Forte goes from shadows to UNC spotlight

Updated: October 18, 2000, 1:53 PM ET
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As a freshman, Joseph Forte arrived in Chapel Hill without much notice. After all, he was a quiet, unassuming presence who did not generate too much interest when he walked into a room. Speak above a whisper and you drown him out.

But when he stepped onto the court for the first time in a Tar Heel uniform, Forte commanded attention.

In his first college game, Forte scored 24 points against Southern California, and earned the MVP trophy at the Maui Invitational before he had his first midterm exam. Immediately the nation took notice, and Forte has impressed ever since.

Following a spectacular 1999-00 season in which he became the first freshman in Carolina history to lead the Tar Heels in scoring, Forte is now considered one of the top players in the country -- at any position. Forte's mug is plastered across every basketball publication in America, yet he remains that quiet, unassuming presence off the court.

He only allows a shy grin to come out when he talks about all of the attention he's getting entering his sophomore campaign.

"It's fun, I like it," Forte says matter of factly. "But it's a responsibility. If you see it, other players see it too, and they're going to come after you. I'd better be ready to take everybody's best shot."

Judging by his summer, Forte is prepared to meet the challenge of stardom. He worked on his game at home in Maryland, and played in the Washington D.C. Kenner League.

"I improved my speed, my ball-handling and my strength. I've gained about six or seven pounds," said Forte on the eve of Midnight Madness.

Forte worked on handling the ball in anticipation of playing some point guard this season. Although he won't say he wants the position, the departure of Ed Cota may dictate he run the point, while also being the offense's focal point..

"Adam Boone will play point. I will assist him at times, to give him a breather, but it's Adam's job," Forte said. But when pressed a bit, Forte admits he likes to be in control of the ball. "I like to have the ball in my hands, and I would like to be that person, yes.

"But we have a point guard."

New head coach Matt Doherty doesn't mind Forte's quiet ambition to play point.

"I like that he wants it, but he needs to improve his ball-handling. He will bring the ball up court as a two guard, and he will handle it more," Doherty said. "I know he wants to play in the NBA someday, and ball-handling is a something he needs to refine."

Forte's ability to handle the ball may be the only aspect of his game that observers don't drool over.

It's fun, I like (the media attention). but it's a responsibility. If you see it, other players see it too, and they're going to come after you. I'd better be ready to take everybody's best shot.
Joe Forte,
UNC sophomore guard

Forte is fluid, with an amazing ability to score the ball. He averaged 16.7 points in his debut season, shooting nearly 46 percent from the field. He can shoot off the dribble, find openings in a defense to attack the basket and instinctively makes great reads. When he decides to take the ball off the dribble, Forte seems to just glide past defenders.

His latest overall display of his talent came during the summer when Forte impressed observers as a member of the USA Select Team that worked out against the U.S. Olympic Team prior to Sydney. The experience was invaluable for Forte, who quickly made an impact, but saw just where his game rates against the world's best.

"I felt like I fit in with those guys, but there is a big difference in size, strength and experience," Forte said of the NBA players on the Dream Team. "It really opened my eyes. I think I'm pretty good, but not as good as I thought I was. I felt insecure about my game at times."

One thing that made an impression on Forte was how little space there was to operate out on the court. "Everybody was so big, there was no room to move out there.

"Everything was so much tougher. If you did get by someone, you had to try and go over Alonzo Mourning or Kevin Garnett. That's not easy."

Forte was also impressed with how business-like the NBA players were.

"At the end of practice, Alonzo, Ray (Allen) and Shareef (Abdur-Rahim) would all run. I realized its not just a game to them, that it's a job," Forte said. "They took it seriously."

Some of the Dream Teamers kept the college players at arms length, in no hurry to make new friends, while others were very helpful.

"Steve Smith and Ray Allen were great," said Forte. "Steve would give me advice while we were playing, like to stay lower so he couldn't knock me off balance. I learned a lot from them."

Forte didn't hang out with any of pros, but roomed with Kansas sophomore Nick Collison, and listened intently to Notre Dame's Troy Murphy, who told Forte all about his new coach's reputation of hard-driving conditioning.

"I didn't ask Troy, he couldn't wait to tell me," Forte said. "I wanted to know, though, mostly about the running. I didn't want to be surprised."

While Forte wasn't surprised by Doherty's conditioning, he certainly was impressed. "We do this thing called the 'Sprint Ladder.' It's the toughest running I have done. I hate that thing, but it will help me be ready for people coming after me."

Being prepared to be a target is at the forefront of Forte's thoughts, because he has something unique driving him to be better. Forte may appear humble to the masses, but it is evident that he is supremely confident in his ability, and he thrives on the attention he gets from media and defenses.

When asked what gave him particular fulfillment from last year's success, Forte couldn't contain his engaging smile. "I was overshadowed in high school (by DeMatha teammate Keith Bogans and local product DerMarr Johnson). Not anymore."

Not ever again.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst