Walters is one underdog who growls Kansas guard delights in silencing skeptics

March 30, 1993|By Gene Wojciechowski | Gene Wojciechowski,Los Angeles Times

That isn't a chip on Rex Walters' shoulder, it's a full-fledged inferiority complex. If the star Kansas guard held any more grudges, he would need an extra set of arms.

In the last two weeks alone, Walters has chided the media for supposedly doubting the Jayhawks as they made their way through the NCAA Midwest Regional and into the Final Four. Said the miffed Walters after Kansas disposed of No. 1-ranked Indiana in the regional final last Saturday: "A lot of people have been picking against us and a lot of people have been wrong again."

That's nothing. You should have heard what he recently said about CBS studio commentator Mike Francesa, who made the mistake of questioning Kansas' tournament chances. Not only did Walters happily note the error of Francesa's predictions, but he then added a little zinger about the analyst's somewhat portly physique.

And shortly before Kansas faced California in the regional semifinal, Walters was at it again. "All of you media are picking against us," he said. "I kind of like it. And if [ESPN's] Dick Vitale and Mike Francesa don't like me, I [couldn't] care less."

Needless to say, Walters isn't majoring in charm at Kansas. He has made a career out of challenging the perceptions of others, so why stop now? Every time someone tells him he isn't good enough, tall enough, quick enough ... whatever enough, Walters takes it as a personal insult.

When an official whistles him for a foul, Walters glowers. When a shot of his bounces off the rim, Walters steams. When a network commentator doesn't support the Jayhawks, Walters reacts.

"When I see somebody challenging us, I try to use that as a rallying point to get us going," Walters said. "I want my teammates to feel proud of what they've accomplished and what they're capable of doing,"

So far, the Mad Rex persona has done wonders for Walters' game, to say nothing of Kansas' postseason fortunes. The senior averaged 14.4 points a game during the regular season, but upped that to 21.8 during the NCAA tournament. His three-point shooting average is .617 (on 13 of 21). His field-goal average is .683 (on 28 of 41).

Francesa should have done that well in the CBS office pool.

As for honors, Walters has plenty: two-time Big Eight Conference first-team selection, member of the Midwest Regional all-tournament team, fourth player in Kansas history to score more than 1,000 points in only two years, 1992 Big Eight Newcomer of the Year.

On and on it goes. Walters even owns a Final Four ring from 1991, the season Kansas advanced to the championship game against Duke. Back then, Walters was a Jayhawk in name only. As a transfer from Northwestern, he could practice with the team, but not play in games.

In typical Walters fashion, he never once slipped on the ring. It belongs to his mother now. The way Walters figured it, why wear a ring you didn't help earn?

This next one will be different. Walters promises to wear the new jewelry with pride -- and maybe with a scowl, too.

Kansas officials swear Walters is a sweetheart. So do his teammates, who praise him at every chance.

"He's always working on his game," said guard Adonis Jordan, who roomed with Walters last season. "When I say that, I mean he's always working every single day. They've got an NCAA rule now where you've got to take a day off [from organized and supervised practices]. But he's working every day. Even on our days off, he's out there shooting, working on his jump shot, working on his free throws -- and it shows."

Jayhawks center Eric Pauley said: "What he says about the media or other people might seem brash, but he's just sticking up for what he thinks is right."

Nothing has come easy for Walters. Even now his voice grows hard as he recounts the day he learned that his junior high school coach in San Jose, Calif., had told the local high school coach that Walters wasn't talented enough to play there.

"I thought that was funny," Walters said.

By the time Walters left Piedmont Hills High, he had set school records in career scoring, free-throw percentage and assists. Yet, Walters said his high school coach suggested that he consider playing at a junior college rather than pursue a Division I scholarship.

"And I thought that was really funny," said Walters, who ended up at Northwestern and earned All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention in his sophomore season.

As for his relationship with Piedmont Hills coach Ruben Lunna, Walters said, "We don't get along."

But Lunna wasn't the only one who misjudged Walters. Truth is, Walters wasn't heavily recruited out of high school. He would have loved to have gone to California, but Lou Campanelli never called. Neither did lots of schools, including Kansas.

"My phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook by the big-name schools," he said.

So off to Northwestern Walters went, the words of Lunna still fresh in his mind.

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