The last stop, Ross hopes. "I don't like to talk about what happened in the past," he says. "I had difficulty at KU—it happened—but it's not really an interesting subject to me. The important thing is I'm doing a really fine job right now. I'm going to class, I'm more confident taking tests. I'm motivated now."
Even so, he's being brought along slowly his first semester with 13 hours of courses that include Recreational Leadership, Fundamentals of Recreation and an introduction to sociology. Ross's progress encourages Academic Advisor Peter Adler, a sociology professor, to believe that business might be a more suitable major than recreation. "It's incredible," Adler says. "We're really making strides." The academic enforcer is Richardson, who played defensive back for the AFL San Diego Chargers and basketball for the ABA Dallas Chaparrals in the mid-'60s and looks rugged enough to do both today.
"I am a disciplinarian," Richardson says. Translation: If a Tulsa player misses class, he can expect to wake up the next morning with a mean and muscular coach hovering over his bunk. "If I have to," Richardson says, "I go get 'em."
So far, the coach hasn't had to go get Ross. In fact, Ross went to Richardson in the first place, requesting that the coach give him a scholarship and a chance. "Ricky has really surprised everybody on campus," says Richardson. "I've had reports run on his attendance—super. I check his grades once a week. I've never met a more personable young man. They said he wouldn't practice hard, and that's not true, either." Most important, Ross has taken pains not to seek favors or act like a big shot. Richardson continues, "I told him his job here was not to deliver us—we're already delivered. His job here was to go to school. Ricky's taken that as a challenge."
The challenge, some would say, was Richardson's for taking a chance on a player who changes colleges the way most folks change socks, a player who might disrupt the chemistry of a Hurricane team noted for its cohesiveness. "I never saw him play," the coach says. "I heard the rumors: that he never went to class, that he was kind of a lost kid, a nomad." Richardson weighed that against Ross's claim that he was looking for discipline. "You know, I was an 'unmotivated' youngster once myself. That's the challenge for me. Maybe I can make a difference in Ricky's life."
He's bound to make a difference in Ross's basketball. "I want a complete player, a guy who takes the charge, a guy who can pick-and-roll," Richardson says. On Saturday night, at the Tulsa Assembly Center, Ross poured in 23 of his game-high 27 points in the second half with an assortment of graceful jumpers and slow-motion layups, leading the Golden Hurricane to a season-opening 70-61 defeat of Northeastern Oklahoma State. "But did you watch how he played defense?" a pleased Richardson said in the locker room. "He was hustling, making steals, getting his hands in the lanes. Defense is guts and pride. Ricky's got the instincts; all he needed was the technique."
"I played full-court press in high school, but this is pressure defense," Ross says, "bein' in your man's face constantly, making him do what you want. You could be a bionic man and that'll take it out of you, but if I'm gonna play I've gotta play defense, play hard all the time."
The loss of All-America Paul Pressey, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, plus four other starters from last year's seventh-ranked Hurricane would seem to assure Ross's leadership almost by default, but he no longer sounds cocky. "There's no way I'm guaranteed the opportunity to play pro ball," he says matter-of-factly. "Once upon a time, that's all I dreamed about, but as the years go by and I see guys get cut—guys who I saw play, guys who were really good—I realize that Ricky Ross might not play in the NBA." The Gandhi of the classroom, the pastor of passive resistance, grins and says, "I see myself finishing my degree." Of course, there's a difference between staying eligible (i.e., keeping up appearances) and graduating (i.e., passing demanding academic courses like abnormal psychology and computer science). But it's a mark of Ross's progress that he's even thinking about a diploma.
"There are a lot of Ricky Rosses around," Richardson concedes. "They're just not talked about a lot." The difference with Ross is that his basketball skills got him another chance once he showed he was ready to play by the rules. "I'm thrilled that Coach Richardson has given me the opportunity," Ross says. "A lot of coaches were reluctant about taking me, and I don't blame them. The best part is being at a major university...and being there when people thought you were all washed up." As for his prospects for academic success in this, his fourth, "second chance," Ross says, "You can call it another second chance if you want to; I still think this is my first chance."