Mark Aguirre leaned forward in his seat at The Seminary and bowed his head for a moment, as if to pray. Behind him the afternoon sun irradiated a stained-glass window. Except for the clatter of a passing El train, The Seminary was silent when Aguirre began to speak. "I don't know how all this got started," he said. "The things people are saying, that I have an attitude problem, that I'm a bad actor—who starts those rumors?"
If Aguirre, a forward from DePaul who is considered the most talented player available in next Tuesday's NBA draft, was feeling like the victim of character assassination last week, he was at least in the right neighborhood for it. The Seminary, for years a favored restaurant among DePaul players, is situated across the street from the old Biograph Theater. It was outside the Biograph that on July 27, 1934 the notorious Lady in Red betrayed the nefarious John Dillinger, sending him to an untimely reward in a hail of G-men's bullets. Aguirre, on the other hand, has been watching his reputation suffer a series of small deaths. He knows that pro scouts and general managers are puzzling over whether he is a jump-shooting angel or some kind of basketball gangster. And their decision could mean a difference of as much as a million dollars to him.
Since Aguirre burst upon the college scene as a DePaul freshman in 1978-79, he has been one of the most carefully watched, intensely feared and routinely gossiped-about players in the sport. That season he scored 24.0 points a game and led DePaul from oblivion to the NCAA's final four. As a sophomore he became college basketball's Player of the Year, averaging 26.8 ppg. DePaul was ranked No. 1 for much of that season, but Aguirre caused a furor by admitting that he found it difficult to get up for games against lesser teams. Then the Blue Demons took their top ranking into the NCAA tournament and folded in the first round.
Because DePaul failed to win the championship, there was speculation that Aguirre would turn pro on the strength of his season. But even then there were doubts about him in the NBA. "The way I heard it, I was 'questionable,' " Aguirre says. "I decided I couldn't go out on an if-and-maybe situation."
Instead, Aguirre played on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and returned to DePaul for his junior—and last—season. That was a decision calculated in dollars and cents. Pro scouts had rated him only as one of the top 20 college prospects after his sophomore year, and with another season of collegiate experience he moved to the head of the list. But again a highly touted Blue Demon team lost in the first round of the tournament and rumors about Aguirre's bad attitude persisted. "NBA teams realize that along with a talent evaluation there must be a psychological one," says one scout. "Aguirre's bad-actor reputation has teams thinking he could be a real detriment. The biggest misconception about the NBA draft is that a player's talent or size alone determines his worth."
And now there's also a question about Aguirre's size. Last season he was listed at 6'7", but NBA scouts insist that he's barely 6'5". That information has teams reevaluating his future role. Can he play small forward or should he be a shooting guard?
Dallas has the first pick in the draft and now seems likely to use it for Indiana Guard Isiah Thomas, rather than Aguirre. "To be honest with you," says Allen Stone, the Mays' director of public relations, "we're a little afraid of what we've heard about Aguirre's attitude problems."
If Aguirre is still available after three players have been taken, the Chicago Bulls would then be confronted with the unpleasant possibility of passing on a star who grew up on that city's playgrounds. "He's not a bad guy," says Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn, "he's just very emotional on the court. When things are going wrong for him, everyone in the arena knows it. Half the reporters in Chicago are anti-Aguirre, and the other half are pro. It's the same with the fans. Our general feeling is that it's not necessary for us to take him, even though he's the best offensive player in the draft."
DePaul Coach Ray Meyer has told some NBA people that Aguirre is difficult to work with, has prima donna tendencies, is self-indulgent and likes to be pampered. Last week he also said Aguirre's great talent has been the source of Aguirre's problems. "Mark could always turn it on and off whenever he wanted to," Meyer said. "That's what gave him the attitude problem. He's not going to be able to score whenever he wants to in the pros, but they can't stop him, either. His first year he'll rise to the occasion because he wants to show the world he's great. That's Mark. He has a tremendous ego. But what is he going to do after that first year when there's no challenge anymore?"
Joey Meyer, Ray's son and assistant, who has suggested to some pro scouts that his father may have contributed to Aguirre's attitude problems by not disciplining Aguirre early on, believes Aguirre will flourish in the pros. Most of the NBA people he talked to were worried that Aguirre would become the next Bob McAdoo, a talented but enigmatic head case. "They want to know," Joey says, "if he can't get ready for 27 games, how can he get ready for 82?"