Syracuse's Hart has no fear

Basketball: Having grown up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, the Orangeman doesn't shy from any court opponent, even Mateen Cleaves.

March 23, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- A reporter asked Jason Hart yesterday if he would back down from Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, causing the Syracuse point guard to do a double-take.

Cleaves may represent one of his biggest challenges on the court, but Hart has had other fears. Life-threatening fears.

Hart had to survive South Central Los Angeles. He had to survive the guns, the violence, the deaths.

The 6-foot-3 senior can painfully recount over 20 friends and acquaintances in his neighborhood who have been killed while he's been at the central New York school.

"It's gotten so that I'm reluctant to phone home," said Hart, whose fourth-seeded Orangemen will meet No. 1 Michigan State tonight at The Palace of Auburn Hills. "It's like I'm afraid to hear from my older brothers about who else has died."

But Hart couldn't hide from those tragedies growing up.

At the age of 14, he came home after a high school basketball game and learned that his lifelong friend, Craden Evans, had been gunned down by a street gang.

The next year, Hart had "Craden" tattooed on his left bicep. Whenever he steps to the foul line, he whispers Evans' name before every free throw.

"I just want to keep his memory alive because these things are so common in South Central," Hart said. "People accept it as a way of life, and we forget that these are human beings and not numbers.

"If I had a tattoo done in memory of all my friends, my body would be covered in ink."

Nowadays, Hart wants to make sure he's got all his options covered. He's starting to realize that he's not alone on the court.

In his first three seasons, he would shoot first and then check if his teammates were open. If teams applied full-court pressure, he would try to dribble out of it.

Hart had more turnovers (123) than baskets (120) as a sophomore. He averaged nearly an assist per turnover a year later.

As a senior, he still has not shied away from shooting, but he's more willing to set up others.

"Jason is the heart and soul of this team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He's the key, certainly, to everything we do."

In Saturday's NCAA second round, Hart had an opportunity to win the game in the final minute against Kentucky. He had missed eight of his 10 shots that day, yet the temptation was there with the game tied at 50.

Hart, however, drove to the basket and found Preston Shumpert for a baseline jumper, lifting the Orangemen to a 52-50 victory.

What would he have done in that situation last year?

"I probably would have taken the shot," he admitted.

When Syracuse returned home, the Orangemen had the day off. But Hart had a 4 p.m. appointment in the gym.

He wanted to regain his shooting touch. He wanted to regain an edge for his meeting with Cleaves.

"He's the most heavily criticized player we've ever had, and that's a shame," said Boeheim, who is in his 24th season. "I might understand if he dogged it, but this kid gives it his all, all the time."

Tonight, Hart can defend his reputation by defending Cleaves well. Regarded as Syracuse's top one-on-one defender, Hart must cut off the second-team All-American's drives to the basket as well as stay tight enough to guard against his three-point shot.

"I'm looking forward to playing him," said Hart, who is averaging 12.0 points and 6.4 assists.

And no one from Syracuse would expect anything else, especially when Hart puts his life in perspective.

"There were so many guys [in Los Angeles] who were better athletes than me who never survived," Hart said. "You know, the odds say I'm supposed to be dead right now."

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