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Off court, many calls go his way


COLLEGE PARK -- There were no bleachers in Reckord Armory, only folding metal chairs and rows of college coaches wedged around two courts where the action was furious, if not always fast.

On opening night of the Charlie Weber/Maryland Invitational basketball tournament last weekend, many coaches chose to scout a game between Baltimore's Charm City team and an AAU club from Richmond in the cavernous gym adjacent to Maryland's administration building.

What they saw during this stop on the national recruiting trail was Johnny Hemsley's latest college audition, an impressive 22-point performance that carried Charm City to a 69-62 victory.

For tournament routine -- cozy gyms, overflow coaching crowds and endless games -- is old hat. The week before, he had gone all the way to London to play for a U.S. Select team against foreign competition.

"Best trip I ever had," Hemsley said. "I enjoyed myself to the point I thought about not coming home. The people were so polite and everything was fun."

Fun in London was being named MVP of the tournament, scoring 50 points in one game and averaging 30 for the tourney. It is no wonder, then, that Hemsley's phone hasn't stopped ringing. It's the game within the game.

"The whole recruiting situation I knew would be hard," he said. "Now I'm finding what it's all about. Day after day, seven, eight calls a day. Each call is 20 minutes. Mostly, it's assistant coaches . . . . Sometimes when I'm studying, it's somewhat of a problem. Once it's over, it'll be a great experience."

The recruiting experience is what attracted more than 300 of the best high school players and more than 130 coaches to Cole Field House last weekend. Among the coaches on hand were Maryland's Gary Williams, Virginia's Jeff Jones, Georgetown's John Thompson and Michigan's Steve Fisher. All the local schools' coaches -- including Johns Hopkins' Bill Miller -- were there, too.

If the temptation to run and gun in front of that high-profile crowd was palpable, Hemsley managed to resist. On this night, he played within himself and did not force the issue.

"There's always that temptation," he said. "But when I go on the court, my objective is winning. If it takes shooting 50 times, that's what I'll do."

Last weekend was a splendid recruiting tool for Williams' Maryland program. Several recruits made the trip in for what amounted to a free visit under NCAA guidelines.

Most conspicuous of those was 6-11 Jermaine O'Neal of Columbia, S.C. It took special effort for O'Neal to participate. Because of a Scholastic Assessment Test class he attended Saturday morning at home, he didn't arrive until late that night. Then he played two games Sunday with a team from Lebanon, Pa.

"We didn't have any plays," O'Neal said. "We were just running up and down the court."

O'Neal scored 22 points and blocked a shot at the buzzer to secure a 64-63 victory over the Madison (N.Y.) Broncos in the morning. Then he scored 13 and took 11 rebounds in a 57-42 loss to a Boston team in the afternoon. More than that, he was an intimidating presence inside.

Maryland, Kentucky and South Carolina are among the schools recruiting O'Neal, who had four home visits last week and four more scheduled this week. O'Neal said he came to College Park to see the campus and to let some other coaches see him. "People were here waiting to see me play," he said.

Bob Gibbons, who publishes All-Star Sports, ranks O'Neal as the nation's second-best player behind Philadelphia's Kobe Bryant, son of former NBA player Joe Bryant. (Both played at Cole over the weekend.) Gibbons said he thinks Maryland has a decent chance to land O'Neal.

"Jermaine does not have the test scores yet, but if he signs early, it could be Maryland," Gibbons said. "If he doesn't, the home-court advantage goes to the Gamecocks . . . . He's a guy who makes all the pieces fit [at Maryland]. I could see a Final Four team with him."

Another player the Terps have a shot at is Hemsley. Maryland is one of seven schools he said he's considering, along with California, Pitt, Clemson, Georgetown, Syracuse and Connecticut.

Like O'Neal, Hemsley is working overtime in preparation to take the SAT in October (the early signing period begins in November). Southern coach Meredith Smith said he expects Hemsley to meet the NCAA's tougher SAT requirements and elevate his game.

"I'm confident that it is a hurdle he's going to cross," Smith said of the SAT. "As for next season, people are saying he's one of the top 20 players in the country; I expect him to perform like he's in the top 10. He's a great player. Because he's not selfish, you won't see how awesome he is."

Bill Spotts, who runs the Charm City Classic high school tournament and is director of the Charm City AAU team, said Maryland has a "great shot" at getting Hemsley.

"John is the type kid who didn't get a lot of recognition, and now he's starting to get it," Spotts said. "He is a tremendous prospect."

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