No-frills Tucker quietly on target

Coppin State: His skills don't dazzle, but at the end of a game, the senior has more than made his presence felt.

March 08, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

There's little about Larry Tucker's basketball style that suggests he'll play another game beyond the final buzzer of Coppin State's season, unless it's in recreation leagues.

Armed with a 15-foot jumper and positioning skills inside that compensate for a lack of spring and height, the Coppin State senior uses craftiness rather than NBA-type athleticism to stay among the top players in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

"He's got a pretty good game," said Eagles coach Fang Mitchell of his top player, who is averaging 16 points and six rebounds this season and will play his final home game tonight against Morgan State. "Doesn't need a lot of frills. Bottom line: Does it go in the basket? I don't know how, but it does."

Tucker has gotten it done academically, too, despite his own doubts. He began as an NCAA non-qualifier, but he earned a degree in management science last May and is working on a second degree in criminal justice.

Tucker, from East Baltimore, would like to have a career in banking. But first, he's reaping the reward of a fourth year of eligibility he gained as a non-qualifier who earned his degree in four years.

He made a final academic push in the spring semester of last year - after averaging 17 points and seven rebounds in the hopes of helping Coppin rebound from a 6-25 season. So far this year, the team is 10-16, but the fourth-place Eagles are in a far better position as they head into next week's MEAC tournament in Richmond, Va.

"It became a major priority after the season we had last year," said Tucker. "I didn't want to go out like we did last year."

Tucker had decent SAT scores, but his grades, hampered by his apathy and stops at four Baltimore high schools, caused problems with college admission. His grades finally improved at Dunbar, where he averaged 13 points and seven rebounds in his last season.

His lone offer came from St. Vincent's, an NAIA school in Pennsylvania, but that fell through just before high school graduation when an English credit didn't go through.

Tucker, however, ran into then-Coppin assistant Eric Skeeters at a graduation-night party. Skeeters told him he could try out for the team if he could pass 24 units in his first season.

"[Skeeters] heard about the Pennsylvania thing, and he wanted to give him an opportunity and we jumped on it," said Tucker's mother, Vida, who had seen her son attend Mervo, Southwestern and St. Frances before going to Dunbar. "It was just like Dunbar - why didn't we come here first?"

Tucker paid his way his freshman year at Coppin. He breezed through his classes while not playing basketball, but didn't find the going so easy the next year when he joined the team under Mitchell.

Early on, he became acquainted with Mitchell's unyielding ways when he was suspended for two games for breaking curfew by leaving his hotel room to go to a vending machine.

"I went through a lot with Coach Mitchell, from me not doing things the way he wanted them done," Tucker said. "I really didn't want to come back, but I wanted to make my mom proud."

But by the middle of his second year, Tucker was one of Coppin's captains, and he led the team in rebounding (5.6) and was second in scoring (11.9). With him emerging as one of the top players for the Eagles, people began asking him to consider claiming that fourth year of eligibility.

He then completed 42 units from summer 2001 through spring 2002, achieving something that few around him thought he could do.

"That was the most emotion we've been able to see from him," Vida Tucker said of her normally even-tempered son on graduation day last May. "He was totally beside himself."

The Eagles can always use what Tucker, 6 feet 4, provides on the court, bumping and diving for loose balls. Last week, he passed the 1,400-point mark against Florida A&M.

"He's like a garbage man," freshman teammate Darryl Jones said of Tucker, who has 1,434 points, seventh on the school's career scoring list. "He's going to get his, you don't worry about that."

With 613 career rebounds, Tucker could finish third on the school's charts, but perhaps his greatest contribution this season could be his leadership as the only current player who has played for Mitchell more than a year before this one.

What he is able to impart is as simple as avoiding the wrath of Mitchell, who has a teaching style that tends to be harsh.

"He just tells us, whatever Coach Fang wants, don't go against it," said Jimmy Boykin, in his second year after transferring from Western Kentucky.

Mitchell said Tucker has learned from both the good and the bad in his time at Coppin, making it to the MEAC final in his first year, and enduring a 3-15 league mark last season.

"He's established a situation where he wants to win so bad that the other guys are following him and respect him for leaving it all on the floor," Mitchell said. "Without a doubt, I don't know where we'd be without him being a leader with this young group."

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