Coppin's high-rise project Freshman: At 7 feet 1, Jason Iacona found it hard to feel comfortable and accepted until he came to predominantly black Coppin State.

October 25, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

A tremendous roar shook the Coppin Center, an ovation louder than that for any player introduced that night. That touched Jason Iacona.

Touched him so that his nervousness during Midnight Madness was now being conquered by an uncontrollable joy, and as he walked toward the center of the court he smiled an immense smile, pumped both arms in the air and began to "raise the roof."

And as he soaked in the moment last Friday, Iacona couldn't help but think about the moment's irony. That at the age of 18, after being spurned and ridiculed by his peers through four years of high school, a skinny 7-foot-1 white guy finally found acceptance and respect from students from a predominantly black school.

"When I ran out with the team, one of the guys said, 'You're an Eagle now, welcome,' " Iacona said in his dorm room, his lean body folded on a chair. "I've come here and people have shown me so much warmth. I've been welcomed in a way that I've never been welcomed before."

Before Coppin, Iacona was lambasted for his inability to excel at a game society says he should dominate.

He was cut from the Seton Catholic High School team as a junior, even though he was the tallest kid in the Pittston, Pa., region. He played his only season of varsity basketball as a senior (the coach who cut him was not rehired) and averaged 8.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 blocks. Yet because he garnered interest from colleges mainly because of his height, he said he was isolated by jealous teammates, and singled out for blame when his team finished 3-20.

The cruel comments he was subjected to back home robbed him of his confidence and made him so self-conscious that Iacona would literally try to shrink himself.

"Everybody else was 6-1 and 6-2, and I wanted to be just like them," he said, sheepishly. "So I just started hunching over."

These days Iacona stretches to the fullest of his 85 inches, walking proudly on the Coppin campus as the tallest player in the school's history.

And, at the age of 18, he's still growing.

"He's really had problems being comfortable anywhere else, so maybe this is a place where he can be accepted," said John Bucci, who instilled confidence in Iacona when he coached him in AAU ball two years ago. "And if that happens, more power to him, more power to Coppin and more power to society."

'Definitely a project'

If you're thinking this has one of those storylines like "The White Shadow," the old television show where the white coach becomes savior at a predominantly black school, think again. A self-described "computer geek" who has yet to pick a college major, Iacona has limited basketball experience. He's awkward, although he has improved and has an accurate hook shot. His weight, listed at 190 pounds, is a stretch although Iacona -- nicknamed Jumunji by his teammates -- has added 17 pounds since his arrival.

"When I first saw Jason I said, 'Oh yeah, this is definitely a project,' " said Kenny Taylor, the team's strength coach. "He had no muscle. He could barely hold his arms above his head."

So why would Coppin State, coming off its third NCAA tournament berth in seven seasons yet in dire need of big bodies, take a chance on a player that coach Fang Mitchell calls one of the "Stick Brothers" (the other is 6-9, 180-pound sophomore Joe Allen)?

"When you gamble, it's not bad to gamble on a 7-foot-1 kid," Mitchell said. "When you get an opportunity to get a 7-footer, you thank the Lord for the blessing. As we grew as a program, people were patient on us. Just like we're going to be patient with him."

Coppin didn't find Iacona -- his father called Coppin to see if there might be any interest.

"I was so impressed when I watched them beat South Carolina [in the NCAAs] and, a week later, I just felt compelled to call them," said Sam Iacona, who was shocked that Mitchell answered the phone. "I told him that if he needed someone to come down and start right away, my son wasn't what he was looking for. But he's hard-working and disciplined. He can see things right to the end. He just needs someone to guide him along the way."

As compelled as the elder Iacona was to call, Mitchell was just as compelled to let him know the school's racial makeup.

"I told him I didn't care," said the elder Iacona, a nursing supervisor. "And neither did my son."

A week later Iacona loaded his entire family -- he, his wife and their four kids -- in a Dodge Caravan and made the nearly five-hour drive to Coppin -- an uneventful trip until they exited Interstate 83 and turned west onto North Avenue. The pockets of blight, and the obvious signs of city life, were a bit intimidating for some of the family from rural Harding, Pa.

"I asked my father, 'Where is this college?' " Iacona said. "I'll be honest. I was scared."

Only one white player has played for Mitchell at Coppin -- Cameron Nekker, of Oshawa, Ontario, in the 1992-93 season. As Mitchell tells it, Nekker's mother cried as she drove her son to campus.

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