Arkansas' First Fan of basketball

March 28, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

DALLAS -- Understand this about the President of the United States: When it comes to University of Arkansas basketball, he is just shy of "Bill from Washington, hello. . . . "

Just shy of a vein-popping, opinion-spewing, talk show get-a-lifer.

"President Clinton is a fan, a big, serious, rah-rah fan," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said yesterday. "He loves the Hogs."

Your president, the First (Bubba) Fan.

He is so enamored of Richardson's Razorbacks that he willingly blew the labor vote yesterday by standing and cheering from a midcourt seat as the Hogs advanced to the Final Four by holding off Michigan, 76-68, in the Midwest Regional final at Reunion Arena.

Such was his jubilation at the end of the game that he left his wife and daughter, came down to the court, hugged Richardson and exchanged high-fives with a couple of players.

"I turned around and there he was with his hands up, ready to slap," Arkansas center Corliss Williamson said.

So . . .

"So what do you think we did?" Williamson said, laughing. "We slapped. And he impressed me. He gave it up pretty good. Then he told me I played a great game."

As he recently revealed in Sports Illustrated, and again on a halftime interview on CBS yesterday, he is keenly aware of the difference between a good and bad game. He knows all about perimeter defense, depth matchups, transition baskets and all the other Vitale garble.

For better or worse, we are living in the age of the first president with a Basketball jones.

At various times yesterday, he put his head in his hands at poor Razorback shot selection, shouted disagreement with a ref's call and explained offensive goaltending to Chelsea. Not only has watched every Arkansas game in the tournament, he told CBS, but a handful of other games, too.

"He told me that he'd really enjoyed watching my team these See EISENBERG, 6C

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last couple of years," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said.

There is only one team that stirs him to shout, though. He didn't attend Arkansas, of course, but he is a native son, and Hog basketball is the sporting love in a state without pro teams.

"He's like a lot of people," Richardson said. "Once you become a Hog, a Razorback, when they cut you open you bleed little pigs."

He came to a game in Fayetteville earlier this season and spent 45 minutes in the locker room after the game, talking with the players and posing for pictures. The joke going around is that, as the knucklehead fan that he is, he was more excited to meet the players than they were to meet him.

His favorite, clearly, is a high-scoring reserve guard named Al Dillard, a 25-year-old who dropped out of high school in Alabama, spent three years working at fast-food restaurants, went back for his equivalency degree, played ball at a junior college and wound up at Arkansas.

When Dillard made two straight three-pointers in the first half yesterday, the president pumped his fist and roared with the Hog-calling crowd, his face turning a distinct shade of Hog red.

"Someone told me about that," Dillard said after the game, smiling. "I guess he likes me because I'm little or something. He was real nice when he came to the locker room that time. He told me that my story should be an inspiration to people, showing them to never give up."

Richardson said it was not unusual for the president to write, call or somehow correspond after games, particularly big ones.

"Just congratulations and stuff like that, though," Richardson said. "He knows the game, but he's never told me I should do this or that, use

this strategy or whatever. That's what I love about him. He's just a fan. A loud, yelling fan. That's great. I've got enough people telling me how to run the team."

The players dedicated the season to the president's mother after she died of cancer.

"The players were the ones who decided to do that," Richardson said, "and when he heard about it he called to thank me. There's no doubt that he's very much in tune with what's happening with our team."

The president had already planned to spend this weekend in Dallas because his brother, Roger, was married here Saturday night. There was little doubt about yesterday's activity once it was determined that the Hogs were playing.

He entered the arena 10 minutes before the opening tip, drawing a long, even mixture of boos and cheers. He sat five rows from midcourt, holding a Hog cap that he never wore. He was casual and friendly with the fans around him, seeming to know many from Arkansas.

At one point he looked across the arena and gave a thumbs-up sign to a fan holding up a Clinton-Gore campaign poster.

He applauded both teams' players during the introductions, but dropped any pretense of impartiality once the game started.

For the record, he didn't wear a Hog snout hat and he didn't call the Hogs, refraining from joining any of the endless succession of "wooooo, pig sooie!" cheers that echoed through the arena all afternoon. (Chelsea did, Hillary didn't.)

At the end he provided a genuinely moving moment when he embraced Richardson, who grew up dirt poor in El Paso.

"Today I was named national Coach of the Year, made the Final Four and got hugged by the president," Richardson said. "That's one heck of a day, fellas."

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