Shooting from lip, court, Kansas' Walters connects Outspoken guard answers challenge

March 31, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

There have been many stops along the way for Rex Walters, many different people who questioned his attitude, many others simply not wanting to deal with his arrogance.

First, it was his junior high coach back in San Jose, Calif., telling Walters that he'd never play high school ball. Or the high school coach who wondered whether Walters was too driven. And, finally, it was Dick Vitale telling Walters what a mistake he had made leaving Northwestern after two years to go to Kansas.

"Maybe I do have a chip on my shoulder," Walters said last week. "When people say I can't do something, then I want to go out and prove them wrong."

Walters and Kansas have proved the critics wrong since the start of this year's NCAA tournament. They have silenced CBS analyst Mike Francesa, who picked the Jayhawks to lose to Ball State in the opening round of the Midwest Regional. Then it was everyone else picking Kansas to lose in St. Louis, first to Cal in the semifinals and then to top-seeded Indiana in the final.

And every step along the road to New Orleans for this week's Final Four, where Kansas (28-6) will meet North Carolina (32-4) on Saturday at the Superdome, Walters and his teammates had an answer. While most of the Jayhawks have gone about their business quietly, Walters has not. It never has been his nature to keep things to himself, on or off the court.

"He's a big-time trash talker," said fellow senior Adonis Jordan, who shares the backcourt with Walters. "But if another player says something to Rex, I'll tell him, 'Now, don't get him started.' He's like the Incredible Hulk. He'll explode."

After Francesa's remarks reached Walters before his team's first game at the Rosemont Horizon two weeks ago, the Kansas guard took charge on the court by hitting all six of his three-point shots, scoring 23 points and then saying in the news conference later: "I don't think Mike Francesa has ever played ball, judging by his physique."

Looking at Walters, it is surprising that none of the traditional college basketball powers took a chance on him coming out of bTC high school. Recruited mostly by a few smaller California schools, as well as Northwestern, Walters opted for a chance to play in the Big Ten. Or, to be more precise, at the bottom of the prestigious league.

Asked why he wasn't considered a blue-chip talent coming out of high school, Walters said: "I didn't look like one. I was very skinny. I was very emotional. Coaches perceived that as a guy with an attitude."

Said Norm Friborg, a guidance counselor who was Walters' coach at Piedmont Hills High School: "I want my kids to keep life in balance. I was concerned his life was a little out of balance. I want them to have fun. I didn't always see him having fun."

Going to Northwestern turned out to be a decision Walters regretted. Though he averaged more than 17 points and was named second-team all-conference as a sophomore, Walters got tired of the losing. The Wildcats were 9-19 in both years and won only four of 36 Big Ten games.

When Walters put out word that he was thinking about transferring, not many college coaches put in calls to Evanston, Ill. But Roy Williams, who had lost a number of recruits when he inherited a one-year NCAA sanction from predecessor Larry Brown, was not in position to turn down a 6-foot-4 shooting guard with major-college experience.

"At that point, we needed anybody who wanted to come," said Williams. "And Rex was better than just about anybody we were talking to."

It wasn't exactly a smooth transition for coach or player. In his years as an assistant at North Carolina, Williams was used to dealing with players who put the team's system ahead of their stats. Walters was used to expending most of his energy on offense.

"He was pretty much accepted by his teammates because we were on him so much in practice, it meant that we weren't on them as much," Williams recalled. "I was on his case to change his thinking about the importance of shot selection and playing good defense. But the one thing I learned about Rex is how competitive he is. He really wants to win."

Said senior center Eric Pauley: "Rex is by far the most competitive person I've been around."

It's not only in basketball. Jordan tells the story of rooming with Walters last year, of each wanting to work the remote control on the television in their dorm suite. After several arguments, they finally agreed that the first one home after practice would get the clicker.

"You never saw guys shower so fast," said Jordan, who doesn't room with Walters anymore.

Said Walters: "I've always been very competitive, ever since I was a little kid. Sometimes, my mouth gets me in trouble, but that's the way I am. The Northwestern experience was very frustrating, especially for a player who wants to win so badly. At Kansas, it's a totally different mind-set. These guys know if they play, they're going to win."

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