As always in the first week of March, the college basketball world is focused on all-America teams, all-conference teams, arguments about who will be player of the year and who will be drafted by whom. But for an overwhelming number of college seniors, the focus is about to shift to graduation and the effort to find a job.
It is a focus that is not always easy for athletes, but for six area seniors -- Jeff Baxter of Maryland, Vernon Butler of the Naval Academy, Ralph Dalton of Georgetown, Steve Frick of George Washington, Mike Hampton of Howard and Ricky Wilson of George Mason -- it comes naturally. In fact, these six could compose the all-Jan Kemp team. None is a remedial reader, five of the six apparently will graduate on time with solid grade-point averages, and the sixth will gain his degree in December. None are all-Americas, even though a couple could make it into professional basketball under the right circumstances.
One was a Rhodes Scholar nominee, another has completed nearly a year of graduate school, another has jobs lined up, money saved and is thinking of buying a new car as a graduation present to himself.
All, despite having their lives thrown into the maelstrom of Division I basketball, say, like most students, that the period of life that's about to end has been the best four years of their lives. Steve Frick
It would be hard to find a young man who needed basketball less than Frick, the Rhodes Scholar nominee. He will begin medical school in little more than a year, and Sunday he was named a first-team academic all-America.
So why bother with four years of basketball, at a midlevel Division I school, which could only take time away from organic chemstry and independent research in neuropsychology?
"I'm a gym rat," Frick said. "I don't think I can come up with a reason other than I just love to play. Even when I go to medical school at South Carolina-Charleston , I'll be looking for a competitive game. You can be a doctor all your life, but you can only play college basketball now."
It's a wonder Frick's experiences didn't turn him off to basketball.
For more than two years, Frick suffered through almost every injury imaginable while trying to crack GW's lineup as a 6-foot-5 forward. His freshman year, he had a pinched nerve in his neck, two severely sprained ankles and a dislocated shoulder. As a sophomore, he played only four games because of a dislocated clavicle, and thus has the option of returning for a fifth year.
Somehow, Frick endured the injuries and became a starter at center for the Colonials this year and played in every game.
"If anybody had told me in high school Eastside, in Greenville, S.C. that as a college senior I'd wind up starting at center, I'd have laughed," Frick said. "Even though basketball in South Carolina isn't the worst, it's not like playing with kids from New York City or Washington, D.C., who are 6-9 and quick.
"You practice till you drop every day and then don't want to study. There's no way you can keep up completely with your classes during the season. I'm now putting in seven and eight hours a day to catch up." Mike Hampton
Hampton's route from preppy Mendel Catholic High in Chicago included a stop in Burlington, Iowa, where he attended Southeastern Junior College. Hampton hit the game-winning shot with one second to play in the Illinois state high school championship game, then went to Southeastern to learn how to handle the basketball better before entering Division I.
But Hampton's focus has changed almost completely in four years. If the two years in Iowa were a culture shock of one kind -- Hampton had never been in a predominantly white community -- then his two years at Howard have been a shock of another kind.
"There's no special athletic pride at Howard," said Hampton, whose big high school games drew more attention than some of Howard's conference games. "Not many people care. Academics are the focus at Howard. The instructors don't ask about the games; there's no 'I-know-you're-on-the-team' small talk in most cases. The athletic part of this has been a little less than I expected.
"I like the academic part the most. My work habits are so much better since I've gotten here. I'm an average student. I'll hit 2.7 now and then a B-minus . I never studied as rigorously as some other classmates. But it's tough."
Hampton has seen the toll that trying to play basketball takes on academics and doesn't like the result. He started off as a finance major, but basketball trips take him away from class too much. "For math, you have to be there, you have to talk to the professors every day," he said. "I think teams should travel on the day of games, not the day before, if at all possible. You work to catch up, and when you get back you're two steps behind."
He switched majors, to consumer research management, with a business emphasis, and will graduate in December. "Athletes are far too spoiled," Hampton said. "We need to be pushed more. I fall into that trap sometimes, and I shouldn't." Jeff Baxter
Jeff Baxter's only regret is that he doesn't have two more years left to start at guard for Maryland.
For the better part of three years, he sat on the bench, which has to be more painful for someone playing at home. Baxter attended Archbishop Carroll High School.
"I'm really proud that I stayed," Baxter said. "A lot of people in the same situation would have transferred. I went through the 'Am I not good enough? What's happening to my life?' phase. But I decided my time would come. And now that we're playing well, it's even better.
"I think when I wasn't playing, my academic productivity and my social life suffered a little bit, too. But I felt if I transferred to another school, my chances of getting my degree in four years would drop. And to transfer because you're sitting on the bench would have meant my thinking had become too basketball-oriented."
Baxter, only 21, will graduate with a degree in public relations. He is already interviewing with potential employers. Some people will remember Baxter as being one of three Maryland players suspended for one game by Coach Lefty Driesell for blowing curfew one night. But anyone familiar with Baxter knows he has always been a disciplined person and student. "The discipline, whether it's studying or making the best of a situation, comes from my family," Baxter said.
Baxter dresses stylishly and drives a classy old convertible sports car. He'd love to buy himself a new car for a graduation present, but worries that it might be too extravagant. "Maybe I'll settle for an exotic trip," he said. Ricky Wilson
Before Wilson went on his first trip with the George Mason basketball team, he had been out of the state of Virginia only once, and that was for a trip to Washington when he was a child.
Today, Wilson is a well-traveled, outspoken young man who will graduate with a degree in speech communications. He deals straight-on with the concept of the student-athlete.
"When I was in high school in Hampton ," Wilson said, "I wanted to go to Old Dominion, but they wanted me to go to prep school because they already had a point guard they wanted playing. Wilson's grades were easily high enough for him to play Division I basketball without going to prep school .
"When George Mason approached me, Coach Joe Harrington explained that there was financial help available for extra semesters if I wanted. I told him, no thanks, that I wasn't taking an extra semester. I would graduate in four years.
"It's hard being a student-athlete, but I'm satisfied with my progress for the most part. It's very difficult to be more than a C student while playing basketball. If I wasn't playing, I wouldn't accept the 2.5 or 2.6 grade average I have now. I don't think I've ever studied after a basketball game."
Wilson was recently voted to the Colonial Athletic Association's all-conference second team. He ranks second on George Mason's all-time list in assists and fifth in scoring.
"I remember the first time I saw George Mason play, they had good athletes but they weren't a team. I didn't like what I saw at all. But we have become one." Vernon Butler
Jim Butler remembers his son Vernon coming home to Beltsville from Annapolis in his sophomore year, unhappily intimating that his dad had made him attend the Naval Academy. "I got off the sofa, and said, 'Son, if that's the way you feel, pack your bags, we'll go back to school and you can tender your resignation right now.' "
Butler returned to the academy, to stay, and both he and the Midshipmen have profited enormously. Butler, who was assessed as a Division III player when he went to Howard Garfinkel's famous summer high school basketball camp, will finish his four-year career as Navy's all-time leading scorer. David Robinson can wait.
"I was a little naive," Butler said. "I didn't ask a lot of questions about the academy. I was aware of the military, but didn't know exactly what it entailed. Maryland was recruiting me heavily at the time. But I needed to play and get better right away. I'd have to sit on the bench a couple of years at Maryland, and I wouldn't have gotten any better. I wanted to go to Maryland, play in front of my friends and get all the attention their team gets."
Butler was starstruck. His father said, "Hey, Butch, if you're gonna develop and get better, wouldn't it be better to go into a program where they'll recognize your talents and your limitations also, to let you develop and advance?"
Butler said: "My dad laid it out, the advantage of having an engineering degree from the Naval Academy, the prestige, being able to play right away, getting $20,000 a year right away as an ensign, plus having no job hunt. My plebe summer was terrible. But they whipped me into shape. I don't know if I was a mama's boy, but I certainly missed home. I got over it. Coming to Navy is the best decision I ever made."
People associate Navy's recent rise to national prominence primarily with the all-America Robinson. But Butler, who was the cornerstone of Coach Paul Evans' building effort, has probably come as close to reaching his basketball potential as any Division I player in this area. "My son has profited," Jim Butler said, "and so has the program."
Vernon Butler is candid about saying he loves being part of something two NCAA appearances, three consecutive 20-victory seasons that no Navy team had ever accomplished. "It'll be great, years from now," he said, "to look back and know that we were the foundation, the very start of something." Ralph Dalton
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for one person to have made more sacrifices for a school, a coach and a team than Dalton has for Coach John Thompson and Georgetown.
Thompson recruited Dalton as a high school senior at Suitland, but asked him to go to Fishburne Military Academy for one year. At the end of that year, Dalton thought he was ready for Georgetown, but Thompson asked him to stay one more year. And Dalton did. When he finally got to Georgetown, in the first game of his career -- with nationally acclaimed recruits Patrick Ewing, Bill Martin and Anthony Jones -- Dalton injured his right knee so badly that doctors didn't know if he would walk again.
After extensive rehabilitation, Dalton played three productive seasons. He graduated last year and had Fortune 500 companies recruiting him for business training programs. But Dalton, with a year of eligibility remaining, decided to stay on, attend graduate school, support himself and play basketball. Without him, the Hoyas probably would not have been able to finish the regular season with a 22-6 record.
"When I sit down, and really look at what's happened here, I'm sure I'll recall some things that will make me very happy and some other things that will make me cry," Dalton said. "But it's been a really good experience, really good.
"There are a lot of games, won or lost, you'll remember, undoubtedly. But the thing you remember most, I think, will be the relationships developed, the guys you've shared these experiences and the special times with over the years.
"In the end, I wouldn't trade the whole package for anything in the world."