When he was in elementary school, Craig Shelton showed signs of the determination that makes him one of college basketball's best power forwards.
"I was slow. Everybody used to beat me," the Georgetown University jnuior recalled. "Anything I could run I wanted to run, but I was always the slowest guy on the track team.
"Well, I kept at it and kept at it. And there was this guy on our team and I always wanted to beat him. One day we kept on running and I kept tied with him. I never could beat him. I just kept tied with him. I wanted to beat him and one day I did beat him. After that, I just stopped running."
John Thompson, Georgetown coach who will lead his Hoyas into a second-round NCAA tournament game against Rutgers Saturday at Providence, R. I., says the 6-foot-7 Shelton is the most intense player he has ever known or seen. And Thompson played with Bill Russell's Celtics.
Intensity is a coach's cliche. It describes a player with strong concentration and a desire to play hard at all times.
Shelton, "Big Sky" to his fans because of his fantastic jumping ability, says he is driven by the elusive drive for perfection. "It's determination and dedication and the will to want to do something that's inside of me," he said.
He reached perfection on that elementary school track team by beating his fastest teammate. However, in overcoming two serious injuries, leading the Hoyas to a 24-4 season and earning a prediction by Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry that he will be a first-round pro draft choice after his senior year, Shelton is not satisfied.
"How good am I?" he says rhetorically. "I ask myself that question every day.And I answer myself, 'I need to develop a lot of skills that I need to bring out and I feel I'm still growing.' Regardless of what kind of game I have, I always seem to disappoint myself, because I always feel I should have given more."
This is not to say Shelton is a pessimist. It says he wants to be great.
"I've always believed that if I ever reached the point of being a perfectionist, then I might as well give the game up and not play anymore," Shelton said. "That goes as far as life is concerned because regardless of how perfect you are, somebody will be even more perfect than yourself.
"And if you stop trying to achieve perfection, then you stop working. And if you stop working you look back and find that somebody's catching up with you and will pass you."
And, if that sounds like simple logic, it is, because Shelton says the best one-word description of himself is "logical." He is a business administration major, who says: "I like school... I like philosophy books. I like Aristotle and Plato. They were unique people. They had an answer to every problem. I like to read about great people."
Of course, Thompson feels Shelton is unique, too. "It takes a lot of courage to come back from the injuries he had. A lot of players would try to make up (in individual statistics) for those two years. He did not come in this year and put himself above the team."
The two injuries -- a broken kneecap and a broken wrist, both the result of on-court determination to block shots -- brought anguish to the former Dunbar High School star. He recalled the frustrations of the knee injury, his first serious athletic accident.
"I was really down and out," he recalled. "But I still had the determination to get the strength back in my knees and try and be the same ballplayer or better than I was in the past. I felt even though I was injured that didn't mean I couldn't be an outstanding player."
So Shelton worked on a lot of strengthening exercises and did a lot of running. His face beams as he says:
"As matter of fact, I was so much in shape that I felt I could be on the track team. Going in practice, I would never get tired at the end when everybody else might be a little bit woozy."
In Georgetown's practices now, he is the only player seemingly going through the sprints effortlessly at the end of a long workout. Which is part of the Shelton philosophy of basketball: outcondition your opponent.
"I used to always be the master of the boards," he said. "I was bigger than most of the people my age that I played against. But it got to the point where I felt I wasn't bigger anymore. I still kept on trying to be an excellent rebounder.
"I became an excellent rebounder then by constantly conditioning myself to go to the boards. On missed shots I used to go to the boards. Even if I knew a guy was going to make it I went to the boards. That's conditioning, because if you constantly keep going and going, regardless of who's trying to box you out or who's checking you, you're going to wear the other player down."
Yet, back in the seventh grade, Shelton was struggling for his own identity. He was befriended by Harold Plummer, the Evans Junior High School coach, who introduced him to logic, Aristotle, Plato and competitive basketball.
"At the time, I was a flat-footed ballplayer and I didn't have any great concept about the game at all. I just wanted to stop. I didn't want to play anymore because I didn't think I'd amount to anything. He kind of helped me to stay in shcool and kept me on the team and gave me a chance."
The encouragement continued from Joe Dean Davidson at Dunbar, who recruited Shelton there (his neighborhood high school would have been H.T. Woodson) by showing an interest in him and telling him about Dunbar graduates who had gone on to fame in various fields. Shelton says he hopes to join that list.
Of thompson, his college coach, Shelton said: "It was through him I I saw my accomplishments were brought upon by people who gave me encouragement to go on when I was younger. I realize most times younger people have ability to do things and older people don't give them the encouragement. That's when it hurts them a lot."
On the basketball court, Shelton's inside offensive moves -- he scored in double figures 41 of the last 42 games despite averaging only 10 shots per contest -- hurts the opposition, making them play looser on guards John Duren and Sleepy Floyd, both excellent outside jump shooters.
"The thing that enables them to get their jump shot is Craig," said Thompson. "If you guard them honestly, it means you're playing Craig one on one, and that's suicide."
"He has pro ability, a pro body. He's strong, he's big, he's an excellent leaper, he can make the jumper and he's mobile. He's an excellent physical specimen for a big forward."