Commentary

Forceful Joey Dorsey showed up to play ... and that's a good sign

Originally Published: March 23, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- On Saturday afternoon, Joey Dorsey was hiding under a table in the Memphis locker room in Alltel Arena.

He was hoping to take a nap and avoid the media.

[+] EnlargeMemphis Reacts
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJoey Dorsey has never been lacking for personality and always seems to be the center of attention.

"I was trying to hibernate," Dorsey explained, not seeming to find the notion of a 6-foot-9, 265-pound man curled under a table to be at all ridiculous.

But his teammates went bear hunting. Chris Douglas-Roberts poured an orange Powerade on Dorsey, shocking him out of his self-imposed isolation. And when the media came into the locker room, there was Dorsey, in his chair and ready to talk.

"A very good sign," Douglas-Roberts said.

Dorsey's teammates are always anxiously looking for signs. Their national championship aspirations might rest upon the fragile mental state of their saturnine center.

Is he ready to play or ready to sulk? Is he focused or distracted? Is he happy or scowling? Is he interacting with the human race or retreating from it? Is Flaky Joey in uniform this game, or Forceful Joey?

On a day when the Tigers absolutely, positively had to have Forceful Joey to survive a fierce challenge from Mississippi State, he showed up. Showed up to stuff his stat line with 13 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots in a tense, 77-74 Memphis victory. Against State's formidable inside tandem of Charles Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado, Dorsey was everything he can be: assertive, athletic, intimidating, overpowering, relentless.

"That's Joey Dorsey when he's right," coach John Calipari said. "That's what he is. He's not always right, but when he's right, that's what he is. That's what he's capable of. … Joey was just a monster today."

Douglas-Roberts sounded downright appreciative that Forceful Joey answered the bell Sunday.

"He was definitely the focal point," he said. "An animal. When he plays like that, our team is so much better, so much better. I mean, you really can't explain it. He was everywhere. He was helping everybody. He was great today."

Dorsey has been well short of great most of this season.

This is a guy who made the Pan Am Games team last summer -- but the 13 points against the Bulldogs was the second most he has scored this season. The double-double was just his second in the past 13 games. The other one came on Senior Day, when he was honored and had his mother with him during the pregame ceremony.

In the other 11 games down the stretch, Dorsey has been a disappointment -- just about the only Tiger not to play well consistently in a 35-1 stampede into the Sweet 16. His scoring average has dipped from 8.5 as a junior to 6.9 as a senior, and Calipari even tried bringing him off the bench in five games this season.

The problem seems to be located in that curious space between Dorsey's ears. It's been that way throughout his tumultuous four years at Memphis.

He was definitely the focal point. An animal. When he plays like that, our team is so much better, so much better. I mean, you really can't explain it. He was everywhere. He was helping everybody. He was great today.

--Chris Douglas-Roberts

He's the first high school graduate from his family, and it didn't come easy -- he's 24 years old, taking the prep school route to college eligibility. A lot of people didn't think Dorsey would ever get out of the Baltimore 'hood where he grew up.

"It was tough," he said. "Coming up, I had so many people tell me I was going to be standing on the corner like so many other 6-8, 6-9 guys in Baltimore. Once I graduated from Laurinburg [Prep], I never looked back."

But he didn't always look forward, either, lapsing into sporadic bad behavior. At Memphis, his list of indiscretions include: alleged harassment of a female student that included pouring water on her head; a semi-infamous attempt to "make it rain" at the semi-infamous Plush Club last fall, triggering a brawl that resulted in the arrest of teammates Shawn Taggart and Jeff Robinson; and his furious attempt this season to charge into the stands and confront abusive UAB fans in Birmingham that was stopped only by several Memphis staffers.

He's also the guy who tugged Superman's cape last NCAA tournament, calling out none other than Greg Oden the day before Memphis played Ohio State. Oden responded on the court, making Dorsey look silly in a complete mismatch.

So you understand the general anxiety about Dorsey's mood swings.

With disarming candor, Dorsey describes himself as overly sensitive. That can be a problem when your hot-blooded Italian coach is raging at you for on-court lapses that undercut your prodigious talent.

"My teammates always tell me to just play, don't let coach yell at me and get in my head," Dorsey said. "Let it go in one ear and out the other. My mom yelled at me -- that's why we didn't get along sometimes. … That's not the best way to reach me."

It didn't work early Friday night, in Memphis' sluggish 24-point victory over No. 16 seed Texas-Arlington. Calipari was pulling his center and barking at him, and Dorsey was scowling and talking back on the Memphis bench. He regrouped and made some positive contributions later, finishing with three points and nine rebounds.

Still, the Tigers faithful remained as anxious as the players about their center. As one exasperated Memphis fan asked me here after that first-round game, "How much money has Joey Dorsey cost himself this year?"

But the year isn't over yet. And Dorsey might have started a nice little salary drive against the Bulldogs.

"I wanted to dunk every ball," Dorsey said. "I wanted to send a statement out."

The statement game began early, with Dorsey swatting away a Jamont Gordon drive. Teammates -- ever vigilant for signs -- already liked what they saw.

"I had a feeling early in the game," said Douglas-Roberts, perhaps the lead Dorsey monitor in the Memphis locker room. "He was on his toes, very active."

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesEven with freshman phenom Derrick Rose scoring and dishing, Memphis needs Joey Dorsey to work his rebounding and shot-blocking brilliance in the paint.

But what if Dorsey hadn't gotten that first block?

"I'd start thinking," he admitted.

And thinking is a dangerous thing for Dorsey on the basketball court. Relying on instinct and athleticism is his best mode of operation.

Dorsey had four of his blocks and seven of his rebounds in the first half, but the true unexpected bonus (the scoring) picked up in the second. Dorsey dunked off a lob from brilliant freshman Derrick Rose to open the second half, then added three other close-range baskets to keep Memphis ahead of the surging Bulldogs, if only barely.

For his final point, Dorsey went to the line and actually made a free throw. He missed four others, further lowering his miserable 36.4 percent season shooting from the foul line.

And even the made free throw came with some drama. Dorsey swished it and immediately pointed toward the right corner of the arena, mezzanine level. Everyone turned to see what was up.

Turned out someone had opened a curtain when Dorsey shot, bringing in a ray of sunshine. You get the feeling Dorsey could hear the beating wings of a moth in China when he's at the line, but maybe they should distract him more often. This one went in.

But it's clear that Mississippi State's Hack-A-Tiger strategy gave the Bulldogs a chance to win against the worst foul-shooting team in the tournament. Memphis went just 15-of-32 at the line, refusing to close the door on State. The Tigers -- especially Dorsey -- should expect more of that as the tournament progresses.

He said he's been working with former Memphis great Anfernee Hardaway on his free-throw form while in Arkansas. If the result is only 1-for-5 -- well, it beats 0-for-5, right?

And if Dorsey plays like a monster (Cal's word) and an animal (CDR's word) the rest of the way, the games might not be close enough for bad foul shooting to matter.

"I've got to clear my head when I step out on the court," Dorsey said. "I wasn't thinking about anything. Just go block every shot and grab every rebound."

He laughed.

"I should do that more often."

Memphis fans wholeheartedly agree.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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