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ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Low is helping team fly high

January 09, 2008|Robyn Norwood

In the amazing tale of the turnaround at Washington State, few decisions have been more important than when the kid from Honolulu decided to play college ball in Pullman, sight unseen.

Derrick Low went from hanging loose to the Palouse, and Washington State isn't the same.

The 6-foot-2 senior with the shoulder-length hair was part of Dick and Tony Bennett's first recruiting class, as was Kyle Weaver, his versatile partner in the Cougars' backcourt. Together, they helped transform the program.

Their freshman season, they were 12-16, losing a game at sixth-ranked Oklahoma State by the ego-deflating score of 81-29.

This week, the fourth-ranked Cougars -- one of six undefeated teams in the country -- bring the highest ranking in school history to Los Angeles, where they face USC on Thursday and fifth-ranked UCLA on Saturday.

Low, the son of a Honolulu bus mechanic who raised his son on his own after a divorce, is emblematic of the Washington State way.

He is talented, though not spectacularly so, but he is also purposeful, disciplined and willing to sacrifice.

As a youngster, he used to get himself ready for school alone after his father, Kenneth, rose early in the morning.

"Just seeing him wake up at 4 o'clock to go to work at 5:30, he didn't complain," Low said. "I had to catch the city bus by myself. He would tell me, 'Walk across the street, take number so-and-so. Then get off and catch number so-and-so.'

"But he'd be done by like 3 o'clock, and he'd pick me up from school and we'd go work out, or he'd take me to practice and stay and watch. Then he'd get me something to eat and he'd go to sleep and do it again the next morning."

When Low's father and other transit workers went on strike, he made sure his son understood what was happening.

"My dad, he just wanted me to understand the effects and what it did to our family, so he took me to meetings," Low said. "I seriously didn't want to go and be bored out of my mind and be miserable. I'd be like, 'I can't take this,' and go sleep in the car."

Low joined a picket line too.

"My dad took me and we'd be holding signs, walking several hours, supporting the workers," he said.

At Iolani High, Low was among the few kids who didn't have their own car or even a cellphone. But he became a star athlete and was Hawaii's "Mr. Basketball" his last three seasons, leading his team to three consecutive state titles.

Recruited by Hawaii, Gonzaga, Utah and Washington State, he chose the Cougars.

"I never knew about Washington State, just one day I got a call from this person named Tony Bennett who said, 'Hey, Derrick, I'm an assistant coach at Washington State and my dad is the head coach, Dick Bennett.' I didn't have any idea about Washington State, but I knew they were in the Pac-10. After I got off the phone call, me and my dad went somewhere and he said, 'If you had to choose a school right now, what are you thinking?' And I said Washington State."

You could have forgiven Tony Bennett, who took over for his father before last season, if he had tried to keep Low away from Pullman until he signed. The Palouse has its charms, but it isn't Oahu.

"Yeah, I didn't try and sell him like it was just like Honolulu and the beaches are great," Bennett said. "I said, 'This is what Pullman is like, and it will snow. This is not the big city.' "

Bennett talked to Low about Jason Gesser, the quarterback from Hawaii who helped Washington State reach the Rose Bowl, and told him he could do the same sort of thing for the basketball team.

Low listened, and he learned about Dick Bennett taking Wisconsin to the Final Four, and how Tony had made it to the NBA at only 6 feet.

"Coach Tony told me everything I needed to know, even though I didn't visit before I committed," Low said. "Pullman isn't a big place. It's not like Hawaii. It's in the middle of nowhere, but you have a grocery store, fast food, a movie theater, and most important, the basketball gym. You've got teammates, and we have a family atmosphere. The main thing I needed was to play basketball. I was set."

His decision wasn't universally embraced on the islands, where many had hoped he would stay and play.

"There were a lot of questions, like 'Why Washington State? They're junk. You could do this, and that,' " Low said. "After I explained myself in the newspaper and stuff, I got the message across, 'Look, this is the Pac-10. I want to get better. I want to get away from the islands and experience something new.' It was rough in the beginning when a lot of people saw us losing, but then they saw us in the NCAA tournament and they see us now."

Low started his last 22 games as a freshman and started 19 as a sophomore, missing some time both seasons because of foot injuries. Last season, he started all 34, had a 37-point outing against Oregon in which he made nine three-point baskets, and helped the Cougars reach the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Vanderbilt in double overtime.

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