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MARCH MADNESS / NATIONAL INVITATION TOURNAMENT

Hurricane Force

Tough Background Made Tulsa's Shelton a Contender on the Court

March 14, 2001|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Shelton can flash a brilliant smile and you know him.

Those three gold caps that glitter back at you give it away. They are there for style, not oral hygiene.

He's all flash, no substance, cocky and undisciplined. Look at all those tattoos. Basketball players like him are all too common. Yeah, the Tulsa coach must have his hands full.

Snap appraisals can be dangerous.

Shelton, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound man-mountain, began speaking in a soft voice and you begin to understand.

He talks, matter-of-factly, about being shot in the leg when he was 10. He chokes down the emotion when talking about being an 11-year-old kid and finding out his friend had been shot for a jacket.

Shelton describes the friends he knows back in Cincinnati. The Laurel Homes, the projects where he lived until his mother whisked him away, are littered with them.

Shelton, though, plays college basketball. He will get a degree in sociology. He got out.

"I have friends who got caught up in the shuffle and they ended up on the streets," Shelton said. "I see them when I go home and they are doing the same things that they did when they were younger. They are doing the things I would probably be doing if I hadn't gone in a different direction. I got my head on straight. I know where I want to go."

Shelton is able to appreciate the light years he has traveled. He will lead Tulsa against UC Irvine tonight in the first round of the NIT. OK, it's not the NCAA tournament. Shelton knows that as well as anyone.

A year ago, he was a vital part of the Golden Hurricane's run to the South Regional final. A transfer from Independence Community College in Independence, Kan., he was Tulsa's sixth man, one of the best in the nation, and led the team in scoring. He was named the newcomer of the year in the WAC.

Things that worked well last season didn't this season. Shelton has labored. His shooting dropped, from 48% last season to 40% this season.

He is not a leaper, as former Tulsa Coach Bill Self often said, "David couldn't jump over a roll of dimes."

So when opponents stopped buying the deception, Shelton struggled. The spin-and-fake moves that worked so well a year ago seemed stale and predictable.

Still, he is the team's backbone, helping the Golden Hurricane to a 21-11 record and second-place finish in the WAC. Tulsa reached the conference tournament final, then was upset by Hawaii.

The NCAA selection committee shunned the Golden Hurricane, although eight of its 11 losses were to teams that reached the tournament, including North Carolina and Kansas.

"The NIT was not what we were shooting for," Shelton said. "But we still have more games to play. We have to apply ourselves."

Shelton learned to apply himself growing up in poverty, surrounded by chaos.

"David has a toughness on the floor that is unmatched," said Mark Downey, who coached Shelton at Independence. "There are guys who bench press more. No one is tougher. He comes from a rough neighborhood. He was tough enough to survive it."

Laurel Homes, on Cincinnati's west side, can make you strong or crush you. The neighborhood was the setting for the 1999 movie, "In Too Deep," about an undercover cop who gets caught up posing as a street criminal.

"People said they portrayed the neighborhood to be worse than it is," Shelton said. "But it was as bad as that. If you're not from there, you don't understand."

Shelton understands. As a 10-year-old, he was playing basketball in a park when he felt a pinch on his left leg. A moment later, a friend pointed out the bleeding. Shelton was taken the hospital and only then did he realize he had been shot.

Doctors told him that three inches to the left and he might have lost the lower part of his leg.

He was lucky. Shelton's friend, Derrick Turnbow, was not. He was walking down the street and a group of guys asked him for his jacket When Turnbow refused, they shot him, leaving him paralyzed. Five years later, he died.

The street he lived on was renamed Derrick Turnbow Avenue.

"The night Derrick was shot, my mom packed our bags and we moved out," Shelton said. "When you live in that kind of place, you have to accept that what's going on around you is not normal. If you don't, you will get caught up in it."

Darlene Shelton took her three sons out of the two-bedroom apartment in Laurel Homes to a three-bedroom house in Westwood, a suburb of Cincinnati.

Leaving the neighborhood was easy. Leaving it behind wasn't. Shelton entered Western Hills High School and struggled everywhere but on the basketball court.

"I didn't like school and I had a bad mouth," Shelton said. "If I could take anything back, it would what I did in high school. I'd be more humble."

None of that "bad attitude" exists today. Shelton, in fact, is on track to earn his degree this spring. But it cost him after his senior year at Western Hills.

Shelton averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds as a senior. He had long dreamed of playing for Cincinnati and signed with the Bearcats, but failed to qualify and ended up at Independence, where he averaged 25 points as a sophomore.

Shelton did not return to Cincinnati, choosing Tulsa after two seasons. He did, though, help beat the Bearcats in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. Shelton had 14 points and seven rebounds in the 69-61 victory.

"I knew all the guys on that team," Shelton said. "Now I have the bragging rights."

About that game.

About getting out.

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