Tuesday, February 23, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last Shot

Special To The Seattle Times

-- AFTER A PROMISING high-school career in Aberdeen and wasted opportunities at UCAL and Pepperdine, ommA Givens harbors hope or reaching the NBA playing in the obscure International Basketball Association.

The route to Minot, N.D., is fairly straight, but it stretches nearly 1,200 miles, across four states, three time zones and the Continental Divide.

Follow Interstate 90 east from Seattle across the state and through the Idaho panhandle until you pull into Billings, Mont. Then take I-94 east across the North Dakota border to Bismarck, and head north on Highway 83. Ninety minutes later, if you're still awake, there's Minot.

The potholed road omm'A Givens traveled to this sparse town, two hours south of the Canadian border, was filled with more twists and turns than a John Grisham novel.

Minot is an unlikely place for chasing dreams, unless your dream is farming. This agricultural town of 35,000 (45,000 counting the local Air Force base) isn't a basketball haven, especially this time of year when the game of choice is played on ice. But with temperatures usually stuck well below freezing, one can take refuge inside a gym.

Unlike the small-town spotlight that illuminated Givens' basketball career at Aberdeen High School or the insatiable appetite for excess that Los Angeles offered during his college days, Minot allows no distractions. Only time for Givens, now playing for Minot's Magic City Snow Bears of the International Basketball Association, to focus on reviving a career that once looked as frozen as a North Dakota lake.

This is Givens' last stop, a last chance.

"Omm'A, this is your last stop, buddy," Magic City Coach Rob Spahn told Givens when he arrived. "You had trouble at UCLA and Pepperdine and you've been labeled. There's nowhere to go if you don't make it here. This is it."

Givens wasn't ready to listen when he arrived. He still thought he had all the answers. "At first, he had an answer for everything," Spahn said. "Then I said, `omm'A, just listen and do what we're saying and play the game.' He's listened and he's been playing terrific."

Terrific enough to draw NBA scouts, who witnessed his 18-point, nine-rebound performance against Rapid City last week. Since joining the Snow Bears in January, Givens has averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds, leading the team to home-court advantage in the IBA playoffs that started this week.

The 6-foot-11 post player with the deadly jump shot has had, by his own account, plenty of chances to listen and play. Now, he's cashing his last chip in the 10-team IBA, a faceless Midwestern league that stretches into Canada and is a notch below the CBA. He earns $250 a week, plus room and board.

That Givens is lucky to have even one chip left is not lost on him.

He left Pepperdine last April, separated from basketball for the first time in his life. He created a Web site that sold sports memorabilia and Beanie Babies, content to let the clock expire on a career that once seemed as bankable as a uncontested jumper.

While other former Seattle-area prep stars - Michael Dickerson, Jason Terry, Scott Pollard, Mark Pope - achieved national recognition in college and the NBA, Givens' promising career turned sour.

It wasn't until last summer, when friends convinced him to play in a Vancouver, B.C., tournament, that Givens' interest in playing again was rekindled.

That tournament led to a few Seattle pro-am teams and to agent Jacque White of the Seattle-based Playmakers sports agency, and finally to Minot.

Not exactly the express route to the NBA.

"I have to believe God has a plan for me," Givens said from his Minot motel where he lives with his teammates. "He knows where I'll be in two or three years. Most athletes are spoiled. They take everything for granted. What's happened to me in the last two years has helped me get a level head. I'm much more adjusted to the ups and downs of basketball."

Pepperdine Coach Lorenzo Romar knows all about those ups and downs. He recruited Givens to UCLA when he was a Bruin assistant and became his surrogate father.

"When you watch omm'A work out, you can't help but be intrigued by his ability," he said. "There aren't many big men who can outrun guards and outshoot guards.

"I don't know if he ever really grasped or accepted coaching. He wasn't quite sure that the coach may totally have the right answer."

Coach Brad Fuhrer saw the Givens' paradox at Aberdeen, where Givens earned McDonald's All-America status and scored most of his 2,300 points and averaged 22 points as a senior.

"He was so much fun to watch," Fuhrer said. "He had a gorgeous touch. It was amazing."

Equally amazing was the time Fuhrer brought college players to help Givens enhance his low-post repertoire. Givens was unresponsive.

"It was like he didn't want to hear what they had to say," Fuhrer said with a hint of bewilderment that still lingers five years later.

Givens entered UCLA as the Pac-10 team's most-honored recruit but contributed little as the Bruins won the 1995 national championship at the Kingdome.

Frustration set in when his playing time didn't increase the next season. Jelani McCoy and J.R. Henderson, both future NBA draft picks, played ahead of him. He blamed behind-the-scenes politics.

"I knew in practice other players were being favored," said Givens, who averaged 3.6 points and 2.3 rebounds as a sophomore. "It was blatant. It hurt me being from out of state. Other players had their parents there to put pressure on the coaches. A guy gets brought in and things don't pan out like he envisioned. Then the next best thing comes in and you're the old toy."

Jim Harrick, the former UCLA coach who is now at Rhode Island, predictably had a different take.

"As I've found with most players, it's four parts mental, one part physical," Harrick said. "He was probably his own worst enemy. He was very moody. He would go up and down too much. I remember one scrimmage he had 18 rebounds. One day he was dynamite, the next day, nothing.

"You've got to fight through and take advantage of your opportunity when it comes. He got into some games and could have showed what he could do. He had the God-given ability."

When Romar was named head coach at Pepperdine, Givens followed him from Westwood to Malibu.

But after sitting out the 1996-97 season because of of his transfer, his basketball career broke down, as did his relationship with Romar.

Soon after the 1997-98 season began, Givens lost his starting job.

Then came The Incident, as Givens refers to it.

Givens punched teammate Aaron Butler in practice, breaking his jaw. Who initiated the scuffle depends on who's telling the story. Givens apologized, but he resents that he was made the villain. He was suspended from the team for the rest of the season, and eventually left the program.

"It was like a daily soap opera," said Givens, who was ordered by Pepperdine to attend counseling. "Once it was over, I didn't want to go back there. Lorenzo said he felt like the best thing might be for me to finish school and not play basketball. That's exactly how I felt."

Janice Lead, Givens' mother, said The incident left a deep impression on her son, who hasn't talked to Romar since.

"It made him less trusting," said Lead, a teacher at Aberdeen's Miller Junior High.

But, perhaps, no less resilient. Givens wants to forget the past and focus on the future. He hopes that future still includes basketball. For now, he is content to earn money in Minot, or perhaps overseas, in the CBA or in the IBL, a new U.S. league scheduled to debut next fall.

"He has the desire," said Roderick Anderson, Snow Bear teammate and former University of Texas star. "When you give a man desire, the sky's the limit. He stays after practice to work on his game, he goes full speed and he listens very well."

The latter will take him the furthest.

"I came in not knowing what the situation was going to be like," said Givens, who plans to finish his business degree at Pepperdine sometime next year. "I needed to ease any doubts in people's minds about my character. The main thing is to keep a positive attitude. You can't gain much by dredging up the past. I have to focus on what I am doing right now and not put the blame on people.

"Maybe it was my fault for not working as hard or listening to coaches, even if I thought I was not playing enough. Sometimes rather than making it a big issue, you roll with it and try to maintain your integrity in the process."

That could turn Minot into simply a cold rest stop instead of final destination.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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