- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Mike Sweetney remembers the taunts and insults, none very creative yet still effective in their capacity to damage the psyche. The words, "Fat boy" carry a lot of weight, so to speak.

Sweetney remembers those field trips with the Oxon Hill Boys and Girls Club to Georgetown basketball games, sitting in the stands, imagining being out on the court like Jahidi White and Jerome Williams, envisioning himself a Hoya. He even dared utter those thoughts, until someone would chirp, "You're too fat to play basketball."

"So I'd just sit there and dream," he said.

Some dreams come true, especially when abetted by faith, discipline and hard work. Today, Sweetney is the best player on the Hoyas, perhaps the best player in the Big East, a preseason All-American and a candidate for the Wooden Award, which goes to the top college player in the country. A junior who has started every game in his two years at Georgetown, Sweetney stands 6-foot-8, weighs a hard 260 pounds and has replaced "Fat boy" with other terminology.

"When you look up the words, 'power forward' in the dictionary, that's Mike Sweetney," Hoyas coach Craig Esherick said.

Last year, Connecticut's Caron Butler and Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight were the Big East co-players of the year. Pitt coach Ben Howland, who couldn't vote for his own guy, voted for Sweetney. "He's just so special," Howland said. "He's huge. He's a load." Notre Dame coach Mike Brey calls Sweetney "absolutely the toughest low post player to defend in college basketball," adding, "We had no answers for him."

In a quadruple-overtime loss to Notre Dame last season, Sweetney had 35 points, 20 rebounds and six assists, all career highs, in 47 minutes. "It was an amazing game, in terms of being able to be effective and be that tired," said Esherick, who has seen some amazing games, having played with or coached Craig Shelton, Sleepy Floyd, Reggie Williams, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson, among others.

Esherick said Sweetney reminds him a lot of Shelton, a former teammate back in the mid-1970s, except that Sweetney is bigger. "You could throw Craig a bad pass, and he would catch it," Esherick said. "[Sweetney] has one of the best pair of hands of anybody we've ever had here."

Sweetney averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds last season and by all accounts has elevated his game. Word spread during the summer about how Sweetney kicked Kwame Brown's $12 million rear end during a pickup game. If Brown had gone to college and not the Wizards, he would be a year behind Sweetney. Still, Brown was the No.1 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. He faced the best competition in the world in practice and occasionally in games last season. And he was the beneficiary of constant haranguing from Wizards coach Doug Collins and Michael Jordan, perhaps even learning something from them.

When asked about it, Brown said, "I don't even know who Mike Sweetney is."

C'mon, Kwame, of course you know Mike Sweetney. Big fella? Hoyas?

"Hoyas?" Brown said. "Georgetown Hoyas? I scrimmaged against them one time. To tell the truth, I don't even remember. I played against a lot of people this summer. How am I gonna remember?"

Sweetney remembers. But he is doggedly soft-spoken and modest and thus downplayed his taking Brown to school like he downplays everything else. "A lot of people say I did that," he said, laughing. "I really didn't see it that way. But I'm not gonna deny it. I just played my game. I played hard. I played pretty well."

Directed toward basketball at the age of 10 by his father, Samuel, a civil engineer at Bolling Air Force Base, Sweetney said he eventually learned to ignore the comments about his weight. He was bigger than everyone else, so he used his size to overpower opponents. Then he discovered how to use his soft hands and nimble feet. Then he put it all together. Sweetney became a star at Oxon Hill High School, and by his junior year had committed to Georgetown. No other school had a chance.

Yet Sweetney was still raw and out of shape, and Esherick harbored doubts about whether he could handle Georgetown's aggressive, fullcourt defense and up-tempo offense. Those doubts were confirmed when Esherick saw a tape of Sweetney in the McDonald's All-Star Game in the spring of his senior year. That was appropriate; Sweetney was a well-satisfied customer. His weight had ballooned to about 320 pounds. "I was eating everything wrong," he said.

Said Esherick: "I could not believe the condition he was in."

Esherick called Sweetney and told him, "Look, Mike, there's no way you can play basketball at this level, at this weight," and prescribed an intensive fitness program that included a major overhaul of his diet. Sweetney immediately complied. "It was like, 'Oh, man, I don't want to be sitting on the bench because of something like that,'" he said.

That summer, Georgetown assistant Ronny Thompson took hold of Sweetney. Thompson liked to run a hilly, three-mile course around campus known as the "Loop," and now he had company.

"That was interesting," Thompson said, "the first time he ran the Loop. I'd take off and look behind me, and then I'd have to go get him. I ended up running about three-and-a-half miles."

Diligently, Sweetney stuck with it. Every day he would run, lift weights and play. He changed his diet, becoming something close to a health nut. He now avoids fatty food for the most part "because now I know the effect it has on me," he said.

"The thing with Michael is he did everything I asked him to do," Thompson said. "What happens a lot with kids is you say, 'You need to do this program,' and first week is fine. Then by the second week, it's 'My mom couldn't give me a ride.' Or, 'I had to take my dad to the store.' Michael never did that.

"When he first got here, I told him stories about Alonzo and Patrick. How they did road work, how they did the drilling and the lifting. That's what I talked to Michael about, and he sucked everything up. He was a kid yearning for direction. As soon as I started explaining everything that needed to be done, he did it."

Thompson added, "The thing that's misleading about Michael is that people think big people are lazy. Mike works harder than anybody on the team. Look, he'll never be slim. He has big, thick ankles and huge, thick wrists. He's just a huge, thick kid."

Thompson once showed Sweetney a video of him playing in high school. All Sweetney did was run from top of the key to top of the key. Then Thompson popped in a Georgetown tape. Sweetney watched Mourning and other big men sprinting from one end of the court to the other.

It was a revelation, an epiphany, even.

"I said, 'Michael, look at yourself,'" Thompson said. "I think seeing himself on tape, how slow he looked, was the biggest thing."

Sweetney's adherence to pushing himself paid off in another, more unexpected manner. Last year, Sweetney shot 78.8 percent from the foul line (better than that in Big East games) after shooting 61.9 percent as a freshman. Rather than employing foul shooting gurus or reciting mantras to himself while standing at the line, Sweetney, after running the Loop, would shoot 50 to 100 free throws.

"I could barely stand up," he said. "My freshman year, when I was tired, I couldn't make free throws. So after I'd run, I'd come in and concentrate on making them. And it paid off."

This year, with four starters back from a 19-win team still steamed about not making the NCAA tournament, Esherick has made Sweetney a tri-captain. "I'm trying to get him to be more vocal," Esherick said. "He's our best player. He knows the game. He has good things to say when he opens his mouth.

"I think probably at the beginning he thought I was out of my mind. But I think it will help him in the long run because he has leadership ability. I think, as the best player on the team, he has a lot to say."

Sweeney acknowledges he is "a person who doesn't just go out and talk to people" but will give it a shot. "It makes me feel good that [Esherick] has a lot of trust in me and has the faith that I can be a team leader," he said.

A lot of people are putting their faith in Sweetney, and not only teammates, coaches and fans. As the newest member of the Georgetown Big Men's Club, a fraternity that includes the likes of Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo, not to mention White, Othella Harrington, Don Reid and others, Sweetney has to live up to some rather high standards.

No one doubts he can do it.

"He's such a great player already, and he still has so much potential," said White, currently on the Wizards' injured list. "He can be a great NBA player. He's strong, and he works hard."

Ewing, working as a Wizards assistant after a long and distinguished NBA career, has talked with Sweetney and worked with him a bit. He, too, is happy to welcome Sweetney to the club. "I think he's done a great job of dropping the weight and keeping it off," Ewing said. "I think he's gonna be a fine pro."

Big men like to play like small men these days. They like to handle the ball and float out to the 3-point line and pretend they are guards. Not Sweetney. He has a nice shooting touch up to 17 feet, but he knows where he belongs in the paint, using his muscle, his hands and feet. Esherick calls him a "throwback," and he means it as a compliment.

"He's not afraid of contact, he knows how to draw fouls, he likes playing in the post," Esherick said. "In this day and age, when you see players who are 6-8 and people encourage them to shoot 3s, play out on the perimeter, dribble the ball, I've never had that conversation with Mike.

"Mike knows where his strengths are. He has no problem playing the post, and he knows he's good at it. He's someone who can play defense on the inside. He doesn't drift out to the perimeter, and he's somebody that can rebound."

This style of play does not appeal to many young players. "But if you find somebody who doesn't mind doing it, who understands the value of it and can do it well," Esherick said, "you have something."


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