Chris Washburn, Scene One: He is sitting on a couch, half sprawled across it, one arm flopped over the back, his head tucked forward as he talks. He is relaxed, extroverted.
"Pressure," he says, "can kill you if you let it. I used to worry every time I picked up a paper and someone wrote something negative. Now, I know that's going to happen. But it really doesn't bother me anymore. I know, because I play basketball, I'm going to be in the limelight. But just because I'm 6-11 doesn't mean I can't act like a normal person."
He smiles. "I can be normal, even if my life won't be normal."
Chris Washburn, Scene Two: North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano is yelling, which means he is speaking in his normal tone of voice. He is standing eight feet from Washburn, holding a basketball. Washburn has his back to the basket and even though the gym is full of noises, the only sound one hears is Valvano's raspy voice.
"Take it, Wash, take it," he screams, flipping a pass to Washburn. Then: "Now, go hard; not soft -- hard. Go, go, go." As Valvano rants, Washburn catches the pass, takes one giant step into the key and slams the ball through the hoop. "Yeah, yeah," Valvano claps his hands. "Now, Sikma, give me Sikma." Again he flips the ball to Washburn, who catches it, turns and softly shoots a jump shot the way the Seattle SuperSonics' Jack Sikma does.
Valvano makes a fist. "Those two things, that's all I want. Give me that and I'll be happy." Washburn nods. He has been working on both moves and the work is paying off.
"I want to be a great player someday," he says later. "I'll do what I have to do."
Chris Washburn is 18 years old. He is a college freshman who has been compared to Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing, although he has yet to play one minute of college basketball.
He has a long way to go. But he already has come a long way.
When her son was in the eighth grade, Savannah Washburn realized for the first time he was exceptional. For the first time, she began to wonder what his size and athletic talent would lead to.
"I went to his team banquet," she said. "And the speaker was the athletic director at Lenoir-Rhyne (a small college in western North Carolina). He gave this speech and at the end he turned to Chris and said, 'You're a coach's dream, Chris. You're a franchise.'
"That scared me. I mean here is my son, an eighth-grader, and this man is saying he is a franchise."
Washburn was 6-8 then. As a high school sophomore, he was 6-11 and already colleges were beating down his door.
As the hordes came to Hickory, N.C. -- a small town near the Blue Ridge -- Savannah Washburn watched with a combination of pride and fear: "When all those people started coming after Chris, I would look at him and think, 'They see a man because he looks like a man. But inside that man's body is my little boy.' "
In his last three years of high school, the little boy sometimes struggled. As a sophomore at Hickory High School, his basketball was excellent, his schoolwork not nearly as good. His parents decided a place with more discipline might help, so they sent him to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, an 800-student, all-boys school that has produced, among others, Melvin Turpin, the former Kentucky center.
By the end of his junior year, Washburn was the most highly regarded high school player in the country. He went to summer school and decided where he wanted to go to college.
"I was pretty sure I wanted to stay in North Carolina," he said. "I visited a lot of schools the year before playing at Fork Union, so I knew what they were like. During the summer, (North Carolina Coach) Dean Smith wrote me a letter saying they weren't going to recruit me. After that, I didn't see much reason not to announce for N.C. State."
Smith backed off Washburn because he completed his junior year hovering just beneath the 2.0 grade-point average required for an athlete to receive an NCAA scholarship. That left State way out front. Washburn liked the coaches and the school was only a few hours from home.
Just before he went back to Fork Union in September, Washburn announced he would enroll at State. "I did it to take some pressure off; not so much me as my parents," he said. "It didn't quite work out that way."
In the 14 months following his announcement, Washburn has left one school (Fork Union) and enrolled at another (Laurinburg Institute), been accused of illegally receiving a new car, enrolled and withdrawn from State's summer school program for athletes and been accused and convicted of a misdemeanor assault on a female State student, for which he was fined $25.
"I'll be glad when the games start," he said. "I'll be glad when people start talking about me and writing about me as a basketball player again."
The trouble started almost as soon as Washburn got back to Fork Union. Washburn had first heard about the school through a hometown friend, Al Young, who had gone to school there and then to Virginia Tech. Many at Fork Union assumed Washburn would follow Young to Tech. Now, having announced that he would go to N.C. State, Washburn felt as if he was behind enemy lines.
"It just wasn't the same as it had been the year before," he said. "People seemed to be harassing me. It was like they were mad at me for not going to Tech."
Fletcher Arritt, the Fork Union coach, believes at least some of Washburn's problems were imagined. "I know he got hassled by some people at the local restaurant because they wanted to see him go to Tech, and that upset him," Arritt said. "But no one at the school could really have cared less that he was going to State. We've got 20 kids playing Division I basketball all over the country. It really didn't matter to us."
It quickly became apparent, however, that Washburn was going to be unhappy at Fork Union. He had struggled at times with the discipline as a junior -- "just mischievous stuff that would never get noticed if he wasn't a 6-11 kid," Arritt said -- and coach and player agreed it would be best for him to leave. Five days after school began, Washburn got on a bus and went home.
When news reached N.C. State coaches that Washburn had left school, there was something of a panic. "We knew the kid was right on the 2.0 and we knew he couldn't afford to miss any school," said Tom Abatemarco, the assistant who recruited Washburn. "Fortunately, his mother knew what she was doing because we didn't know what the hell to do."
Savannah Washburn had been contacted by Bishop McDuffie of Laurinburg before her son had gone to Fork Union. She got on the phone with him immediately and, 72 hours after leaving Fork Union, Washburn was enrolled at Laurinburg, a 110-student alternative education school whose graduates include Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Scott.
The school-switching drew some attention, but it was nothing compared to the black Subaru that showed up in Washburn's driveway shortly after he committed to N.C. State. Soon it was in the national media: State had bought Washburn with a car.
Washburn can laugh about it now. "Actually, I understand why it happened," he said. "If I was a stranger and I saw a brand-new car sitting in a highly recruited basketball player's driveway right after he committed to a school, I would be suspicious, too. After all, it's happened before."
At Valvano's request, the Atlantic Coast Conference investigated the situation. The investigation found that Washburn's explanation held up: the car belonged to his 21-year-old girlfriend, who worked for a furniture company. Washburn had been teaching her to drive it and had cosigned a loan agreement at the dealer's request.
Today, Washburn no longer dates the woman and she and the car are in Hickory. Back then, the publicity got so bad that Savannah Washburn hired a lawyer. "I just didn't know what to do," she said. "Every day it seemed like someone was writing something else saying Chris was bought by N.C. State. We accepted nothing from them; I mean nothing."
Next came what State coaches now call "the Lefty hassle." Although he had committed to State, Washburn could not sign a letter of intent before November. Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell is a persistent recruiter. McDuffie and Driesell are old friends, dating to the days when Driesell recruited Scott for Davidson.
McDuffie said he didn't push Washburn to do anything, but did tell him, "like I tell all our students," that if he had a chance to visit other schools he should. When Driesell offered a visit to Maryland, Washburn told him he'd love to visit.
"I was fired up 'cause Chris got on the line and said he wanted to come up for the weekend," Driesell said. "I told him that was great, that if he wanted we'd send a private plane for him. He was the best center I'd seen since Moses (Malone), so if I had a shot for him, I was gonna take it."
Washburn said, "Lefty just said I might as well take my visits even if I was committed to State. He said come up and see the sights and if you like it, we'll talk."
When State's coaches heard Washburn was planning to visit Maryland, they called his mother. She was at Laurinburg a few hours later, telling her son that under no circumstances would he visit Maryland or any other school."I told him he had made a decision and a commitment and that was it, it was over," she recalled. "I saw no reason to drag the thing out."
"When I saw how upset my mother was, I knew I shouldn't visit," Washburn said. "It made me realize how hard the whole thing had been on her."
Washburn signed with State in November. He made his 2.0 average with room to spare and arrived at college excited about his new beginning. The clean slate lasted a couple of weeks, until Washburn went to the dormitory room of a junior he had dated during the summer. Washburn was upset with things she had been saying about him. There was an argument.
According to court testimony, one of two things happened: Washburn said he left. According to the woman, Washburn slapped her. There were no witnesses. The trial judge found Washburn guilty of misdemeanor assault and fined him $25.
"I just told Chris that he should learn from what happened," Valvano said.
"I had Lorenzo (Charles) talk to him because he went through a similar thing (Charles was convicted three years ago of stealing a pizza). "If you're a basketball player, the standards you're held up to are different. When you're a celebrated athlete, everyone watches you closely."
Washburn's mother says, "Sometimes I tell my husband that our life would have been much simpler if we had raised a midget."
Washburn still is an unpolished player. He has a soft touch as a shooter, he passes the ball well and he runs well. He is extremely animated, slapping his hands together in frustration at a minor mistake and chortling when he makes a good play.
"He is a very coachable kid," Valvano said, echoing Fletcher Arritt. "He aims to please. When he makes a mistake, he smiles at you and says, 'I know, I know.' Those two moves, the power move and the Sikma move, I asked him to work on and he came back to me and said, 'Watch this.' "
Valvano is not going to start Washburn right away. Senior Cozell McQueen has started for two years on teams that won the national title and went 19-14, respectively, and will continue to do so. That will make life easier for Washburn. "I know I don't have to be a savior," he said. "I have Cozell to learn from and I can go at my own pace." Valvano would like Washburn to average 25 minutes a game.
Since McQueen rebounds and plays defense, he hopes Washburn will score. "When you look at Wash, you expect a player who goes to the basket carrying women and children on his back," Valvano said. "He's not. He's a finesse player now. He's got a forward's game locked in a center's body. I'm gonna make him watch Mike Hammer reruns. I want him tougher."
The prototype tough-guy center in the college game is Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. Washburn admires his play, but says, "That's not me. I want to be a great player. I fantasize about scoring 40 in the national championship game. But I don't think I have to be tough or vicious to be that kind of a player.
"All I want to do here is work hard, become a better player and become a better person. When I leave State, I would like people to say, 'I'd like my son to grow up and be like Chris Washburn.' That's my goal."