When Providence guard John Linehan was growing up in Philadelphia, he regarded Michael Jordan as his idol as most young players in the 1980s did. A close second among Linehan’s heroes, though, was diminutive Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues.
It was tough not to like Bogues, who despite standing 5-foot-3, played 15 seasons in the NBA. The shortest player in league history found a place among giants mainly for one reason: his hounding defense.
Linehan’s game now mirrors that of Bogues. Although he has six inches on “Muggsy,” the Friars’ senior is retracing the steps of his hero.
“I don’t know if it was fate or not,” Linehan said.
On Tuesday night, Linehan registered five steals in his final home game, a loss to Miami, to break the NCAA career record previously held by another Friar, Eric Murdock. The NCAA didn’t keep steals as an official statistic until the 1985-86 season, but the 378 thefts by Linehan, who ranks second in Division I with 4.5 per game, likely won’t soon be challenged.
When he finishes at Providence, Linehan might very well get his chance in the NBA. He already has the endorsement of one top pro.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was asked by reporters last year to name the toughest defender he had faced. After going against Linehan years ago in high school in suburban Philadelphia, Bryant had this answer: “You guys may laugh, but it’s a guy named John Linehan.”
Linehan has built his reputation as a defensive stalwart through his years at Providence, but you have to go back to his days as a high school player in Chester, Pa., for its origin.
There Linehan was a self-described “all right shooter and OK ballhandler,” and that wasn’t exactly getting attention from top college coaches. He then worked tirelessly on his defense, giving him an asset that made him more alluring to upper-echelon programs.
He got looks from some schools like Dayton and La Salle, but Linehan said most big-conference programs stayed away because of his height. He signed a letter of intent to go to Howard but reconsidered, withdrew his commitment and attended a prep school to attract more interest. He found a taker in Providence and then-coach Pete Gillen.
“I was fortunate to get with [Friars assistant coach Tim] Welsh and Coach Gillen and their styles of defense,” Linehan said. “They like to pressure the ball.”
His efforts have paid off and he has flourished. His defense started as a means to playing top-flight college basketball and became a calling card, though he’s hardly a one-dimensional player; he is Providence’s third-leading scorer and is ninth in the Big East in assists.
Still, it’s Linehan’s defense he holds the Big East records for single-game and career steals in conference games that make him a strong candidate for the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, given to the top senior shorter than six feet.
“I’m in great company,” Linehan said. “Guys like Allen Iverson, Eric Murdock just to have my name mentioned in the same breath, it’s a great honor.”
Linehan might be able to impact a game as much as Iverson, the former Georgetown and current Philadelphia 76ers star. This season he had an 11-steal game against Rutgers and took control of a game against Virginia Tech in the second half with three steals in 90 seconds. On Feb. 19, he had two steals and hit six free throws in the final minutes to lock up an important 72-64 victory against Villanova. But Linehan’s heroics almost certainly won’t get the Friars into the NCAAs; after Tuesday’s loss, they were 15-14 and 6-9 in the Big East.
“He’s the epitome of hard work and sacrifice,” Rutgers coach Gary Waters said. “Everybody talks about his hands, but that’s an instinct, not something that is trained.”
Linehan likes to pressure his man from the start and see how he handles it. If he gets an early steal, Linehan said, “[the victim will] be thinking about it” the rest of the game. Opposing coaches are so conscious of Linehan that they will often deliberately avoid having the man he is guarding not bring the ball up.
“He’s a one-man wrecking crew,” Welsh said.
Linehan has pressed his way to the top of the record book. He said he would consider it a great honor if Murdock could be at the game in which Linehan can break the NCAA record of 376 career steals.
“He has great desire to play defense, that’s very clear,” Murdock told the Providence Journal. “The games I’ve seen of him, he’s been unbelievable. He reminds me of myself with his quick anticipation.”