Nobody turns a head as Len Elmore walks past. Six feet 9, an ex-pro basketball player, black and bearded, he is a commonly distinctive figure in the human potpourri of Harvard Square: a 60ish white-suited gentleman rolling along on skates, a woman zipping through traffic on a hilariously tiny motor scooter, a huge woman running against the light (will she beat the only slightly larger truck?), a balloon man, a magician, a bevy of undergraduates sweeping past, discussing Proust?
Almost everyone is deciding something. There are down-and-outers of the square deciding where to spend the night. Others are deciding between lunch-time lectures: Will it be "Kinetics and Spectroscopy of High Altitude Infrared Emissions" or "Contour Evolution, Neighborhood Deformation and Image Flow?" Elmore's decision: Keep slogging through the day-to-day assignments, or step up exam preparation? In law school, there's no coach named Lefty or Slick who's going to yell, "Hey, Lenny, get the lead out and get over to 'Alternative Dispute Resolution.' "
Elmore -- 1974 second team all-America, still the University of Maryland's all-time career rebounder -- might have been playing center for the New York Knicks tonight at Capital Centre against the Bullets. Instead, he has given up the high-salaried game with a year left on his contract and, at age 32, enrolled at Harvard Law School. When the lights have gone down at Capital Centre, they will still be burning in Elmore's little apartment on Harvard Street.
This was no snap decision. He had thought of law school as long ago as 1976. In the Indiana Pacers' training camp that year, a big second professional season behind him, his future seemingly clear as dawn, he "heard a severe pop." It was a torn medial collateral ligament. His basketball mortality flashed from the throbbing right knee.
"I drove 60 minutes to Indianapolis for the operation," he says. "It was the quickest hour of my life, a finger snap. All these things kept going through my mind: What kind of preparations have I made, what have I done to cope with not being a professional basketball player?"
He could have sat for life on the cushion of his six-year, $1 million guaranteed contract with the Pacers. But all he kept thinking was that he hadn't gone to enough classes to earn his undergraduate diploma from Maryland. A law degree suddenly loomed as distant and unreachable as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook.
Elmore went to work. Four summers and he got his degree from Maryland. Then, as he sat on the Knicks' bench during last season's playoffs, playing not a minute, he heard a drum roll, knew it was for him. "My destiny wasn't in my own hands," he says. "It was time to take the reins."
He drove off to Cambridge, the far side of the NBA moon.
People ask about Elmore the Harvard law student as if he were a player trying out for a team: "Will he make it?"
"Oh, I plan to be here three years," he responds, in a casually firm tone.
He's eating New England clam chowder, in the Greenhouse Coffee Shop in the square. He's wearing jeans and a thick brown sweater, and has glasses.
"I can't foresee any serious problems. All I can do is work as hard as I possibly can." This is what he did down his academic stretch at Maryland, when he got a 3.5 grade-point average out of 4.0 in his last 20 credits of summer work.
"I'd like to get into a public interest practice," he says. "Don't get me wrong. I want to make money. But at least for a while, I can afford to do it. It's in payment for the adulation I got as an athlete. We make so much money, it's time to give something back. Not to basketball, but to those who looked up to you as an ideal."
It sounds easy. But law school is a beginning for Elmore, and beginnings are seldom easy.
When the big brown envelope from Harvard arrived at his apartment in Jersey last April, he told hardly anyone.
"That evening we were playing Trivial Pursuit," said Gail Segal, who's been a close friend since their days at Maryland. "He was acting somewhat strange. I asked him, 'Did you hear from any of the schools?' He was just odd. Then, when I was putting the game away, I saw the letter on the end table. It was almost as if he was stunned.
"He was very apprehensive. It had been almost 10 years since he'd been in the academic world. A lot of people had supported him and he was wondering, could he do it? He didn't want to let anybody down. He wanted to live up to their expectations."
At length he believed he could.
"One thing I learned from basketball, you definitely have to believe in yourself before you can get others to believe in you," Elmore said.
At the outset of his pro basketball odyssey, as a rookie with the Pacers, he had to make his coach, Slick Leonard, believe. "The coach was looking for a 7-foot offensive center. The owner had been looking for a name out of college."
By the end of his second season -- Elmore averaged 14.6 points, 10.8 rebounds -- Leonard believed. Then, the knee popped.
"Once you're injured in the professional ranks, especially basketball, you're usually damaged goods," says Elmore. "Teams scramble to replace you, feeling you may never come back. You almost never get an opportunity. I got one. Unfortunately, I got it my eighth year."
By then, he had been down a couple of other NBA roads, dead ends.
His Indiana exit came shortly after injuring a finger on a rim during his sixth training camp with the Pacers. "I think they had had it with me," he says, a wan smile serving to acknowledge that he had run his course with the team.
Then, a gleam, and mock vengeance: "Looking back at that rim, I'd say it was an excellent cause of action."
On to Kansas City. To Milwaukee. To New Jersey. He had become the perennial new man.
With the 1981-82 Nets, "a team that wanted me to serve as an interim until they got a 'legitimate' center," he got the opportunity to start 71 games. He averaged 9.1 points and 5.4 rebounds, and helped them to the playoffs. "Then they traded and got Darryl Dawkins to play center and I was back to second string."
But, for once, Elmore discovered the role had its merits.
"I was sort of an elder statesman. They had all these young players: Albert King, Buck Williams, Michael O'Koren. You could lead by example. I was proud to play in that particular situation and to see the changes in them. Sometimes, on the floor, things get out of hand and it's necessary to calm people down; on the road, for example, a team can be making a run at you.
"And, generally, imparting the idea that the world doesn't begin and end with basketball."
"He was special," said Larry Brown, then the Nets' coach, now at Kansas. "A lot of the young guys had great success in college but the pros are a little different. Albert was a great player but didn't have a lot of self-confidence. Lenny was very sympathetic toward him. Buck had his moments, and Lenny helped him." Brown had a problem with another player. "Lenny understood him and he understood me."
"A lot of players would look up to him," said Gail Segal. "I remember a comment by Darryl Dawkins, 'What Lenny says is right.'
"As a lawyer, he can have a very, very profound impact on players coming into the league who need a role model. He's been there, he had the foresight to know there was life after basketball."
Elmore had prepared. He read. "Great literature, like Joseph Conrad. The modern novel got me to the existential frame of thought -- Nabokov, Sartre. That's when I realized you've got to try to control your destiny. Biographies: Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, people like Patton for diversity. Presidents: J.F.K., Lyndon Johnson. Recreational reading: 'Ragtime.' "
He has not read Elmore Leonard.
"I'm just not into mysteries. But I've read of lot of reviews on him. I like to see my name in print, even if it's backward."
Elmore grew up in Queens. "We weren't a ghetto family, but I saw plenty I'd like to change," he says. His father was a garbage collector; his mother also worked for the Department of Sanitation, in its offices. "No, they didn't meet there," he adds, joking.
He was the oldest of four children. In November 1977, his brother Robert, who had been playing basketball in Italy, died of an apparent drug overdose. His other brother, Cliff, who lives in Indiana, has been ill, seriously at times, with histoplasmosis, a rare fungus. His sister LaVerne is a nursing student in New York. "Out of all of us," says Elmore, sadly, "I seem to have had the easiest road."
He was 15, ancient by playground standards, when he started playing basketball. His junior high physical education teacher suggested the game and introduced him to the coach of Power Memorial, where Abdul-Jabbar had gone. "There were the inevitable comparisons," says Elmore. "Then they saw me play and the comparisons stopped."
Determinedly, Elmore improved, even making all-city as a junior and senior. College coaches flocked to his home. Prominent among them was Maryland's Lefty Driesell. "When I met him he was more the George C. Scott flimflam-man type," says Elmore. "After listening to him, you actually believed you could win the national championship."
On to College Park.
First came a broken left kneecap and a hip-to-ankle cast for 3 1/2 months. "I was despondent." Next: "philosophical differences with Lefty."
"Coach was a master at waving the flag, invoking God and country. And I just rebelled. It manifested itself in on-the-court behavior, not in games but in practice. You know how it is with sons and fathers. When I got away from home, I had another dad to deal with.
"There didn't seem to be room for me in the offense. I thought I was doing the dirty work, rebounding. I even thought there were racial reasons. That was immaturity."
But things changed dramatically between coach and player.
"I look at Coach now as being a lot more mellow in his approach to the game and to young men. He's much more of a well-rounded person than he was 14 years ago."
Of course, Elmore is, too. He had had a disappointing junior season, averaging 10 points and 11 rebounds. In midseason, he broke a bone in his right foot that kept him out three weeks and slowed him in remaining games. That seemed to do it.
"He was continually on me about my weight. I was 235, sometimes 240. He said it might be related to my injury problems. I couldn't see it. Then, between my junior year and senior year, I said, 'Fine, I'll do it.' My senior year, I played at 220. I averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds. I led the ACC in rebounding, made first team all-ACC, second team all-America -- and I signed a $1 million contract with the pros. And he gets some credit for that."
The only problem Driesell recalls having with Elmore was when the center considered leaving school after his junior year and signing with the pros on a hardship basis. "One time, he said I took him out of a game so he wouldn't go hardship," Driesell said. "I told him that was utterly ridiculous . . .
"Lenny was always a very intelligent young man. Thirteen hundred on the boards. He could have gone anywhere. Princeton pushed to get him. We were fortunate."
Elmore and Driesell have remained good friends. At one point, Driesell wanted him to be an assistant coach. "He's too smart for that, I guess," Driesell said. Happily, Elmore will help him recruit. Just before Elmore left for Harvard, the two talked. Says Elmore with a smile, "I told him, 'I'll always tell the truth.' And, since I'll always tell the truth, he doesn't have anything to worry about."
Similarly, Elmore remains close to former Maryland teammate and current Bullet Tom McMillen. Elmore can see them teaming up again some day. Like McMillen, Elmore is interested in politics. "Maybe I can offer him some legal expertise," he says.
Elmore, who is single, has owned a home in Maryland the last three years. It's on four acres in Highland, between Olney and Columbia. Remote enough. Once during an all-star break he got snowed in, but neighbors helped dig him out in time.
Now, Elmore is striding back toward campus and a 1 1/2-hour class. A man in a sweatsuit chewing a Bit-O-Honey falls in step. He's Charles Nesson, one of Elmore's law professors. Earlier, Elmore said, "I would love all that built-in security of the basketball world." Here, there are no exams before semester's end, no sure way to measure one's progress. One compares what he knows with what his classmates seem to know: "We go over the doctrine, analyze cases and issues, drill each other." Work, and hope. At least the professors offer encouragement. All the way back to class, Nesson chats amiably with Elmore, about this class, that paper.
A woman walking in the opposite direction slows Elmore. She tells him her basketball game is improving.
"I have a little clinic for the women students," he says, crossing Massachusetts Avenue. "She used to handle the ball like a hot potato -- she'd get it and pass it off right away. I told her, when you have the ball, you're in control. It's your show. Shoot it."
After two years with the Nets, Elmore played out his option and signed with the Knicks. Spot duty came as no surprise, but he was asked to play trapping forward. Trapping forward? Ten years at the pro game was a good round number. He filled out several law school applications. Upon his acceptance by Harvard, he reached a settlement with the Knicks on the second year of his contract. Even had they paid him nothing, he says, "I would have walked away. It was time to get up."
Elmore sits down in the back row of the large classroom. He picks up a discarded newspaper and checks the NBA box scores. "Who's this Brown with Indiana?"
Soon, a lecturer is at the board, drawing circles and triangles. For years, Elmore has been sitting in front of men drawing on blackboards. Cut here, hit the open man there.
But on those boards you wouldn't find this message: "Fund-raising bake sale for Yale strikers in Harkness."
Afterward, Elmore meets classmates at happy hour, in Harkness. The crowd forms several rows deep at the bar. Music blares. Elmore glides in among the bodies and the din. He's taller than the others but just another one of them.