From Coppin State to NBA, Stewart has last laugh

JOHN EISENBERG

November 21, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Only in the bright little gym up on North Avenue do they understand just how preposterous it is, this business about Larry Stewart making it in the NBA. Only at Coppin State, where Fang Mitchell has built from scratch something you can hold in your hands, do they understand the chances were downright laughable.

"All I can say," Mitchell said in his office the other day, "is that someone has really blessed him, that for him to get from where he was to where he is now, there must be someone looking out for him. And I'll tell you one thing: It sure isn't me."

They say that in the bright little gym because they're the only ones who know the whole story. The rest of us just know the middle and end, where Stewart carries Coppin for three years, makes the Bullets as a free agent and immediately begins getting real minutes. He's a long shot, but far from the first. That alone isn't why it's so preposterous.

You need the beginning, too. The part where Stewart doesn't even play ball until 11th grade, his mother forbidding it because it interferes with church. The part where the recruiting big-timers yawn. The part where he picks a college that's the definition of obscure. The part where Mitchell all but hits him over the head to get him into class and keep him going in the right direction.

"I remember the first time I saw him, this 6-4 kid playing inside in a high school game up in Philly, with all these other prospects on the court," Mitchell said. "I thought he was a little jewel, but there was no way in a million years you could point to him and say, 'Yeah, that's the one that's going to make the NBA.' No way."

No, because so much had to happen. Stewart had to grow, which he did -- an inch a year until he stopped at 6-7. Coppin had to become a dot on the basketball map, a something built out of nothing. Stewart had to become a student, keep his eye on the prize, avoid the drift that wipes out so many dreams.

Basketball was the easy part for a kid with quick feet, long arms and a knack for being around the ball. That's not to diminish the hours of practice he put in, or the assuredness he developed. But it's just that, when you come from where he did to where he is now, there is so much more to it than basketball.

"This is where he started when he came to us: a shy, lazy kid in absolute, total obscurity, without the support of his mother" for playing basketball, Mitchell said. "Now he's making more money than I am. He just grew and grew here. As a player and as a person."

It started with the books. "He wasn't a little lazy -- he was a lot lazy," Mitchell said. "We had some wars, I mean, we fought. We wound up using peer pressure. The rest of the team ran after practice if he didn't go to class. He got it together. We never had any trouble."

Getting his name in circulation took some doing, too. Coppin doesn't play on TV, and most home games are poorly attended. Stewart just kept playing, just kept carrying a load. The Eagles made it to the NCAA tournament in 1990. Mitchell scheduled a steady dose of Oklahomas and New Mexico States.

"We did that last year so Larry and Reggie [Isaac, now in the CBA] could play before scouts," Mitchell said. "We owed that to them for all they'd done for us. All I was thinking about was them getting a look. The look is the thing. I figured the rest would take care of itself."

It did. NBA superscout Marty Blake invited Stewart to a pre-draft camp in Chicago. His name was out there. He didn't get drafted, but the Bullets wanted him. He was the best player in their rookie camp, got invited to training camp, picked up Wes Unseld's motion offense and made the team.

"He was calling up here every day during camp," Mitchell said. "He never came out and said he thought he was going to make it. He's never been a big talker. But you knew he felt he should. You play in a program where you're 'The Man,' you develop a lot of confidence."

Now the NBA is finding out about him, that he's quick and doesn't make many mistakes and has that knack for being around the ball. He doesn't have much shooting range for 6-7, not yet, but it looks like the Bullets really want him. Some people just know how to play this game.

And so in the bright little gym up on North Avenue, now they sit around before practice and watch tapes of the Bullets. Mitchell signed up for Home Team Sports, tapes the games and brings them in. Everyone watches Stew. Watches him playing against Karl Malone, Derrick Coleman, Michael Cage. Barkley. Whew.

They sit around and watch, and they look at each other and shake their heads. "This is a nice kid who showed up here not really sure what he wanted to do with his life," Mitchell said. "But if you come up in our program, you learn you have to do more than anyone else thinks you can. We drive that home here. I think Larry got the message."

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