Ann Arbor, Mich. — As a junior in high school, he averaged only four points per game. As a junior in college, he was named the most valuable basketball player in the Big Ten conference. He's Roy Tarpley, and ``he's a real success story,'' University of Michigan coach Bill Frieder said of the Wolverines' 6 ft. 11 in. senior center, who figures to be one of the most dominating players in the nation this college basketball season. Tarpley's presence in the pivot, flanked by a pair of muscular 230-pound forwards (Richard Rellford and Butch Wade), with ``The Judge'' and ``The General'' (Antoine Joubert and Gary Grant) on the perimeter, have made Michigan one of the top two teams in the country in most preseason predictions. The other top team on those early ratings has been Georgia Tech.
No. 1 and No. 2 -- or is it No. 2 and No. 1? -- play Saturday (Nov. 30) in the seventh annual Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic at Springfield, Mass., a traditional early season clash of two highly ranked teams.
For most of his life, it seemed the only way Tarpley might enter a hall of fame would be as a paying customer. He attended three high schools in diverse sections of the nation and was virtually unknown among college coaches when he signed with Michigan.
``My life story is that the more I played, the better I got, but it took a lot of hard work,'' said Tarpley, who recently worked hard to recuperate from knee surgery.
``It goes back to his determination to be a great player,'' said Frieder.
Tarpley was so determined to play basketball that he left his native New York City after his sophomore season in high school. Roy was already 6-5 then, but a skinny 170 pounds, and his basketball prospects appeared even thinner due to a threatened strike by New York high school coaches. Since he was in the habit of visiting his grandmother in Mobile, Ala., anyway each summer, he just stayed on there that year so he could be sure of a chance to play. He played, but not much.
``In Mobile, the coach didn't really like me,'' said Tarpley. ``I was from New York and he was playing his guys from Mobile.'' As a result, Tarpley averaged only four points per game.
Again, it was time to move in his quest of finding hoop happiness. This time he went to Detroit to visit an uncle.
``My junior year, I averaged four points, but in Detroit I'm hitting 20 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in the summer league,'' recalled Tarpley, who had grown to an imposing 6-9 by the end of that summer when he entered Detroit's Cooley High.
It was during the summer league play that Frieder and his coaching staff discovered Tarpley.
``No one else recruited him,'' Frieder said, admitting that Michigan realized it might be taking a chance offering a scholarship to a relatively untested newcomer. But center Tim McCormick, the Wolverines' only player taller than 6-6, had undergone knee surgery, and Frieder found himself with an extra scholarship available.
``We saw a kid with long legs and long arms,'' Frieder said of Tarpley, who signed during the early-recruiting period that November. ``We knew we had to take our chances. He never had an official [recruiting] visit to any school, including ours. It's nice to get kids like that into your program. They don't have egos like the kids who are so highly recruited.''
Had he not signed so soon with Michigan, it is certain Tarpley would have been highly recruited. During his senior year at Cooley High, he grew to 6-10 and averaged 28 points and 22 rebounds per game.
Tarpley played behind McCormick as a freshman at Michigan and alongside him as a sophomore. Roy blocked a school-record 69 shots and not only was named the team's most improved player, but also the most valuable on a squad that was 23-10 and won the National Invitation Tournament.
As a junior, now filled out to a solid 230 pounds, he blossomed into a bona fide All-America who blocked 66 shots, averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds, and repeated as MVP on a team which was 26-4, won the Big Ten title, and was ranked No. 2 in the country entering the NCAA tournament, where it lost to eventual champion Villanova in the second round.
Michigan hopes not only to retain its Big Ten title, but to be among the Final Four in the NCAA tournament next spring at Dallas. The presence of four of the top 10 returning scorers in the Big Ten (Tarpley at 19.0, Joubert at 13.9, Grant at 13.4, and Rellford at 11.1) should help with the first goal, and the debut of the 45-second shot clock in the tournament should help with the second.
Michigan's game is better suited to the faster pace dictated by a shot clock, which was already in use in the Big Ten last year. But without the clock, time quickly ran out on the Wolverines in the NCAA playoffs as Villanova rode its more deliberate style to a 59-55 decision.
The Wolverines not only return their entire starting lineup, but four other lettermen, and their freshmen are considered among the top groups of recruits in the country. ``I don't believe there's ever been a team in the history of the Big Ten that's had more talent from Player 1 through Player 15 than Michigan,'' said Iowa coach George Raveling.
Player No. 1 at Michigan is Roy Tarpley, although nobody could have foreseen such status when he moved from New York to Alabama. ``I go back to Mobile each summer,'' Tarpley said. ``A lot of people ask that coach how he let me go. But if you had a player averaging four points, you'd let him go, too.''