John Linehan learned how to steal at a young age. His education took place on the basketball court at Memorial Park in Chester, Pa. Starting at age 12, Linehan would stand amid the throng of players hoping to get picked to play by one of the court elders. For hours, as daylight turned to darkness, little John would wait. And wait. "Former college players were there, so it was hard to get into a game," says Linehan, who even now stands only 5'9" as a senior guard at Providence. "I had to do something different to get on the court."
As he waited, Linehan watched the action as intently as a jeweler would while appraising a diamond. What he learned—and what helped him become a regular on the court by the time he was 14—is that he could distinguish himself by being a pest on defense, a rarity on the playground. "Not many guys take pride in playing defense and making steals," says Linehan. "I do, and that's why people started noticing me."
That's also why Linehan is one of the most dominating college defensive players. Last season's Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Linehan was second in the nation in steals (4.5 a game) through Sunday and needed 27 swipes in the Friars' final seven games to break the NCAA career record of 376 held by former Providence star Eric Murdoch. "John's special trait is anticipation," says his coach, Tim Welsh. "He studies a lot of tape, but he could get by without it. He's that much of a natural."
NBA scouts, not known for taking a hard look at players shorter than 6 feet who have a career shooting percentage of .374, are intrigued by Linehan's defensive ability. "John creates havoc," says Rob Babcock, the Timberwolves' director of player personnel. "He could be very successful as a defensive specialist."
One NBA player already familiar with Linehan is Kobe Bryant. He and Linehan traveled the country as AAU teammates during the summer of 1995. One afternoon they played a game of one-on-one, and Linehan made a lasting impression. When asked during the playoffs last season who was the toughest defender he had ever faced, Bryant replied, "You may laugh, but it's a guy named John Linehan."
Linehan's defensive excellence is founded on a mixture of guile, intelligence, timing and quickness. He's listed at 5'9", but he's closer to 5'7", and his low center of gravity helps him maintain body control as he zips around the floor like a water bug. Lack of height, however, isn't generally viewed as an asset in basketball, and coming out of Chester High, Linehan received scholarship offers from only Coppin State and Howard. Linehan chose to go with Howard, but while in line to buy his train ticket to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1997, he changed his mind. "I'd had success in high school playing against guys who were going to big-time schools," says Linehan, who was averaging 11.9 points at week's end for 13-10 Providence. "I felt I could be at one too."
Linehan never got on that train. Instead of going to Howard, he spent a postgrad year polishing his game at The Winchendon (Mass.) School, where he caught the eye of Pete Gillen, who was the Friars' coach at the time. Four years later Linehan's picture is plastered on billboards all over Providence, a reminder that thievery has many rewards. "Defense is about being relentless and being tough," says Linehan. "If you play hard, size doesn't matter."