Maryland's Rhodes paints bright future Turnaround: As a basketball guard, art major and role model, Johnny Rhodes has emerged from a rough neighborhood to take his performance to new levels.

November 22, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- In his freshman year at Maryland, Johnny Rhodes shot an erratic 42 percent from the field.

Two years later, he turned that around and hit a deadeye 53 percent.

Once, he was an indifferent student, failed to score a qualifying 700 on his SAT and had to go to Maine Central Institute before arriving at Maryland.

Now, he is an art major who made the athletic director's honor roll with a 3.0 grade-point average in the spring semester of his junior year.

Once he roamed the mean streets of Southeast Washington, hung with a bad crowd and paid a price: He was shot twice in the upper left leg in the middle of his sophomore season at Dunbar of D.C.

Today, his mother, Lucy, still lives in Southeast, but Rhodes' lifestyle has climbed to a new stratosphere: He has a chance to play in the NBA next season, and his girlfriend attends Harvard Law School.

If you want to talk about turnarounds, you should start with Johnny Rhodes, a 24-year-old senior guard being touted as an All-America candidate by the school's publicists.

Once, he was confined by his dreary surroundings in Washington, but Rhodes' future now appears as unlimited as the blank canvas he paints on.

"What I like about him," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, "is that, while he's gotten a chance to see these new things, he's still Johnny Rhodes, [still the one] everybody liked in high school. He hasn't changed his personality because of his success as a basketball player.

"He's a pied piper. Kids always follow him. And Johnny always has time for kids. He doesn't big-time anybody."

Maybe that's because Rhodes' rise came on the rocky path out of his old neighborhood, where he once traveled in the fast and sometimes dangerous lane. He has an appreciation for where he came from and what he left behind.

"I want to keep my head forward, and do everything a lot of people where I came from didn't have the opportunity to do," he said.

Rhodes almost didn't have that opportunity, either, after someone carrying a .22-caliber gun pumped two bullets into his left leg in the winter of his sophomore year in high school.

"It was a situation where people thought I wouldn't be able to play basketball again," he said. "But the Lord was by my side, and I was able to continue to play."

He returned to Dunbar's basketball team late in a championship season, but "hobbled around" on his bad leg in a brief appearance in the title game.

The shooting, Rhodes said, was a case of mistaken identity. "The [intended victim] was wearing the same coat and the same boots. Where I was from, they thought it was drug-related, but it wasn't."

If that was his bad luck, Rhodes' good fortune came in the way the .22 slugs acted upon entry.

"That's one of the worst type guns to get shot with, because the slugs travel [a meandering path]," he said. "That's when people get amputations. Mine didn't travel. That's what I was blessed about.

"I know one guy who got shot who had to get his leg cut off because it traveled around. If you get shot with some powerful gun, it will go straight through."

Rhodes grew up some five minutes from Terps teammate Duane Simpkins. Because Simpkins played for DeMatha, though, they were more rivals than friends. Maryland's starting backcourt the last 64 games, through two Sweet 16 seasons, Rhodes and Simpkins form one of the best tandems in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"He's a game player," Simpkins said of Rhodes. "Sometimes in practice, he may have a look on his face like he may not want to be there. But you can bet that Johnny will be there 100 percent when the ball's thrown up and the crowd gets going.

"Once he's your friend, you can rely on him at any point in time."

Williams has come to rely on Rhodes in any number of circumstances. Through three seasons and 92 games, Rhodes has averaged 13.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 steals. His 234 career steals leave him 94 behind the ACC's all-time leader, Chris Corchiani of North Carolina State.

"He's a throwback guard," Williams said. "People now really have specialties. They say this guy's a shooting guard, that guy's a ball-handling guard.

"Johnny's just a guard. That's the best way to describe him. He does everything a guard should do. He rebounds, plays defense, handles the ball, shoots. With him, you get a package. You might have some guy who can do one or two things better than Johnny, but he won't have the same package you get with Johnny."

An extremely solid, although not necessarily spectacular player, Rhodes, at 6 feet 5 and 210 pounds, figures to help solve one of Maryland's big worries this season. That's how to replace Joe Smith's 10 rebounds a game.

As a sophomore, Rhodes averaged 6.8 rebounds.

"We're a smaller team this year, and we have to make up those 10 rebounds," Rhodes said. "If I can step up and average two or three extra rebounds a game, it will help. I'm happy to be in this position where there's pressure. I would love to average at least eight rebounds a game."

Beyond this season, he'd love a career in the NBA, followed by another as an artist.

"There are a lot of ups and downs in the art world," he said. "But if you stick with it, you might have an opportunity to make a lot of money."

Rhodes, better than most, knows how to make the best of his opportunities.

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