Cincinnati forward Danny Fortson smiled wearily as he sat in the tiny visitors' locker room of creaky Cincinnati Gardens on Jan. 17, after the then third-ranked Bearcats had hung on to beat a too-young Xavier team 99-90 in one of the last of college basketball's great intracity rivalries. While his teammates spewed clich�s about respecting all their opponents and giving 100% every time out, Fortson refused to join that inane chorus. "No way did I want to lose to Xavier," he said. "If there's one game you don't lose at Cincinnati, it's against Xavier. Lose to Xavier, we hear about it all year. I didn't even want to think about having to put up with that."
Fortson had just made certain that he wouldn't have to put up with anything by scoring 40 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, both career highs. He may be only a sophomore and not yet 20 years old, but on an experienced, talent-rich team, he is the man in charge. "Next to him on the court, everyone looks like a kid," says junior guard Damon Flint of the 6'7", 260-pound Fortson. "If you don't guard him exactly right, forget it."
Teams have tried just about everything to stop Fortson this season. Xavier coach Skip Prosser, for example, double-teamed him in the post after Fortson had scored 19 first-half points. Fortson patiently kicked the ball out to Flint and junior guard Darnell Burton, who combined to hit 6 for 6 from three-point range. When the Musketeers tried to quicken the pace late in the game, Fortson overwhelmed them inside. "Once he catches it down there, it's two points," Prosser said after Xavier lost. "He either scores or you foul him."
Fortson's emergence is hardly a surprise. After Cincinnati won a recruiting battle with Michigan and Massachusetts for him, Fortson averaged 15.1 points per game as a freshman. But at the end of the season, he told Bearcats coach Bob Hug-gins that he felt as if he had been pushed around inside and had to get stronger. "He knew what he needed to do to get better," Hug-gins says. "He worked all summer in the weight room, and he worked on improving his footwork. He's stronger and more mobile now. That's a pretty good combination."
Fortson went from a strong 245 pounds to an immovable 260. Yet he appears light on his feet, runs the floor well on the Cincinnati fast break and can step outside and shoot the jumper. "He has great offensive skills," Huggins says, "but he's still learning to play the whole game."
Even though Cincinnati was 12-1 after Sunday night's 70-68 upset loss at Alabama-Birmingham, Huggins often sounds mournful when talking about how these Bearcats can't play defense the way his 1992 Final Four team did. He was so disturbed by their inability to stop Xavier in the second half, when the Musketeers cut a 17-point deficit to six in the last six minutes, that he kept the locker room door shut for 15 minutes after the game. "I'm not a believer in the theory that you learn by losing," he says. "You make mistakes when you win, and you should be able to learn from them, too."
Some of Huggins's players have made mistakes that have nothing to do with basketball. Starting center Art Long, who attended three junior colleges before enrolling at Cincinnati, pleaded no contest to a charge of selling marijuana to an undercover police officer while at Dodge City ( Kans.) Junior College in 1993. Last spring Long and Fortson were involved in a bizarre incident with a mounted policeman that ended with Long's being charged for assault—on the horse. He was later acquitted, but that didn't stop two Xavier fans from showing up for last week's game in a horse costume. Long also had a domestic-violence charge against him dropped last fall when he agreed to undergo counseling.
And then there's Burton, who was supposed to sit out the season after "violating athletic department rules" last spring. According to published reports, that violation was a positive result for marijuana in a random drug test. But this fall the Cincinnati administration amended its substance abuse policy, reducing the penalty for a first-time offense from a whole season to 10% of a season. That meant Burton had to sit out four games—two exhibitions and routs of Wyoming and North Carolina-Wilmington. "I learned my lesson," says Burton.
The Bearcats continue to learn on the court, too. Xavier, which starts three freshmen, threw everything it had at Cincinnati in the second half, but the Bearcats did what they do best down the stretch: They got the ball to Fortson. "If it's close, you want an open layup or the ball in Danny's hands," Flint said. "His touching it is just about as good as the open layup."
Fortson is, after all, the go-to guy, money in the bank, the step-up guy, the main man....