Take off your shoes and step inside the apartment, where every object has its place. Set your kicks next to a pair of black high-tops with the name BIGGIE stitched on the side, next to two backpacks propped near the door for a quick getaway. Now, walk on past the framed Bob Marley photos. Check out the white carpet. Spotless. The bathrooms? Immaculate. In the den, you'll find an ironing board set up near three different laundry baskets. "I gotta separate my colors," Salim Stoudamire says. In the bedroom, the bookshelf below the TV is filled with at least four dozen cataloged basketball videotapes. And in the corner next to the bed, the vacuum cleaner stands sentinel-straight and ready for action.
If Stoudamire, the supremely talented Arizona guard, remains a mystery after four years on campus, the reason may be right here in the hills west of Tucson. His place isn't just clean--it's meticulously ordered in a way that suggests a systematic energy at work. Items are laid out at perpendicular angles. On the kitchen table, three rolls of athletic tape are lined up next to a pair of cutters and a couple of cell phones. On the counter, a stack of phone books is positioned near various plastic cards (AAA, Safeway, CatCard), a Talib Kweli ticket stub and a collection of pennies placed in rows to form an elaborate cross. When Stoudamire is asked what possessed him to take on such an impromptu art project, he just smiles and shrugs. Sometimes even he can't explain why he does things a certain way. Teammate Isaiah Fox, though, has his suspicions. "I'm neat," says the junior forward. "But with Salim, it's like he has OCD."
Stoudamire prefers to call himself a perfectionist, and it's evident in everything he does on the court, from the way he's always wiping his hands on his shorts and shoes to the deliberate, almost soporific manner in which he takes (and sinks nearly 90% of) his foul shots, to the quick release that launches his deadly rainbow three, the nation's best (sorry, J.J. Redick, the numbers-53% vs. 41%-don't lie). His shooting, passing and stellar defense make him a top contender for Pac-10 Player of the Year. And as scion of a hoops-playing family that includes his cousin Damon, the 6'1" Salim has the potential to become the greatest Stoudamire of all.
But as his college days tick down, an air of doubt surrounds the enigmatic southpaw. Too often, Stoudamire's unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfection has sent him into funks and isolated him from teammates. His tendency to lose himself in his inner turmoil has drawn the ire of Lute Olson, who has suspended Stoudamire twice in the past two seasons, essentially for moping. At its core, the clash between coach and player is one of conflicting systems, with Stoudamire struggling to align his personal feng shui with the time-tested structure of Olson's program. In the Arizona family, players are groomed to be leaders. But what happens when the leadership you demand of someone seems out of character? Over the next few weeks, the Wildcats will find out-because the fate of their NCAA Tourney run rests squarely with Stoudamire.
RISING ABOVE the buzz of lights and rumble of bouncing balls, the coach's voice punctuates a lateseason practice with a staccato of admonishments. Make the pass! Take the hit! Don't foul the driver!
Olson never swears-the closest he comes is the occasional "holy Toledo" or "my goodness"-but he is constantly talking, yelling, critiquing. This isn't the charming, grandfatherly icon most people see, but the unwavering disciplinarian. Intense as ever at age 70, Coach O has a way of getting under your skin, zeroing in on your slightest foible until you correct it. At U of A, it's become a rite of passage: you're not a part of the Wildcat family until you've spent time in Olson's doghouse.
Family isn't just a word the Cats shout coming out of huddles; it's the foundation. In Olson's system, even the best freshmen are often role players, taking their cues from the upperclassmen. During Stoudamire's first two seasons, the leaders were Jason Gardner, Luke Walton and Rick Anderson, a gregarious trio who soothed egos and carved out tough victories-the prototypical Olson surrogates. In fact, one of the more impressive things about the Zona program is how many free spirits-Gilbert Arenas, Tom Tolbert, the late Bison Dele-have felt at home in this family, blossoming under such strict guidance. For 22 years, Olson has been able to accommodate nearly every oddball kid, provided he bought in to the coach's methods. But the reserved and moody Stoudamire has proved to be his toughest challenge. "Salim's a good reminder of my educational background," Olson says. "My master's degree is in educational psychology, and I've tested every theory I've ever had."
Perhaps something was lost in translation during Stoudamire's journey from Pacific Northwest to desert Southwest. Shooting backyard baskets is about all he remembers doing growing up in Portland, Ore. He was 10 years younger than his nearest sibling, and dad Charles, who balled at Portland State and coached Salim for a year in high school, saw more value in his son hoisting shots alone than playing Pops one-on-one. (Salim's brother Antoine starred at Oregon; sister Karis and two uncles also played college ball.) The kid wasn't exactly a loner-he's lifelong friends with current Kansas seniors Aaron Miles and Michael Lee-but even back then Salim had a tendency to exhaust his companions, perfecting his J deep into the night.
At first, Stoudamire and Zona seemed like a perfect fit. The two names already had a fine history, with Damon (nicknamed Biggie for his big heart) leading U of A to its second Final Four, in 1994. When other schools started calling on Salim, he told them he was going to Tucson even before he'd received an offer from Olson. Once he got there, he started 28 of 34 games his first season, averaging 12.8 points as the team's third option. "Freshman year was my favorite year," Salim says. "New environment, new people, college life. I was on my own. I was fully by myself."
Sophomore year wasn't so smooth. A high-ankle sprain slowed his start, and by late January he'd grown tired of Olson's badgering. After being benched for the final 14 minutes in a win over Arizona State, Stoudamire called his mother in tears, saying he wanted to transfer. Then he called his father. Charles and Theresa had split when Salim was 13, but both parents were on the same page this time: C'mon Salim, don't be stupid. Stoudamire answered the challenge. Preparing for the next game, Coach O asked him who was going to lead the Cats after Gardner, Walton and Anderson moved on. When Salim volunteered, Olson provided the riposte: "You haven't proved to me you can lead this team." A fired-up Stoudamire went out and scored 32 as the Cats blew out Kansas.
The back-and-forth continued into the following season, when Olson turned the reins over to his juniors: Stoudamire, Fox and center Channing Frye. Fox went down with a knee injury in the second game and took a redshirt. Frye admits he was overwhelmed. And Stoudamire? Underwhelmed. On the court, he was too passive. Off it, he almost never hung out with teammates, preferring to spend most of his time at his crib in the hills, watching tapes of Damon's playing days with Toronto.
Salim says there was so much negativity that the Wildcats reminded him of his cousin's Trail Blazers squad: "Lot of talent, no chemistry." Things only got worse when the underclassmen tried to take over. Mustafa Shakur, the starting point guard as a freshman, was dubbed Golden Child by teammates because of Olson's kid-glove treatment. "I've never seen a guy go through a whole year and not get yelled at," Frye says. When Stoudamire was suspended for a home game with Washington for "failure to meet team responsibilities," a rumor swirled that he had picked a squab with his backcourt mate, though both he and Shakur deny it. "I'm pretty sure if I got into a fight with someone on the team, I wouldn't be on the team," Salim says.
Still, his return this fall came with conditions. Following a 20—10 season that ended with a firstround Tourney loss to Seton Hall, Olson charged Frye and Stoudamire with the task of bringing the squad together. So the two began organizing barbecues and bowling nights. "I think I did the most maturing over the summer," Salim says. "I was constantly thinking about my projected image." Olson was pleased with the progress. He says despite rumors to the contrary, he did not threaten to take Stoudamire's scholarship away. At the same time, he wouldn't guarantee him a spot on the team. Salim would have to earn it.
ROLLING BEHIND the wheel of a white Kia Spectra, Stoudamire heads for the Cheba Hut, a sandwich shop just south of McKale Center. It's a windy but bright early-February afternoon, a day before the Cats host Cal. As he patiently waits for some rube in an SUV to vacate a parking spot, Salim slinks in his seat. Above the street, attached to lamp posts, banners display the faces of Zona sports stars. Frye smiles down on his teammate. "Why aren't you up there?" Stoudamire is asked. "I don't know," he says with a chuckle. "I guess I've got a bad rep."
Inside the restaurant, he orders a Thai Stick sub, blunt size. The Cheba Hut, a culinary ode to marijuana where the "toasted" subs take on the names of various weed strains (don't worry, Mom, nothing illegal here), seems like an unusual place to find a Stoudamire, considering that Damon has been busted twice for possession. Then again, Salim is an unusual guy. He talks about how he's turned to meditation and writing in his journal to keep from internalizing his anger. He likens himself to Rasheed Wallace. "He has the passion to win, but people perceive him as crazy," Salim says. "I've hung out with him, and he's one of the nicest guys ever."
The scowl, the mope, the grouse--it's become something of a pastime around Tucson to read Stoudamire's expressions and speculate as to why he always looks so damn mad. "Everybody wants to know what makes Salim Salim," says junior swingman Hassan Adams, a good friend. "He's just a guy who's to himself. He's really closed in. He has his own little box, and he doesn't really open up to nobody." Watching from a distance, it's easy to mistake Stoudamire's passion for surliness. He throws up his hands in disgust when a teammate fails to find him with a pass, and he can appear critical of the other Cats when trying to direct them on the court. "I can't hide my feelings," he says. "I'm trying to channel that, but it's a work in progress."
His frustration with others almost always stems from his frustration with himself. Part of his problem is, he's such a good shooter that, says Olson, "it's kind of shocking when he misses." Shooting funks, like an unfolded pile of clothes, torture Stoudamire. He has a tendency to get lost replaying errant jumpers in his mind. And then he pouts, so much so that assistant coach Rodney Tention once threatened to keep a pacifier on the bench.
At home against Utah on Dec. 11, Stoudamire's problem wasn't missing shots, but finding them. Using a box-and-one, the Utes held him scoreless on just one field goal attempt. Instead of imploring teammates to set more screens, he sulked. "It was my fault," Salim says. "I got mad. I wasn't that guy in the huddle jacking everybody up." Arizona pulled out a five-point win, but Olson was furious at his star. The next day, he told Stoudamire he was suspending him for the Marquette game and holding him out of practice for the week. As Salim recalls, "He said, 'How could you be like that? You should thrive off those situations. In a close game, you should want to take the big shot.' "
Olson has never hesitated to sit his players. A partial list of Wildcats who've been benched or suspended could easily fill the U of A Hall of Fame: Arenas, Gardner, Richard Jefferson, Loren Woods, Will Bynum, Miles Simon, Joseph Blair. And Stoudamire has a long history of getting the boot. Antoine points out that even though his brother still holds the state of Oregon's 4A career scoring record, with 2,219 points, Salim could have put it out of reach if he hadn't been suspended for 11 games over his last three seasons. "I'm running out of ideas," Olson told the press after benching Stoudamire. "It's almost like he needs shock treatment to get it."
But for Salim, this suspension was the start of something new. As he watched from the sideline in Milwaukee, something finally clicked. "He acted the way you need to act, supportive," Olson says. "It wasn't as if he felt sorry for himself." When Salim returned to action, his teammates could sense a change too. He wasn't yelling at them; he was talking to them. He was actually smiling. "He did a 180," Frye says. "He was like, now I know what I have to do. I know what's expected."
In his first game back, on Dec. 21, Stoudamire scored 23 points in 20 minutes against Manhattan. A few weeks later, wearing a headband below his Heat Miser hair for the first time this season, he busted out for five threes and 21 points against USC. "No more Mr. Nice Guy," he said afterward.
But Olson still wasn't convinced. The true test came two days later, when Stoudamire was pulled early in the second half against UCLA after failing to hustle on a Bruins steal. The senior thinks it was there, as he stewed on the pine, that he finally broke free of his moody self. "I thought, I've been in this situation so many times, and I let it affect the whole game," he says. "I told myself, just be Salim, and I went out there and took over the game." He scored 17 of Arizona's 18 points over a nine-and-a-half-minute stretch. After the Bruins tied the score at 73, Stoudamire sized up defender Arron Affalo and nailed the game-winning three from 26 feet with just 2.5 seconds left, finishing with 32 points. "I figured he'd penetrate and pull up," said a shocked Affalo. "I didn't think he would shoot from the volleyball line."
Stoudamire was just warming up. He scored 27 at Oregon and 25 at Oregon State. And when the Wildcats returned home to face Washington, a team that had beaten them three straight the season before, he did something totally out of the norm. With the Cats trailing by seven at the half, Salim burst into the locker room and gave a stirring speech. "We're better than this," he said, throwing in a few expletives for effect. His teammates were stunned. "People were amazed he came at them from a different angle," Frye says. Adds Adams, "Any other game, he would have said nothing." Salim backed up his word in the second half, scoring 12 of his 25 points, including a driving, leaning bankshot with 44 seconds left, as Zona stormed back to win by nine.
AS STOUDAMIRE and Olson push for one last run together, there is finally détente between them. At times, the player can still infuriate his coach, turning away from Olson's in-your-face lectures during timeouts only to be yanked back again. After four years, Salim realizes Arizona basketball is not a democracy. But for the most part, he sees eye to eye with Olson, and he's taking the time to talk with him more, to let him inside. Olson, meanwhile, has gone national in defense of his star, recently calling out Dick Vitale: "How in the world can somebody continue to go on TV and say Redick is the greatest shooter in the country?" Later, he added, "People shouldn't be making statements they can't back up."
Stuff like that makes Stoudamire glad he stuck it out and that Olson stuck by him. "I think a lot of coaches would have given up by now," he says. Instead, Salim is sounding more and more like the leader Arizona needs. "I know it's all on my shoulders. Sometimes, it's mind-blowing. It's an uphill climb, but I'm up for the challenge. The main thing is me believing in myself. At the end of the day, it's going to kill you if you're not being yourself."
Sometimes it just takes longer to believe. Sometimes it takes longer for people and things to find their place.