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UCLA AT USC

The Big Switch

If it hurt Guenther that he missed out on the Trojans' national football title by concentrating on basketball, it hasn't changed his mind about his decision

January 29, 2005|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

The insults were flowing like beer at a Delta house kegger.

Arizona State's student section, armed with cheat sheets of background info on opposing players and seated behind the visiting team's bench, turned its attention to Gregg Guenther.

"A moron, this one guy called me a moron," said the USC senior power forward.

Said his mother Cheri, "They were saying, 'Guenther, you're a quitter ... you didn't get a ring. Get off the court.' I was boiling. It kind of brings tears to your eyes. It bothers me tremendously when they call him a quitter.

"No, he was fortunate to have a choice. Not many people have that choice. He pursued basketball because that's what his heart said."

Guenther has heard the digs in arenas throughout the country, from North Carolina to Arizona State to Hawaii, ever since he decided last spring to give up football, where he was the starting tight end as a junior for the co-national championship football team, to concentrate on basketball.

Especially with the football team's winning a second consecutive national title this year and the basketball team's stumbling and bumbling its way into today's crosstown showdown with UCLA at the Sports Arena.

But therein lies the silver lining for Guenther: Since arriving at USC in 2000 -- on a football scholarship -- he is a combined 9-1 against UCLA, 4-0 in football and 5-1 with the basketball team, which he joined in 2002.

What's more, USC's modern-day Tommy Trojan and conqueror of UCLA is the offspring of a Bruin.

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While attending UCLA in the early 1970s, Cheri was a student tutor for Bruin athletes. And although she worked primarily with such UCLA track team standouts as John Smith and Wayne Collett, she was acquaintances with Henry Bibby, the Bruin point guard who would later coach her son at USC.

In the relationship between Trojans and Bruins, the Guenther household was a flashpoint, of sorts, for the rivalry, what with Gregg having to break the news to his mother, whose own parents had gone to UCLA, that he would be a Trojan.

"Mom, what do you think about wearing cardinal and gold?" Gregg asked at the time.

After swallowing hard, Cheri looked at her son and said: "I can try. I can do that for four or five years."

Whenever she attends USC-UCLA games, Cheri wears her homemade T-shirt, the one that reads "USC Mom 44," Gregg's football number, on the front and "UCLA Grad 72" her graduation year, on the back.

"Of course, I'm rooting for my son, not my history," she said. "Once he's done at USC and moves on, then I can go back to rooting for UCLA and showing school spirit."

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Guenther turns 23 today and has already made three life-changing decisions.

First, he transferred high schools, before his senior year, from Crespi to Taft, where Cheri was the vice principal of discipline, so he could get a public school experience.

The Guenthers had to move into Taft's district so the family rented out their house. For two years, an up-and-coming singer from Texas who was coming to the Southland to jump-start her career rented the Guenther home with her younger sister and parents. Jessica Simpson slept in Gregg Guenther's room.

Then there was choosing USC over UCLA.

But perhaps the most pause he has given his parents -- Gregg Sr. runs his own real estate company and Cheri is the director of mathematics for the Los Angeles Unified School District -- was his decision last spring to choose basketball over football.

"I suggested that he think about it, again," Cheri said. " 'Really think about that, Gregg.' "

On the football field, the 6-foot-9, 255-pounder was a big target who lost most of his first two years to back surgery. Still, he has caught touchdown passes from Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. The return of fellow tight ends Dominique Byrd and Alex Holmes from injury, though, was going to cut into his playing time.

In basketball, Guenther was seen more as a novelty than a threat, even though he had been an All-City center at Taft.

"My parents told me I shouldn't go through life and wonder," he said. "At least this way, I could always get back into football. I couldn't get back into basketball.

"I'd have a good game, then a bad game. I didn't have that consistency so I wanted to concentrate solely on one thing."

He looked the part of basketball player early on, averaging 13.5 points and 9.7 rebounds during a six-game stretch in which Jeff McMillan was out because of a broken hand. But with McMillan's return, Guenther's production has tailed off. He is averaging 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 17.6 minutes in Pacific 10 Conference play.

Saying his back is better than it has been in years, Guenther has had another old football injury creep up. When hit just right, the outside of his right hand goes numb, thanks to the hand having been smashed between two helmets on a tackle.

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