruited to Northridge by Pete Cassidy, Braswell's predecessor. Keith was not happy at Colorado and transferred to Northridge before the 1995-96 season, which Derrick sat out with a broken left foot.