A black stretch limousine pulls onto the Fox studio lot on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 11, and out steps Kansas junior forward Drew Gooden, who's perhaps the top college player not named Jason Williams. For his appearance on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, he's tricked out in remakes of the original red-and-black Air Jordans, a gray sweat suit, a backward-turned St. Louis Cardinals cap and a Michael Vick-model Atlanta Falcons jersey. "I'm not a fan," Gooden says, even though his wardrobe features eight other NFL jerseys, including Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Brian Urlacher models. "I just get 'em for the style." The ensemble is a tight look, as his pals would say, but that Cards lid serves more than one purpose. Teammates, citing Gooden's ebbing hairline, like to call him Recede Wallace.
For Gooden's 13-1 Jayhawks, the nation's newly minted No. 1 team, this is the eve of an eight-day, three-city Hell Week in which they will play at No. 11 UCLA the next afternoon, at No. 6 Oklahoma State three days later and at home against No. 5 Oklahoma on Jan. 19. It's the perfect chance for Kansas to enhance its bona fides as a contender for the national title, and SI has come along for the ride.
This is also a good opportunity for Gooden to burnish his rapidly growing rep. The son of a Finnish mother, Ulla Lear, and an African-American father, Andrew, Drew adapts to almost any setting, whether it's his grandparents' farmhouse in Jyv�skyl�, Finland, the streets of his native Richmond, Calif., or, in this case, a celebrity-filled green room in Century City. Backstage, he meets rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, erstwhile NYPD Blue actor Nicholas Turturro and former NFL great Rosie Grier.
A publicist hustles Gooden from the makeup room onto the set, and soon co-host John Salley strides in with the force of a hurricane. "Drew! Loosen up, son!" Salley screams. "Just say, 'Hey, I'm the next m—————! That's me!' "
No need, Big John. Gooden sails through his first national TV guest shot. Except for one faux pas (he describes coach Roy Williams as "homely" instead of homespun), he deftly trades barbs with Salley, laughs off comedian Tom Arnold's lame girlfriend questions and plays a stylish rendition of Boyz II Men's On Bended Knee on the studio synthesizer. He even fixes Salley with an I-know-I-belong-here half hug as he leaves.
This No. 1 thing has its perks. "That was cool," Gooden says back in the limo. "Salley had a lot of jokes, but I had some ready too."
While Gooden joins his teammates for an afternoon trip to Venice Beach, Williams drives to Manual Arts High near downtown Los Angeles. For 14 years he has built his program on Californian talent—Gooden, Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn—and with two scholarships still available he's here to evaluate a prospect from visiting Crenshaw High. "There are so many players in California, they can't all go to UCLA," Williams says. "Plus, they don't have to fly over that many great places to get from California to Kansas. If you're in New York City, you have to leave the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and the ACC and go past the Big Ten to get to us."
For Williams, a day that began with a two-hour practice at Pauley Pavilion ends with dinner at the Bel Air mansion of a Kansas athletics donor and nearly a hundred eager boosters. "I don't sleep very much," Williams confesses. "About five hours is a good night." Small wonder he sneaks 15-minute power naps on the floor of his office back at school.
SATURDAY, JAN. 12, LOS ANGELES
Williams had warned his players in practice about not being too full of themselves, but right from the start of this afternoon's game against UCLA, it appears they didn't listen. The Jayhawks commit 16 first-half turnovers—five by freshman point guard Aaron Miles—and trail 46-35 at intermission. A furious late rally pulls Kansas to within three, but the Bruins, behind Matt Barnes's 27 points, prevail in an 87-77 win, their third upset of a top-ranked team in the past three years.