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'BIG COUNTRY' IS A SMASHING SUCCESS STORY

Bryant Reeves sat on a stool at his locker, surrounded by about 30 reporters and cameramen from all corners of this big, basketball-crazed country of ours.

"What's in the box, Big Country?" someone asked him.

Reeves reached down and grabbed a flat, white box that was resting against his locker. He flipped it open, revealing a thick chunk of broken glass about six inches square.

"My father keeps them in his trophy case back home," he said, holding the souvenir up for the media's inspection. "I've got four of them now."

Half an hour earlier, Reeves had christened the Final Four -- not by breaking a bottle of champagne, but by shattering his fourth career backboard while doing a reverse dunk in practice on the Kingdome floor.

When the backboard broke, sending shards of glass flying -- some of it into Reeves's crew cut -- the crowd went wild.

In the age of collapsible rims, these shattering experiences don't occur too often. When they do, they remind fans that one of basketball's physical curiosities -- say, a Darryl Dawkins or a Shaquille O'Neal -- is in their midst.

Four years ago, no one could have imagined that the 7-foot Reeves would become a player who savaged backboards on a semi-regular basis.

"Was I capable of it? I don't think so," he said. "There has to be some kind of force behind it, and I didn't have that."

Playing for a small high school in Gans, Okla. (population 300), Reeves put up some gaudy numbers. But he didn't attend the big summer camps, where recruits make their names and hone their games.

Only one big-time coach, Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, paid much attention to him. That was fine with Reeves. Since Gans was 15 miles from Arkansas, he'd grown up as a fan of Sutton's Razorback teams.

Shortly after signing him, though, Sutton began wondering if he'd wasted a scholarship. In the summer of 1991, Reeves came to Stillwater to play pickup games with the other Cowboy players.

"My son, Sean, was on that team," Sutton said. "He came home and said 'Dad, you've taken people you think are projects and developed them into pretty good basketball players. But I don't know about Bryant Reeves.' "

He was slower than welfare reform. He was weak and fat. His idea of weight lifting was carrying a fishing pole to the reservoir where he and his father, Carl, fished in Gans.

"When he pulled that shirt off, I'd never seen a basketball player like that," said OSU strength coach Leroy Youster. "His chest just about touched his belly. He needed a bra."

That October, Sutton was sitting with OSU coaching legend Hank Iba at the opening practice. Watching Reeves run the floor, Iba turned to Sutton and said "That boy's got a long ways to go."

No one knew that better than Reeves, who was shocked to discover how ill-prepared he was for college ball.

"I was in terrible condition," he said. "What did I do for exercise growing up? Not much of nothing. Fishing and hunting mostly. I hauled hay. I couldn't run a mile. I had no experience lifting weights. It was all new for me."

When he went to college, he had never flown in an airplane. His first flight was to New York for the Preseason NIT. As legend has it, someone told Reeves chewing gum alleviated air pressure. So he stuck the gum in his ears.

He got his nickname on that flight. Byron Houston, then the OSU star, was talking about the Big City. Then he pointed to the team's freshman center and said, "This is Big Country."

The name, and his game, picked up steam from there. His coaches are still amazed at how he developed. He couldn't lift 15-pound dumb bells when he arrived. Now he does 80 pounds. He's a powerful, rearranged 285 pounds.

Reeves had a modest freshman year, then blossomed as a sophomore, averaging 19.5 points and 10 rebounds and gaining Big Eight player of the year honors. After a solid junior year, he got even better this season.

He's averaged 21.4 points and 9.5 rebounds. No one questions his stamina anymore. Reeves played all 40 minutes in the last three games of the Cowboys' surprising run to the Final Four.

Along the way, he's had his skeptics. Sooner or later, the big goofy kid would get destroyed by some "athletic" center. But he outplayed Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and Massachusetts' Marcus Camby in the East Regional, and now he's ready for top-ranked UCLA.

Reeves doesn't always get his due as an athlete -- a huge but polished player who is very difficult to defend down low.

"I haven't had a player who improved as much from the time he entered college," Sutton said. "People who have seen him play many times would agree he doesn't always look like a smooth, greyhound type, but he is a very, very good basketball player."

He seems unspoiled by it all. Reeves said he wants to play in the NBA, but he figures he'll eventually settle down in a small town like Gans, where he used to know everyone's first name. Even the dogs and cats.

He's worked hard to be a big-time college player, and he might just turn this into a Big Country Dance. He sure got things off to a smashing start Friday.

"It's the biggest event in the nation," he said. "Or the country, for that matter."

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