In Richmond, Ky., yesterday, James (Turk) Tillman, his wife and two children sat around Christman dinner with Eastern Kentucky basketball Coach Ed Byhre, his wife and two children.
The gifted basketball player who left the University of Maryland in the summer of 1977 with his life in disarray says he is now at peace with himself on and off the basketball court.
In the world of college basketball recruiting, when almost every major school sent a scout to Eastern High School to watch this 6-foot-4 1/2 lookalike for David Thompson, Byhre, then an assistant, was one of the few who did not praise Tillman. Instead, he critiqued Tillman.
Byhre told Tillman his ball-handling was bad. In Maryland's offense, whether Tillman played forward or guard, the plays called for him to dribble. It was the reason Coach Lefty Driesell cited for Tillman not playing more.
By his sophomore year at Maryland, Tillman's life was crumbling, high-school All-America unable to live up to his press clippings in his hometown: married with a child but living by himself on campus, and eventually, stealing wallets from four purses in the school library, petty larceny for which his lawyer plea-bargained two days in jail and three years of probation.
Nevertheless, when Tillman decided to leave Maryland, the calls still came from a number of the major basketball schools. Byhre, now the head coach at Eastern Kentucky, did not call. Instead, he called Pete Fedak, Tillman's lawyer. The message: If Turk's interested, have him call me.
An hour later, Tillman returned the phone call.
It is probably the single most important thing Tillman has done in his 21 years, more important than any of those oh-so-perfect-form jumpers he shooes, more vital than the quickness that helped him shut down Adrian Dantley in a Maryland victory at Notre Dame.
When Tillman arrived at the Eastern Kentucky campus, his wife and child left behind with Tillman's mother in Washington for the transfer year of practicing but not playing basketball, Byhre told Tillman:
"Today is the first day of the rest of your life. I ask only two things-that you be proud of what you've done so that the people who care about you are proud of you."
What Byhre saw in that redshirt year was certainly not what he had heard about second-hand: that Tillman was a loner, surly and a problem.
Tillman practiced hard, thereby gaining the respect of the players, including three former Eastern teammates. He got along with the coaching staff and passed 25 hours of classes with a C average.
"Isn't that ironic that the kid could have such a complete personality reversal?" Byhre said, with sarcasm.
This season, Tillman is setting the Ohio Valley Conference ablaze. Through nine games, he is averaging 27.1 points per game, a pace good enough to rate among the nation's top 20 Division I scorers. And he is his team's second-leading rebounder.
Tillman, according to Byhre, has not let the success go to his head, even though he is getting gobs of publicity throughout basketball-crazy Kentucky. "His attitude has not changed one bit," the coach said.
Recently, at the Wolf Pack Invitational in Reno, Nev., where he shared the most valuable player award even though his team finished third, Tillman talked about his new life.
"When I left Maryland and came here," Tillman said, "I was starting all over again. It was a second chance. I'm just playing each game and playing harder and harder. Everything that happened at Maryland is behind me now.
"Everything has fallen into place and I try not to talk about Maryland. My new life is in Kentucky. What Marylnad does now is its thing. I really don't have much to say about it."
Tillman refused to compare Lefty Driesell, the coach who suspended him four games for failure to go into a game in a mop-up role, with his new coach and friend, Byhre. Asked why he and Byhre click so well, Tillman replied, "He's just a nice man."
Tillman's wife, Denise, and their two boys-Jovelle and Jeynard-were united with Tillman in Kentucky last fall for the first time. They live in a trailer on the EK campus and Denise works at the campus bookstore.
When the team goes on the road, Mrs. Tillman and Mrs. Byhre sometimes listen to the games on radio together and munch on pizza. Tillman has set his priorities as "books, family and ball," so he wants to make sure he has a degree when he graduates, the better to support his family if pro basketball does not materialize.
Tillman's skills are being brought out as he plays small forward for the Colonels. His ball-handling is still improving, but unlike at Maryland, the small forwards and wing guards do not have to handle the ball as much.
His original college class will graduate in June, so Tillman could be drafted without applying for "hardship status." He and Byhre have talked over the possibilities.
"Some of the contracts are based on them making the team. There's no money, only training-camp expenses if they get cut," Byhre said. "It'll have to be a no-cut contract for a lot of money before he'll give up the year of eligibility and his education.
"He's done a good job of putting his life in order. I've always said that guys don't make it in the pros, not because of ability, but because their personal lives are not in order." CAPTION: Picture, James Tillman