It is Southeastern Conference media Day—or Days, since a single day isn't enough to permit 10 coaches to be heard if Louisiana State's voluble Dale Brown is one of them. Brown is the preeminent gadfly to the college sports establishment, and on this November afternoon he has brought along Jose Vargas, his center from the Dominican Republic, to add a few words of comment about the NCAA and its rules.
"Say you are my friend," Vargas begins in Spanish-inflected speech as reporters cluster about him in an Atlanta hotel ballroom. "I want to buy you a new suit. I can do that. Say I am hungry, and you want to buy me a hamburger. Can you do that?"
No, someone says, clearly aware of the NCAA prohibitions on booster gift giving of any sort to A scholarship athletes.
"See what I mean?" says Jose.
Nearby, forward Bernard Woodside, who is about to embark on his third season at LSU, gives his head a bemused shake as he watches Vargas perform. "Dale Brown," he says, "with an accent."
During his 3½ years in Baton Rouge, Vargas has taken in lots of crawfish, life and basketball, even if the latter fact isn't readily apparent every time he steps on the court. He's 6'10", 228 pounds. He has shoulders that begin somewhere around his earlobes and mitts that could palm a small Caribbean nation. "When he shakes your hand," says Brown, "he's dang near scratching your elbow."
If Vargas were an automobile, he would sport one of those bumper stickers, so prevalent on the highways of Louisiana, that read s——HAPPENS. With Vargas at center, LSU's fortunes are at the mercy of the officials every time the ball goes into the post. On a typical possession Vargas violates so many rules—take your pick: three seconds, traveling, charging—that it's all the referees can do to sort out the infractions. And by the time they have, Vargas is likely to have either laid a brick or fumbled the ball away, thus rendering all that official consternation moot.
After starting at center early last season, Vargas soon won a spot on the bench by failing to get off a shot in 17 minutes of one game and going 0 for 2 in the next, with both misses coming on attempted dunks. Indeed, in the category of defective dunking, Vargas is without peer. He had one abortive slam last season, a back-of-the-rim number against Oklahoma, that on its rebound traced a 30-foot parabola back toward midcourt and promised to give birth to an exhibition sport in Seoul. His .534 career free throw percentage has contributed to a number of LSU losses, too, although he has now grasped the value of improving on it. "It is something, like, you have a business," Vargas says. "A loophole over here loses $5 a day. That's not much. But you lose $150 a month. And in a year you lose almost 2,000 bucks! It hunts you down."
Yet there must be something talismanic about Vargas and his presence among the Tigers. His exuberance, his all-encompassing hugs of teammates, has played a big part in Louisiana State's unexpected trips to the final eight and Final Four the past two seasons. And on those occasions when the planets are aligned just right, he'll even do such things as score 20 points and get eight rebounds, as he did in that Oklahoma game. And while he still has his moments without control, Vargas has clearly improved. "We used to have little side bets going on press row on how quickly Jose would pick up his third foul," says Bruce Hunter of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. "But he seems to have gotten over the hump."
At the very least, Vargas, who has a surprisingly effective little jump hook, can always count on playing Florida twice a year. He has his way with the Gators' taller and more highly touted center, Dwayne Schintzius.