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Friday, January 20, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

For Sanford, Husky Ball Proves To Be Saving Grace

You're an eighth-grader, filled with all of the hopes and fears and anxieties of a teenager. Living in Dallas, you hear the gunshots and see the daily drug deals.

The streets are your social center, your playground. You meet your friends here. You play your games. These streets both thrill you and scare you. They are the center of your universe.

But the streets force you to grow up too quickly. When you're in eighth grade you should be thinking about your next math test and your first girlfriend. Your next basketball game and your first formal dance.

But if you're Mark Sanford, you don't get the chance to grow up slowly. In Dallas' teeming inner city, your life is lived at fast forward.

When he was in eighth grade, Mark Sanford learned his father had been murdered. Richard Sanford, an artist, a father, was robbed and shot. All of a sudden, his son no longer had the luxury of being a kid.

"For the first year after the incident, I kind of took it the wrong way," Sanford said last night after Washington's 75-57 win over Oregon State. "I could have taken it in a positive way and said that everything I'm going to do, I'm going to dedicate to my father. But the first year, I kind of went the wrong way with it."

When you're in eighth grade there's no manual to read that tells you how to handle your father's murder.

Sanford acted like he wanted to punch out the world. He hung with his gang friends. His father had been murdered. What was the use? Sanford was 13 years old and angry at the universe.

Basketball bailed him out.

College hoops is going through a volcanic upheaval. Too many coaches, too many schools are exploiting players. Promising them the moon, offering escapes from the inner city, then dropping players like a bad investment if they don't produce.

Mark Sanford is the other side of the story. He is the reminder that college basketball rescues more teenagers than it exploits.

"Once I started seriously playing basketball, my sophomore year of high school, I guess that's what took me off the streets," Sanford said. "Basketball got me back into the positive."

Sanford discovered he could play the game. His self-confidence grew on the court. His anger subsided. He found a future, a way out.

In his junior year, his team, Kimball High, went to the finals of the Texas state championships.

Still, the crime around him was taking a toll on his mother. At the end of his junior year, she told him they were moving to California.

"The crime rate was one of the worst in the country," Sanford said. "I was born and raised in it, so I saw the bad stuff every day. It didn't really bother me, but it really hurt my mother."

But when you're in high school, you want to stay with your friend. Dallas is where Sanford's friends were - Jimmy King and Maceo Baston, who play at Michigan, and Tony Battie, now at Texas Tech.

Dallas was where his game was.

"I fought my mom bad," Sanford said. "I was very against it."

Mother knew best. She moved the family first to Sacramento and then to San Diego. And somehow Sanford, a bona fide Division I prospect, got lost in the recruiting shuffle. Even though he was a senior, several recruiting publications listed him as a junior.

But Randy Bennett, an assistant coach at the University of San Diego, saw Sanford play at San Diego's Lincoln High and called a friend, UW assistant Ritchie McKay.

"When I want to see him, I mean, wow, here was this 6-9 kid who was skilled, could hit the three-point shot, played so unselfishly. And when Coach (Bender) went to see him, he said, `Yep, he's our guy.' "

Last night, the freshman was the best player on the floor, scoring a career-high 21 points with nine rebounds and four blocks.

In one series in the first half, he missed a shot, got the rebound and missed again. He sprinted back up the floor, forced a turnover that ignited a fast break that finished with his dunk.

"When Mark plays with effort, he's not a freshman," McKay said. "He gives our team so much, he's like a sophomore or a junior. The whole key is for him to play with consistency. If he does, he's going to find he's one of the best players in this league."

More important than last night's numbers was Sanford's atttitude. After Husky center Mike Amos picked up two quick fouls, Sanford asked to defend OSU's block-of-granite forward, Mustapha Hoff.

"I think that was Mark's turning point," McKay said. "He's kind of based his game and his performance on scoring. With him taking that initiative and saying, `I want to guard Hoff,' I think he's kind of grown.

"I don't think there's many freshmen in the country who will step up and take that challenge."

Last night he lit up Oregon State and won his first Pac-10 basketball game. He was smooth as glass and tough as the Dallas streets.

And his play was a tribute to his father.

Want to comment or pass on an idea? You can contact Steve Kelley by voice mail at 464-2176.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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