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UConn's Gay shooting for stardom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STORRS, Conn. - Rudy Gay cut a wide swath across the Baltimore basketball landscape.

Few doubt that he could do the same on a national scale.

Connecticut isn't expecting much from the freshman, only that he be the best in a line of great wings that has turned out Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler and Ben Gordon.

The right elbow, pointed at the goal before release, is reminiscent of the form of Reggie Lewis, who was very good to Jim Calhoun.

The Archbishop Spalding grad connects other dots: Juan Dixon and Carmelo Anthony prepped in the Baltimore Catholic League and became the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament. Why can't I?

"Everyone," Gay says, "wants to be that guy."

Many dream, but few are as gifted as Gay, who can play anything from power forward to point guard for the defending NCAA champions.

After a practice last month, he nodded at all that name-dropping and prepared to work on a plate of cake and cookies as sweet as his game.

When the Huskies were timed in the 40-yard dash, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gay certified himself as the quickest guy in a program that feeds off a baseline-to-baseline style. He had little experience facing the basket two years ago, but Calhoun says Gay is probably his third-best ballhandler. Coaches push an inside-out game, and Gay combines spectacular dunks with three-point range and the ability to pull up off the dribble.

Connecticut is in a 10-day break, stewing over Thursday's upset loss at Massachusetts. Besides semester exams, Gay must also solve a shooting slump, but his struggles figure to be temporary.

"Rudy Gay is young," said Calhoun, the Huskies' coach, "but his talent is something that could be very, very special."

Gay won't turn 19 until August, but he's already left a substantial mark, at least in Baltimore.

He is an amiable, polite kid, but all that potential made Gay one of the most controversial high school players the area has ever seen.

In his sophomore season at Baltimore County's Eastern Tech, the Mavericks earned their first and only trip to College Park for the state semifinals. When Gay transferred to Spalding after the start of his junior year, in September 2002, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association reviewed its transfer rules.

A much larger recruiting ruckus was labeled "Rudygate" by some spurned Maryland fans.

In the summer of 2003, Gay emerged as a major national recruit and listed the Terps and Syracuse first among his preferred college destinations, ahead of the Huskies.

Gay signed a national letter of intent with Connecticut in November 2003. Ten days later, the Huskies played an exhibition game against the Beltway Ballers, who were affiliated with the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center, the biggest constant in his basketball development. A community association benefited - the standard payment for preseason foes is approximately $25,000 - but some perceived a quid pro quo.

Maryland's Gary Williams, among the coaches who lost out on Gay, lobbed a verbal grenade at Calhoun. Gay spent his senior season earning honors and heckles.

"His skin is as thick as anyone's I've ever coached," Spalding coach Mike Glick said. "Rudy had to endure a lot of abuse last season. From the day he announced that he was going to Connecticut to the last all-star game at the Comcast Center, it was a steady stream of humiliation and boos. He handled it great, used it as motivation."

The episode greased the way for a Big Ten proposal already in the NCAA legislative pipeline. This season, exhibitions could be played only against other college teams.

"A lot of kids benefited off that game," Gay said. "I know I didn't. There would be a lot of things I could have bought if I had that money, but a lot of kids benefited. It helped a lot of people. It [the NCAA rulebook] shouldn't have been changed because of that."

Had the controversy never occurred, Calhoun would still get emotional discussing Gay.

When they study Gay's square shoulders and knack in traffic, Big East veterans think of Reggie Williams, who helped Georgetown to its only NCAA title in 1984. Calhoun mentioned that similarity, but he links Gay first to Lewis, who had been a lesser-known teammate of Williams at Dunbar High.

Calhoun came to Connecticut after a fine run at Northeastern, where he relied on several Baltimoreans who had been developed at Cecil-Kirk by Anthony Lewis, who remains the coach there.

The rec center's recent success stories include Dixon at Maryland and Josh Boone, the sophomore center at Connecticut who had a lot to do with Gay going north. A generation ago, Cecil-Kirk's favorite son was Reggie Lewis, who blossomed from a Dunbar reserve into a star at Northeastern under Calhoun. Lewis was emerging as the leader of the Boston Celtics when he died in 1993.

"The guys at Cecil-Kirk called Reggie 'Sam,' and they called me 'Big Sam,' " Gay said. "Coach Calhoun calls me 'Truck.' That's what he called Reggie at Northeastern."

When Gay shoots a jumper, the comparison comes naturally.

"Rudy is taller than Reggie, but when he shoots, he brings the ball back the same way Reggie used to," Calhoun said. "As well as he jumps, he makes it that much more difficult to defend his jump shot, a motion he does very naturally. They have similar personalities, too. Rudy exudes an unspoken warmth. You don't see many kids like him."

Calhoun said Gay shows him something new seemingly every day, and raves about his aptitude at both ends of the floor.

"Rudy's got the wingspan of a 7-1 guy," Calhoun said. "We're telling him to give his man space, because he can let someone get off a shot, then block it."

Assistant coach George Blaney talked about a quality coaches love, that Gay "doesn't think anything he's taught is beneath him." Not all of the lessons have come on the court, as Gay learned when he wore an earring to the weight room.

"Where do you think you are?" Calhoun asked.

The nation's best college players head to the NBA as quickly as possible, so Connecticut would probably settle for two seasons out of Gay. Calhoun can caustically dissect his players' shortcomings in public, but he has given the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year a wide berth.

Somewhat more patient than the normal teen, Gay is not going to sweat coming off the Connecticut bench.

He averaged a team-high 15.5 points during a four-game exhibition stop in London Thanksgiving week, but has come off the bench in a deep rotation. Juniors Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown are veterans at the shooting guard and small forward spots, respectively, but Gay will be prominent on a team where only Boone will likely average more than 30 minutes.

Gay got his first double double in a comeback win over Indiana, but got bumped around by Northeastern and Massachusetts this week, when he shot a combined 7-for-28. His two free throws with 8.8 seconds left tied the game against UMass, but he took more shots than Anderson and Brown combined in the Huskies' 61-59 loss. Despite the recent shooting woes, Gay is averaging 10.2 points and 6.2 rebounds.

"I feel," Gay said, "as though my time is coming."

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