Hemsley: Southern comfort

Guard from Baltimore fits in fine at Miami

March 19, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Miami Hurricanes guard Johnny Hemsley stands outside his team's locker room door, points symbolically at it, and makes a wish.

"I wish a lot of reporters and media people could come into the locker room, or to the practices or to a lot of things that we do off the court and see how me and [coach Leonard Hamilton] interact. It really is a beautiful thing. It shows on the court also because I don't mind working hard for a guy like Coach Hamilton."

Hemsley, who attended Southern High in Baltimore, can talk about his decision to go to Miami, his team's chances today in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Ohio State, his old days in his hometown and building a winning tradition with the Hurricanes with very little change in his demeanor.

He's soft-spoken, humble and the complete opposite of the guy who put up three fingers after draining a three-pointer that helped Miami eliminate Arkansas, 75-71, on Friday night, then proceeded to wave goodbye to the Razorbacks' fans who were headed for the exits.

But when the subject of his relationship with his coach comes up, Hemsley gets most passionate.

Ditto for Hamilton, who devoted about a five-minute answer to a question of his best player's character yesterday.

The two have mutual respect for each other, and are both tired of discussing their relationship.

The source of the talk comes from two suspensions earlier this season for Hemsley, who Hamilton said broke a team rule both times.

The first came during a tournament in Puerto Rico. The second suspension, which drew the most attention, came during a game at Notre Dame. Hamilton would not say how long the suspension would be, nor would he elaborate on what Hemsley did. It had people wondering when Hemsley would return.

"When a youngster receives some form of a discipline, and as a coach you don't specify what happened, you leave yourself open for people to speculate that there are issues between the coach and the player," Hamilton said. "But if you ask Johnny what kind of relationship we have, he would be honest with you."

In all honesty, Hemsley said the relationship is a good one. He talked about keeping up with Hamilton, who was rumored to have been contacted by Georgia Tech, wherever the coach goes. But there are people who would find that hard to believe, maybe even the coach on the opposing team today.

When Buckeyes coach Jim O'Brien was asked what kind of problems Hemsley creates, he said: "For me or for Leonard?"

He then went on to say Hemsley has terrific range, is a tough-minded guy and a good player who will be a tough matchup for his team. That has been the consensus among opposing coaches throughout Hemsley's four years at Miami.

Hemsley earned second-team All-Big East this season after leading the team with 18 points a game. His game, which may be good enough to get him into the NBA draft later this year, has flourished under Hamilton, and that was the primary reason he chose a school so far from Baltimore.

Hemsley said people scoffed at his decision to attend Miami, known more for its football program.

What those who raised eyebrows did not understand was that Hemsley wanted to get away from many of the things he felt would have held in back in Maryland. He also wanted to start something big in Miami. The Hurricanes are making their third straight NCAA tournament appearance for the first time in school history. Once the laughingstock of the Big East, Miami shared its first regular-season conference title with Syracuse this season.

"If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it the same way," Hemsley said. "Leaving Baltimore was a hard decision for me, but it was something that I thought that I needed to do. Everything is working out for me well, and it has been for the last four years. I'm 100 percent positive about the decision.

"A lot of times [in Baltimore], I had friends that really meant well, but some of the things they were involved in, you just can't be around those situations. Those are some of the things that could have held me back, which is why I went somewhere where I could start all over again."

Not that Miami, the city or the school, has a squeaky-clean image. In fact, many of the problems on Greenmont Avenue, where Hemsley grew up, can be found in Miami. But outside of his freshman year, when Hemsley said he matured a lot, and a few suspensions over the years, Hemsley has been able to avoid trouble and go on to become what Hamilton called, "one of the best players in school history."

Hamilton is not making an outlandish statement considering Miami's basketball program, but it's a distinction that Hemsley wears with pride.

"Whenever you can get a compliment like that from a guy like Coach Hamilton, that's huge," said Hemsley, who became a father earlier this year.

Their coach/player relationship is far from over, and if Hemsley can score 20 like he did against Arkansas on Friday the Hurricanes could make their first Sweet 16 appearance.

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