Each time Texas junior forward Chris Owens steps to the free throw line, he taps his nose with his left thumb. Owens adopted the gesture this season after his mother, Minnie, told him that his great uncle, Jesse, the legendary sprinter, had done the same thing before races. "I do it as a tribute to him," Chris says. "Hopefully, I can also do something that will make future generations proud."
That sense of duty is apparent in Owens's approach to life as well as basketball. As a senior at Duncanville ( Texas) High, Owens was The Dallas Morning News player of the year, and he signed with Tulane, for which he started 27 games as a freshman. Seeking better competition and wanting to play closer to home, Owens transferred to Texas after one season. Though NCAA rules precluded Owens from appearing in games during his first season in Austin, his dedication was noticeable immediately. "He was the only guy that year who stayed in the gym after practice," says Longhorns coach Rick Barnes.
Now the 6'9", 245-pound Owens is one of the most explosive big men in the country for Texas, which through Monday was 13-3. He was among the nation's best in blocks (3.3 per game) and in rebounding (8.4). While Barnes wryly notes that Owens "doesn't run like Uncle Jesse," Owens's scoring has improved from 9.4 points last season to 14.0 this year.
Nonetheless, says Barnes, "our guys are still waiting for him to really dominate." That's because the same things that motivate Owens suffocate him at times. "Chris's biggest problem is that he's too hard on himself," says Barnes. "He doesn't think he should have any weaknesses."
That was evident after Owens went 1 for 11 in Texas's 70-51 win over Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 28. The next day, when Barnes talked to Owens about the game, Owens broke down in tears. "I told him, 'You need to stop worrying about so many things,' " Barnes says. "He tries to be everything to everybody."
While growing up in Akron, Owens watched his father, Rick, succumb to multiple sclerosis at age 45. Chris, who was 15 when his father died, remembers seeing Rick in tears one morning after struggling for two hours to dress himself for work. Rick spent the last two years of his life bedridden in a nursing home, and as Chris was leaving his father's room during what would prove to be his final visit, Rick told him, "Make sure you take care of your mom."
A history major who hopes to go to law school after his basketball career is over, Owens interned at an Austin law firm during the summer of 1999. Barnes, for one, constantly tests Owens's perspectives. When he recently overheard Owens say he wasn't a "typical black man," the comment sparked a 2�-hour debate over what Owens meant.
Owens concedes that he needs to do a better job of accepting his failures, but that doesn't mean he's about to abandon his pursuit of perfection. "I'm always going to try to do better," he says. "I want to live life the way I feel it should be lived. Then when it's all said and done, I can at least say I gave it everything I had."