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BASKETBALL

California Import Has Big Impact

January 23, 2003|Robyn Norwood

California's Amit Tamir didn't grow up wanting to be like Mike.

He was thinking more like Mickey Berkowitz or Oded Katash.

Berkowitz was an Israeli basketball star of the early 1980s, and Katash almost became the first Israeli to play in the NBA in 1998 before the NBA lockout ended his prospects of joining the New York Knicks.

Now Tamir, a sophomore from Jerusalem who served three years in the Israeli army, hopes to become the first from his country to play in the NBA.

"That's my goal and my dream," he said.

Until he gets that chance, the marvelously versatile 6-foot-11 forward is concentrating on what he and his teammates can accomplish at Cal.

They provided a glimpse last season when they won a first-round NCAA tournament game against Penn before losing to Pittsburgh in the second round.

"It was a good feeling to see all the hype and see how many people get so into it," Tamir said. "We left feeling like we wanted more."

Now, in a strikingly down year for the Pacific 10 Conference, the Bears have people wondering if they might be the second-best team in the league.

Oregon has abdicated its presumed position behind No. 1-ranked Arizona with a 2-3 conference start. Stanford's recovery from the loss of two first-round NBA picks has been muted by injuries and last week's loss to Washington.

Cal, meanwhile, is off to its best league start since 1957, when the Bears started 10-0 in the old Pacific Coast Conference under Pete Newell.

At 5-0 in the Pac-10 and 12-2 overall -- the only losses are to Kansas and to Georgia in overtime -- Cal is No. 25 in the Associated Press poll as USC and UCLA make the Bay Area trip.

Of course, nobody will completely trust the Bears' success until they prove themselves outside the confines of Haas Pavilion: Cal's record at home over the past two-plus seasons is the best in the Pac-10 at 38-4.

On the road? Cal won only four conference games away from home last season and finished tied for second, two games behind Oregon. (The Bears got a fair start on the Pac-10 road this season with a sweep of the Washington schools.)

"If we could have gotten one or two sweeps on the road last season, we could have won the Pac-10," said senior forward Joe Shipp, who played at Fairfax High. "Last year, we had some letdowns. Now we've got more experience and confidence."

They've also got more offense.

Cal's defense held opponents to the lowest field-goal percentage in the Pac-10 at 41.8% last season, but the Bears were also the league's worst three-point shooting team and ranked seventh in scoring.

This season, the Bears have three of the top 11 scorers in the Pac-10, led by Shipp's 21.4-point average. (He already has four 30-point games.)

Tamir is sixth at 17.1 points, and senior guard Brian Wethers is 11th at 14.0.

"Those are the three guys who do the damage," USC Coach Henry Bibby said. "They're seasoned players. Joe Shipp and Wethers are super, super players. They've been four-year players in that program, and they know how to play basketball.

"I think Tamir has turned it up a notch. We've always known he was a great player. Right now he's even better. Each night he can come out and get 25-plus a game and so can Shipp and so can Wethers."

Tamir -- whose more recent role models run toward Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac and Keith Van Horn -- might be the most versatile player in the league other than Arizona's Luke Walton, and perhaps Oregon's Luke Jackson.

Besides his 17-point scoring average, he pulls down almost seven rebounds a game and averages almost three assists.

Perhaps most remarkably, at almost 7 feet he is the Bears' best three-point shooter, at 46% (31 of 67).

The difference between this season and his freshman year has been consistency. He scored 39 points in a game against Oregon last season but was held to single digits 13 times, including both NCAA tournament games.

"I was upset with my performance last year because I know I wasn't consistent enough," said Tamir, who has become a much more reliable rebounder as well as scorer after spending part of the summer at Newell's Big Man Camp.

"I know I have to stay more focused on my performance, not let anything distract me from basketball," he said.

Being from Israel, Tamir long ago learned to live with distractions.

"It's just ordinary life," said Tamir, who lost a friend in a suicide bombing during his freshman year. "There are always some events, soldiers getting killed, suicide bombings. You have to just keep moving. You can't be sad."

That is what he told teammates after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Americans' cocoon of safety was shattered.

"I couldn't really compare that to events in Israel because of the magnitude of Sept. 11," Tamir said. "But I tried to help my friends understand you have to try to keep living your life."

He went home for three weeks last summer and talks to his family several times a week, but they do not always mention the latest news.

"We just talk about ordinary life," he said.

Will the Real No. 1 Please Stand Up?

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