During the 1986-87 season, when the current era of Coppin State basketball was in its infancy, then-first year coach Fang Mitchell went to Philadelphia's Dobbins Tech to look at a prospect.
"I went there looking at a kid, but then I saw this other guy and decided I didn't want to be bothered with the first kid anymore," Mitchell recalled, laughing. "He was only 6-4, skinny and played center, but I still thought he could help our program. So we gambled."
That kid was Larry Stewart, and four years later and four inches taller, that gamble has reaped huge dividends. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound senior power forward is the nation's third-leading rebounder (13.6), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's third-leading scorer (24.1) and a main reason Coppin will be shooting for its second straight National Collegiate Athletic Association berth next month.
On the court, he's a tenacious rebounder, a strong scorer inside, graceful on the break and the third player in MEAC history to repeat as Player of the Year. Off the court, he's soft spoken, but others are vocal in praising his ability:
* "I look at some of the kids I had at Wichita State, and he's easily as talented," said former Shockers assistant coach and current Delaware State coach Jeff Jones. "He's hurt us so that I can't wait until the kid graduates, to be honest."
* "We've played Ohio State and Xavier, and I think he can play with those people without a doubt," saidBethune-Cookman coach Jack "Cy" McClairen. "He can do it all."
National Basketball Association scouts have watched Stewart, along with guard Reggie Isaac, extensively this season. Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, had someone watching the two last month and plans to watch them closely in the MEAC tournament.
"They're the top two players in the conference, and, obviously, somebody will give them a chance to play," said Blake. "I don't think either one will be drafted, which is a break for them because they can choose their teams. But I think most of the teams are aware of them and have seen them play. They both have NBA skills."
Although Stewart hesitates to talk about the NBA, he laughs about just being considered. Until playing organized ball for the first time six years ago (his mother, a Jehovah's Witness, wouldn't let him play), Stewart seemed intent on a career as a carpenter.
"I hardly played ball in the summer because I was making good money," Stewart said. "That's what I thought I would be doing with my life."
Allowed to make his own decisions about sports as a junior, he decided to play basketball. As a senior, with current La Salle guard Doug Overton as his teammate, Stewart averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds and was named second team All-Public League in Philadelphia.
"He was a success immediately and played like a veteran from the start," Dobbins Tech coach Rich Yankowitz said. "He moved better to get open then any player I've coached here in 20 years, and that includes Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble."
La Salle was the main Division I school to recruit Stewart, but his grades weren't up to par for a scholarship. With a few Division II schools showing interest, Stewart decided to attend Coppin.
"I guess people didn't want me because of my grades and because they hadn't heard of me because of playing only two years," Stewart said. "The interest from schools surprised me because college was the furthest thing from my mind. I came here because I wanted to play Division I, Fang was starting a new team and I saw myself as being a main part of it."
After sitting out his first year, Stewart averaged 17.6 points and 10 rebounds on the way to being named
second-team All-MEAC. As a junior, he was named MEAC Player of the Year.
He has improved even more this season and, while he has shown flashes of a medium-range jumper at times, most of his scoring is from the low post.
"The scouts haven't seen him put the ball on the floor, but he'll make that adjustment," Mitchell said. "He just gets better, and his best years are ahead of him. He's so confident right now, he doesn't feel anybody can stop him."
Stewart, a management science major, is looking to make another NCAA appearance. Later, he hopes for an invitation to some of the postseason basketball tournaments for a chance to prove himself even more.
"I'd just go in and do the things I know I can do, and I wouldn't be scared going against the top players," said Stewart, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds against Syracuse last year. "Playing against the best can only make me work harder.
"Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I played all through high school," Stewart added. "I met Julius Erving [his idol] once, and he told me it doesn't matter where you go, it's how hard you work. I'd like to think of myself as a hard worker."