TWO DAYS a week, the greatest scorer in the history of Western New York basketball stops by the house of a tutor. There, Marcus Whitfield is no longer a prolific scorer but a frustrated one, hoping to acquire some small advantage to use against the only opponent who has been able to shut him down.
The SAT test has been a worthy and difficult adversary, more inscrutable than any zone defense. Whitfield has attempted it twice, and each time he has fallen well short of the 700 combined score needed to bolster his chances of playing college ball at a big school next year.
At this point, it might not make a difference. The national signing period has passed, and the major schools have pretty much dismissed Whitfield, who might not have the 2.0 grade average necessary to play in any case. But still, he is trying.
"The smartest girl in our school, I heard she got 630 the first time," Whitfield said Friday at Burgard Vocational, where he set the state single-season scoring record this past winter. "When I heard that, I just started praying.
"Usually, if I don't know the answer I'll guess 'C,'" he said. "That's what my tutor told me. At the end of the test, you feel so tired, and that's when you get to guessing."
Whitfield never would have guessed it could be this hard. Two years ago, he'd never even heard of the SATs. He was a late bloomer. Major college ball was a distant notion. So were college aptitude tests.
Survival, not education, was family priority
That's how it goes when you're born into a world where survival is the rule. His mother was 13 or 14 when she had him, still a child herself. The two of them grew up together in his grandmother's house. Whitfield says people mistake her for his sister, or even his girlfriend, when they're together.
"See, my father's never really been around," he said. "If he had been around since Day One, pushing me, it probably would be different now."
Whitfield held his arms out in front of him, flexing his muscles and throwing out his chest to suggest his father's physical presence. He might have been a mere boy when Marcus was born, but he grew to be quite a large man, the kind who would inspire respect in his son and could have made him respect education.
"He's going to be a corrections officer," Whitfield said proudly. His father is trying to do something with his life, as his son is beginning to do the same.
But like his old man, Whitfield has his burdens to overcome. Sometimes, when he's sweating in those rooms where they administer the tests, he wishes he'd been prepared for them from the start, like "out there in the suburbs."
In an ideal world, no freshmen would play
It is a sad, but all too typical, story of the inner-city athlete. He has this talent, which has given him a measure of fame and self-esteem. Now, to pursue it at the next level, he must demonstrate potential as a student.
That's reasonable enough, I suppose. The NCAA has to maintain academic standards by which to judge its athletes. It has to advance the notion of these basketball and football players as student/athletes, to show that it truly cares about them as people.
I wish I could believe that. The NCAA can do all the posturing it wants, hand down all the sanctions it likes. The reality is college sports and higher education are two loosely entwined institutions. College sports is a big business, a free minor league serving the NBA and NFL. On the highest levels -- say, at Syracuse -- it is professional sport with letter jackets and pep bands.
As long as schools can earn $1 million from a single playoff game, as long as they can attract national TV exposure and draw 20,000 to basketball games, that's not going to change. Putting Kentucky and Oklahoma on probation isn't about to change that.
Neither will Proposition 48, a superficial solution which holds back a few academically disadvantaged freshmen while allowing the others to participate. If the NCAA really cared about these kids, it would eliminate freshman eligibility altogether.
Then all of them would start out on an equal footing, the blue-chippers and the Marcus Whitfields both. As freshmen, they would be able to practice without being exposed to the travel and other extravagances that cut into their time as students.
Niagara offers opportunity
Of course, it that were the case we'd never have seen Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing as freshman in the 1982 title game. That game proved freshmen can be big TV revenue-producers, and the NCAA can't give up that.
The causes of education and major college sports are much more efficiently served by setting aside a few unfortunate freshmen each year as examples. That's what Whitfield is, an example that the NCAA means business. A marginal big-time prospect whose chances are evaporating.
"Once they hear you're not passing the test, they aren't going to be bothering with you," said Whitfield, who was recruited by the likes of Nevada-Las Vegas and North Carolina State. "They'll linger for a while, but they'll run across somebody else."
By now, they've all run across somebody else, so he'll probably end up at Niagara, which intends to enroll him as an underprivileged academic and economic student under the university's opportunity program. Then, if he gets his studies together, he can play in 1990-91 as a scholarship athlete.
"I watched some games there," Whitfield said. "And I could turn that school out. I mean, like back to the days of Calvin Murphy."
The challenge is to unlock the potential
All I can say is I wish him well, and I believe he can do it. When you talk to this kid, you're instantly touched by his honesty, his engaging personality and the trust he has in the world. He is bright, willing and capable, even if those qualities haven't yet been measurable by standardized testing.
"He's not a stupid kid in any way, shape or form," said Don Brusky, his high school coach. Brusky, the assistant principal at Burgard, becomes visibly emotional when talking about his star player. He was a reluctant, late-coming student himself years ago. He has seen many kids from difficult backgrounds. He knows the ones that are beyond help, and the ones who can surmount their circumstances.
"It's there," Brusky said. "I don't know if it's going to get unlocked. But I know it's there."
News Sports Editor Larry Felser is on vacation.