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Mike Wise

Roberts Playing for a Happy Ending

By Mike Wise
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page E05

CHARLOTTE

Lawrence Roberts III is one of the kids Billy Packer and Dick Vitale boast about, the all-American who could have gone to the NBA but returned to school for his senior season.

This is what staying at Mississippi State got him: plummeting draft status, a one-game NCAA suspension, a broken nose and a debilitating neck injury suffered during a rebounding drill, in which Roberts was carried off on a stretcher. His grandfather, as loved as he was legendary, died.

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Somehow, the payoff for all the misery is still attainable. One of the nation's premier power forwards goes toe-to-toe with Shelden Williams in an NCAA tournament second-round matchup with top-seeded Duke on Sunday at Charlotte Coliseum. Roberts has a shot at the round of 16 in Austin, an opportunity to help put the odyssey of the last four years behind.

"Through all the stuff I went through, I never second-guessed myself," Roberts said Saturday. "I mean, there were times when I got down. But I never wished I had done this or done that.

"Unfortunately, things happened."

Things happened? Imagine you're a high school freshman in Houston, playing on the same team as Oklahoma State's John Lucas III and the Charlotte Bobcats' Emeka Okafor. Your aunt is Robin Roberts, the graceful, smiling "Good Morning America" anchor. You grow into one of the nation's top players, spurn numerous offers from out-of-state schools and stay home, signing with Baylor.

Within two years, one of your friends and teammates murders another one of your friends and teammates. The coach who recruited you -- the man who told your mother he would take care of you -- is caught by police in a cover-up, found to be as filthy and corrupt as the worst NCAA violators.

Roberts knew Patrick Dennehy, the Baylor player shot and killed by teammate Carlton Dotson. He used to trust Dave Bliss, the fired coach most responsible for the immolation of a program. As the FBI and the NCAA descended on the Waco, Tex., campus, Roberts did what every disenchanted, 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore would have done: he ran.

To Mississippi.

"It wasn't a place to hide, but I was going through a lot of things at that time," he said. "You can't imagine being in a situation like that."

All of Baylor's players affected by tragedy who transferred were given a special dispensation by the NCAA so they would not have to sit out a year. Roberts ended up in Starkville, Miss., in the same state his grandfather's family was from. He immediately lowered his brawny shoulders and scored inside. He snatched rebounds from Kentucky. He managed to become the Southeastern Conference's player of the year in his junior season.

Agents called. The NBA life beckoned.

He put his name in for the draft, even going so far as to work out for the Portland Trail Blazers. Roberts was told he might go between Nos. 12 and 28 in the first round, but it was not a lock. Second-round picks receive no guaranteed money. So, with one minute before the deadline to withdraw his name and return to college, Roberts and his parents decided he would stay for his senior year.

A happy ending to a trying four years, right? Not even close.

The NCAA suspended him for the first game of the season for accepting money from the Blazers to work out in Portland, even after his mother reimbursed the club. He broke his nose and missed the second game. The neck injury. They were all sandwiched by a personal trauma. His grandfather, a Tuskegee airman, passed away within days. Lawrence Roberts I was honored posthumously two weeks ago in Jackson, Miss.

Roberts's team, ranked 11th in the nation Jan. 10, almost fell apart. They lost six of their next 10 and limped into the tournament at 22-10.

You call up www.nbadraft.netand scan for Roberts in the 2005 mock draft. Despite leading the SEC in rebounding while scoring almost 17 points per game -- despite growing as a player and a person every year of college -- Roberts does not appear until the middle of the second round.

In the minds of NBA scouts, he has been lapped by freshmen such as Connecticut's Rudy Gay and North Carolina's Marvin Williams, who are projected to be among the top 10 players selected who are currently in college.

"It's just one of those things. They love high school phenoms while other guys get overlooked," Roberts said. He shrugged his shoulders. "It's not like we're all 30 years old, trying to graduate."

You know the hypocritical part? The NBA, seeking an age limit of 20 for players to join the league, basically told Roberts he should have left college early. His outstanding senior season got him nothing but a demotion in the draft. The NCAA, which wants desperately to keep its best players in school and should have been applauding Roberts's decision, ends up suspending him for the team's opener over next to nothing.

And yet, there he and his team were Friday night, putting it all together against Stanford. He was pumping his fists, almost skipping toward the free throw line after a tough layup and foul in the final minutes. Roberts was not merely celebrating a first-round blowout victory, a game in which he led Mississippi State with 23 points and 17 rebounds.

It was also the payoff after the pain.

Between having to see what no teenager should see at Baylor, the NBA teasing and then tormenting him and the NCAA childishly punishing him, it's a wonder Lawrence Roberts made it through four years.

"I've had friends killed, family members die, I've gone through a lot worse than this," he said, playing down his trials. "You can't dwell on the bad things."

No, but you can hope for a kid who has gone through a lot to get his wish. You can hope for Roberts and Mississippi State to knock off Duke. More than most student-athletes who stick it out for four years, he deserves a reward.


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