Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Whaley, UC both frustrated


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Before he ever arrived on the University of Cincinnati campus in 1994, Danny Fortson was described by J.O. Stright, his legal guardian and AAU coach, as a player "who would cut your heart out."

As Fortson's All-American UC career unfolded, Bearcat fans saw first-hand what Stright was talking about. At 6-foot-7, and a chiseled 260 pounds, Fortson dared opposing players to try to stop him from scoring. He would demand the ball on the low post, then turn and power his way to the basket, where he would either score, get fouled or both.

Robert Whaley, for all his size and agility around the basket, didn't have that killer instinct. Maybe he never will.

[img]
UC head coach Bob Huggins gives Robert Whaley an earful during the South Florida game at the Shoe.
(Jeff Swinger/file photo)
It's the one thing that kept him from being the dominating inside player the UC coaching staff thought he would be when they signed him so out of Barton County (Kan.) Community College.

UC announced Monday that Whaley had left the UC program just three weeks before the end of the season "for personal reasons."

He takes with him a bundle of potential that he seemed to understand he possessed, but had no idea how to realize.

At 6-10, 260 pounds, Whaley was blessed with the size that Fortson could only dream of. He should have been able to do what Forston did and more. Instead, he was content to shoot jump shots and jump hooks.

Whaley got away with that style in junior college, where he was a two-time All-American. But it didn't work at UC, where he ran into a demanding coach in Bob Huggins and opponents who played much harder - and smarter - than he did.

When UC landed Whaley, the coaches believed they had secured the missing ingredient that would make the Bearcats a national championship contender. They already had a budding star in power forward Jason Maxiell, capable shooters in Field Williams and Tony Bobbitt, an athletic newcomer in transfer James White and a new point guard in Nick Williams.

Whaley was to be the dominating center that most college teams covet but few are able to land in an era when talented big men find their way more quickly to the NBA than ever before.

"Typically, 6-10, 260-pound guys that are talented, they're not in college anymore," assistant coach Andy Kennedy said during the first weeks of preseason practice in October.

But Whaley never measured up. He didn't play defense. He didn't rebound. He took wild shots and he didn't use his massive body to his advantage. When he underwent knee surgery on Dec. 3, it only compounded the situation. Whaley, thinking he had been rushed back into action too soon, blamed his shortcomings on the surgery. Huggins didn't see it that way.

Whaley's frustration bubbled over before the Feb. 3 Xavier game when, for the first time, he publicly questioned his decision to attend UC. But he had been frustrated long before that.

Like many first-year players at UC, Whaley believed that he was working as hard as he could. Huggins knew he wasn't. Most players, like Tony Bobbitt and Eric Hicks, eventually figure out how to take it to the next level. Whaley never did. And now he never will, at least not at UC.

When Whaley showed up at UC on one year's probation after being convicted on two counts of misdemeanor battery stemming from a fight while he was in junior college, the questions about him centered on his ability to steer clear of legal problems.

As it turned out, Whaley did a better job at staying out of trouble than he did at playing basketball.

There are no villains here. Huggins and his coaches went out of their way to help Whaley succeed. Why wouldn't they, with so much at stake? And Whaley, soft-spoken and friendly with reporters, no doubt sincerely believed that he was giving it all he had.

It just didn't work. And that's too bad for both sides.

"I'm kind of like the same as Huggs," Whaley once said. "It's hard for me and Huggs to bond with each other. But I love him because everything he tells me is right. There's just some things I don't agree with and I'm outspoken and I speak what's on my mind. You can't do that with Huggs."

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E-mail: bkoch@enquirer.com




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