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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Chenowith Able to Rise Above It All

Kansas: Jayhawks' 7-foot-1 center big enough to handle criticism that he underachieves while coping with his mother's battle with cancer.

March 15, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Chenowith can take criticism as well as the next guy.

But the next guy doesn't have it heaped on him like this.

Chenowith can deal with the boos. Or an occasional catcall while walking on campus. Even the hate messages left on his answering machine.

But when beer cans are thrown at you from a passing car, that's going too far.

"It kind of breaks your concentration for things," he said.

Many believe Chenowith, Kansas' 7-foot-1, 270-pound center, hasn't gone far enough since being selected a McDonald's All-American at Villa Park High.

Some say he's a bust. They say anything and everything.

"I've been bashed in the student newspaper, local radio shows . . . ," he said. "It bugs me sometimes. But I've never really been shattered by anything."

Not even the chant "Chenoworthless" from fans.

"Not fans," he said. "Spectators."

He refuses to crack, as his fortitude during his mother's recent battle with breast cancer attests. He's determined to shrug off criticism and try to improve on what has at times been a disappointing career with the Jayhawks.

Kansas (24-6) will play upstart Cal State Northridge (22-9) in a Midwest Regional on Friday at Dayton, Ohio. The Jayhawks have been eliminated in the second round each of the last three seasons.

If Chenowith can't take charge against Cal State whoever-they-are, imagine what the, er, fans in Lawrence will say or do next.

Coach Roy Williams said Chenowith is the most criticized player he has coached in 13 seasons at Kansas. Williams even has given Chenowith a good chewing in an attempt to motivate.

"People just have high expectations of me," Chenowith said. "No one's going to accept anything from me except 30 points and 15 rebounds. Some of the stuff is unfair, but I think the fans are more behind me here than critical."

Chenowith is averaging 10.0 points and 7.8 rebounds, a slight improvement on last season's averages of 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds.

He ranked sixth among the Jayhawks in scoring last season. More was expected of him after he averaged 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds and averaged 29 minutes a game as a sophomore.

Chenowith is the biggest of the Jayhawk big men, who include 6-10 Drew Gooden and 6-9 Nick Collison, but he isn't always in the thick of things. Among the knocks on him is that he isn't aggressive inside.

"People want me to score more, and I think I could score more," he said. "But I'm not the No. 1 option in our offense. I try to rebound and block shots."

The offense revolves around 6-5 senior forward Kenny Gregory, the team's most consistent player..

"Eric is struggling," Williams said. "But at the same time, he's playing really hard."

One would think Chenowith would have cracked by now, but he has endured greater hardship.

His mother, Janey, contracted breast cancer last summer and had a full mastectomy. Chenowith was home with her in Villa Park when the diagnosis was made. When his father, Bob, couldn't be reached after the news came, Chenowith drove his mother to the doctor and took charge.

"He did all the talking with them and had everything explained," Janey said. "He is very strong."

She underwent chemotherapy and has recovered. Her cancer is in remission.

During her treatment, she urged her son to stick to his business and not her bedside.

"I'm not one for a lot of sympathy," she said. "I don't like to call him and burden him with things. When I was sick, I really didn't want him to spend a lot of time here."

Chenowith spent part of the summer honing his skills at Pete Newell Big Man Camp.

"When I was gone, it was really tough," Chenowith said. "She wouldn't tell me how sick she was going through chemo. She persevered, though."

His mother showed strength. He knows he can too.

Reports of Chenowith-bashing barely make it back home.

"He doesn't talk to me about it," Janey said. "The only reason I know about that stuff is because my husband pulls it up on the Internet."

Chenowith has given himself a crash course on the Matadors, making their first NCAA tournament appearance. He is familiar with Brian Heinle, the Northridge center. Heinle, 6-9, from Eugene, Ore., and Chenowith played against each other in high school summer leagues.

"He's good," Chenowith said. "He's athletic for a big guy and shoots well from the perimeter."

Chenowith should be able to handle Heinle. Or else.

"It bothers me that people would do that stuff," forward Jeff Carey, Chenowith's roommate, said of the abuse. "It comes up all the time. But I think Eric does a good job of ignoring it."

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