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Ricky Ross went to sociology class on the morning of Aug. 25, 1982, which so excited the University of Tulsa that it presented Ross at a press conference and issued a press release. The "news" was supposed to be that Ross, the nation's leading junior-college scorer last season while at College of Marin ( Calif.), had enrolled in school. Those who knew Ross thought the news was that he had set foot inside a classroom.
"School's just not for me," Ross reportedly had said at one point in his gambol through the groves of academe. Few players in memory have so openly flouted the concept of the NCAA's pious hyphenate, "student-athlete," or have so convincingly demonstrated that no amount of academic assistance will keep a star athlete eligible if he doesn't at least keep up appearances.
A much-heralded freshman guard at the University of Kansas three years ago, the 6'7" Ross averaged 11.7 points a game. His class-attendance average, unfortunately, drove Coach Ted Owens and his staff to distraction. "They'd take Ricky to class," one KU insider recalls, "but he'd walk right out the back door. He always thought that somebody would bail him out." On the court, Ross waved imploringly for the ball when he wanted it and looked pained when he didn't get it, which contributed to rumors that dissension was rife among the Jayhawks. The knocks against Ross gained wide circulation: that he didn't get along with star Point Guard Darnell Valentine, that he didn't practice hard and that he wouldn't play defense—in short, that he was a "bad actor."
"We never felt that way at all," Owens insists. "Ricky came into our program and had an adjustment to make—and didn't make that adjustment. But we cared for Ricky a lot—he's a very likable young man—and we tried to do everything we could to help him. He just needed to mature." Instead, just before the start of his sophomore season it was revealed that Ross and two teammates had used an assistant coach's credit card to make personal phone calls. Confused, embarrassed and struggling academically, Ross withdrew from KU.
Next stop: Wichita State. Flunked out.
Next stop: Santa Ana College, a community college near Los Angeles. He visited for a week but never enrolled.
"He's living in some world that doesn't exist," said Rolland Todd, then the Santa Ana head coach. Ross's admirers believe he was living in a world of hype, press clippings and pro ambitions. Ross was a schoolboy sensation in Wichita, Kans., where prep basketball commands tremendous attention. By leading Wichita South to consecutive state championships, breaking Valentine's career conference scoring record and averaging 32.1 points as a senior, Ross put himself on prep All-America teams alongside Ralph Sampson, Dominique Wilkins, Clark Kellogg and Isiah Thomas. With that buildup, his failures at KU and points west seemed not to change Ross's view that college was just a place to park his sneakers on the way to the NBA.
"Ricky's an intelligent person," says Tulsa Coach Nolan Richardson, "but he's easily led to believe things that may not be. I just don't think he could see the connection between school and basketball. He couldn't accept that he had to work hard at something that didn't interest him to pursue a goal that did."
The Santa Ana fiasco apparently established that connection for Ross. "He was on his last legs," Richardson says. "He knew if he wanted to play basketball he had to go to school. There was no other way out." Ross's opportunity came when he visited his grandmother in Oakland and ran into a childhood playmate who was playing ball for Coach John Johnson at College of Marin. " Coach Johnson was a big influence in turning me around," Ross says. "I needed somebody like that, and fortunately I ran into a great guy." Although Ross found juco ball undemanding, the Marin experience represented a dramatic reversal for him: a 30.5 scoring average, which confirmed his basketball talent, and a 3.0 grade average, which proved he was finally interested in staying eligible.
Next stop: Tulsa.