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The Inside Track | Diane Pucin

Hoffman Wants to Make USC Women World Class

November 30, 2001|Diane Pucin

Ebony Hoffman came to play basketball at USC because she wants to make the Women of Troy mean something. Again.

Hoffman could have gone to college anywhere. Tennessee, Connecticut, Texas Tech, Notre Dame or Duke, all of those teams would have welcomed Hoffman, who is 6 feet 2, with strong legs and strong mind, a young woman who is majoring in international relations because she wants to be a businesswoman of the world.

And if she'd gone to any of those other places, Hoffman, a sophomore, would not have played a game against Brigham Young at the Sports Arena in front of a crowd of 429 on a rainy Thursday night in a building that smells of old animals and dust. This will be news to the people of Southern California, but in some places women's college basketball teams draw thousands of people to a single game and they actually enjoy it.

USC lost to BYU, 75-73, in overtime and Hoffman, who made a basket with under three seconds left to force overtime, had 14 points and nine rebounds. The Trojans are 2-4.

In her heart, Hoffman would like to think that the way the Trojans upset No. 12 Florida last week at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands and came within two points of upsetting Texas would have caused some excitement.

But it will take much more. Hoffman knows this. Hoffman knows she could have gone to Tennessee and been treated as a star, been catered to by the citizens of Knoxville, been adored by fans, male and female, could have expected to go to several Final Fours and almost certainly would have won a national championship.

But Hoffman has chosen the tough route. Two years ago she was rated as the No. 2 high school player in the country when she was a senior at Narbonne High in Harbor City. She had become a fan of USC when Cheryl Miller was the coach, but then Miller left and USC sank. So Hoffman became a fan of Texas Tech because Sheryl Swoopes was her hero and that's where Swoopes played. Hoffman also really liked Georgetown for a while because that's where Alonzo Mourning played. OK, she couldn't play with Mourning, but she could play where he played.

After all her visits were finished, after Hoffman had been courted by the best, she chose ... USC.

Hoffman decided she wanted to rebuild a program, not help sustain one.

"Having Ebony stay home was a big moment for us," said Chris Gobrecht, USC's coach. "This was a girl who could have gone anywhere. What I liked about the way Ebony made her choice was how smart she was about it.

"Our kids have a great amount of success at the next levels, the Olympics, the WNBA. Ebony saw how well a Tina Thompson or a Cynthia Cooper have done. I think our kids function in a much more realistic environment. At a Tennessee in Knoxville or a UConn in Storrs, where you play in front of sold-out crowds all the time, you are almost in a cocoon. We have no false perceptions about ourselves.

"There's a big world out there that may not care about us."

Gobrecht couldn't be more right.

Hoffman has played a year of college basketball and now she knows. "There's some bad opinions of West Coast schools," Hoffman says. "Us beating Florida, that was a really big win for the West. In the hotel, the girls from Florida were really yapping it up and then they came out and played so relaxed, like they were confident of the win.

"We showed them that you're not just going to get that win. We showed them the West is not a bunch of rooty-poohs."

That's how Hoffman is. Honest. Funny. Outspoken. Enthusiastic. Depressed. How she feels is evident on her face and in her play. Hoffman, with her bullish strength and wise mouth, with her honesty and intelligence, is a bit like Charles Barkley.

Hoffman is averaging 12 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. She is still a bit rusty because of the shoulder surgery she had after her freshman season. As a freshman, Hoffman averaged 12.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. The stats were fine. The 13-15 record, the six-game losing streak early in the year, the watching on television during the NCAA tournament, that was all dismaying to Hoffman, who did wonder sometimes what she had done.

"We lost more games in one season than I had lost in my entire life," Hoffman says. "I didn't know what to do with myself. You lose a little confidence. You start to wonder if you're really good enough."

Hoffman is absolutely good enough, Gobrecht says. You will see Hoffman playing for the U.S. in the Olympics someday and making money in the WNBA. Hoffman has a soft shot. Her hands are big and sure. She moves smoothly for a player who is 6-2 and weighs about 190. She is built solidly and is a confident rebounder. And she is not afraid to say when she is bad.

And Hoffman was very bad when the Trojans were crushed by No. 2 Tennessee, 106-66. Hoffman played 20 minutes, had two points and three rebounds. "I played tight," Hoffman says. "All those people wearing orange, all those fans, the band playing 'Rocky Top,' when you're not used to that, sometimes you don't handle it well."

More than anything, Hoffman wanted to show all her friends on the Tennessee team that she had been right to stay home. So she played too fast and too hard. She got in foul trouble. She watched. She learned.

"I can hardly wait to go there again," Hoffman says. "It will be different."

Hoffman has a plan for USC. She expects the Trojans to make the NCAA tournament this year, to be in the Final Four by her senior year. There should be a Pacific 10 title in there too.

As for whether there will ever be a sold-out arena and adulation for the Women of Troy in her hometown, Hoffman is realistic.

"We live in a place where there is a lot to do," she says. "We have everything out here. But before we can expect the fans to come, we have to give them a reason. That's what I'm here for."

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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