Price quickens Sooners' heartbeat

Oklahoma takes cue from tough guard en route to Atlanta

Ncaa Tournament

March 28, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Keep reminding yourself that Oklahoma guard Hollis Price is tough and that he's a star, and you'll be OK.

It saves the embarrassment of thinking otherwise after you check out the face that everyone talks about -- the one that earned the nickname "Webster," though it's more like Dudley from Different Strokes.

It happens when you judge a book by its 405 area code and the seven national football titles that sit in Norman, Okla., and it happens when you decide to pay the most attention to teammate Aaron McGhee.

Price is tough enough to overcome a triceps tear that nearly ended his career, star enough to be named Most Valuable Player of the Big 12 Conference tournament and Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional that ended last weekend, and leader enough to be the driving force on a team that will face Indiana this weekend in the Final Four and is favored to advance to the national championship game.

"Every team needs a pulse," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said, speaking of Price, a junior who is averaging 16.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists this season for a 31-4 team. "Every team needs a heartbeat. Hollis is our heartbeat. It's a strong heartbeat because it's a strong team."

No matter what the Sooners have needed him to do, Price has been able to do it. In the regional semifinal, McGhee was quickly hounded by two or three Arizona defenders each time he got the ball in the first half.

The scoring responsibility fell to Price, who responded by hitting six three-pointers and had 22 points in the first half, giving his teammates time to regroup before they blew out the Wildcats in the second half.

"I let the game come to me," Price said. "If I have an open shot, I'll probably take it. Sometimes, it's the flow of the game. A lot of times, there's a better shot for a teammate if I make the extra pass."

Price's road to Atlanta began in the Desire housing projects of New Orleans, the son of two former college athletes -- a father who played quarterback at Grambling and moved on to Austin, Texas, and a mother who played softball at Southern University before moving into a life of drug addiction and prison that she only recently put behind her.

His salvation was his grandparents, George Carraby and Ann Dennis, who stressed education to young Price, no small consideration in an environment that violently took the life of one of his cousins.

"I didn't have many rules," Price said of life with his grandfather. "He told me to make sure I did my homework first and then to go out and play basketball -- just to make sure I got home before dark. My friends were out later than I was."

Bernard Griffith was the next influence in Price's life. Griffith, coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans for the past 24 years, is known for having produced such NBA players as Donald Royal, Avery Johnson and Kerry Kittles.

He's also known for running a disciplined program that has included corporal punishment, even at the halftimes of games, but also drilling his players on the little things.

"It's kind of similar," Price said, comparing the practices of his current coach and Griffith. "The difference is that Griff has a paddle that he uses. That's the biggest difference to me. Everything else is so similar."

"We just work hard. Working hard in fundamentals gets them prepared to understand the game," Griffith said of his approach, which also includes hustling for loose balls, leaping for rebounds and taking care of the ball.

"These are the type of things I push them harder to learn. You walk in a gym, everybody's shooting. We just make sure they know the intangible things."

The intangibles were what then-Oklahoma assistant Jason Rabedeaux recognized when he spotted Price at a Boo Williams tournament in Virginia several years ago while searching for "the best point guard you can find," as ordered by Sampson.

"I remember Coach Sampson walking out of the gym. He said, `He's little [he's now 6 feet 1], but he can sure do a lot of things,' " said Rabedeaux, now the head coach at Texas-El Paso.

"He was such a pleasure to recruit. Such a great kid. It was never about Hollis. During the whole recruiting process, it was, `What will we be like as a team.' "

After one season observing the leadership of former Oklahoma star Eduardo Najera, then another watching Nolan Johnson, Price took over as the focal point of a team that went 26-7 in 2000-01, but lost to Indiana State in the first round of the NCAAs last year.

It was during that defeat that Price ran into the Sycamores' Kelyn Block and suffered a torn right triceps muscle that took four months and three operations to repair, and still requires 30 minutes of treatment before each game.

Upon his return, he wanted to make sure his team wouldn't fall short, as it did the year before.

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