Archive for Tuesday, January 17, 1995

KU SIGNEE PUGH GREW INTO HIS ROLE OF PREP STANDOUT

January 17, 1995

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— The question was a loaded one, and T.J. Pugh knew it.

So, how do you like being famous?

To acknowledge would be to sacrifice humility. To deny would be to feign ignorance.

So, how do you like being famous?

The wheels turned inside Pugh's head as he strolled down the Jesuit-run Creighton Preparatory School's hallway, an all-boys school of 950 students. A few passers-by looked up, saw one of Prep's most famous sons -- and certainly its tallest -- with a visitor, and went about their business.

So, how do you like being famous?

The answer, when it came, was measured and deliberate.

"I don't know that I'm famous," Pugh said. "I guess when you play basketball, you want to stand out, you want that attention. But when you're 6-9, you pretty much stand out no matter what you do."

And, like it or not, when you're 6-foot-9 and can dribble and shoot, you're bound to get plenty of attention.

Pugh got his share. The 44th-best basketball player in the country -- at least, 1-900-BOB-GIBBONS, the Lenoir, N.C.-based recruiting guru, says so -- Pugh considered Marquette, Stanford, Nebraska and Creighton before he signed with Kansas this past fall.

He averaged 21.7 points and 8 rebounds per game at Prep last season, when the Bluejays won the Class A state title. This year, he's pouring in 26 points and grabbing 9.8 boards per game.

Famous? Not quite, but close.

He certainly felt famous last winter, when he visited KU to watch the Jayhawks entertain Nebraska.

"The first time I went to KU, I had probably 50 people come up and ask for my autograph," Pugh recalled. "I was a junior in high school, and I was giving autographs."

He expected the same thing this year, when he watched KU throttle Rice back on Dec. 22.

"I went to the locker room after the game, and they've got all these people lined up outside the locker room waiting for autographs," Pugh said. "I walked out, and I see all these kids. One of them sticks out a piece of paper, and I think he wants my autograph. I reach for it, and the kid next to him says, 'He's not a player,' and slaps the paper away."

Not a player?

Pugh was always a player at something. His first love was soccer.

"He was so gangly. He was a heck of a goalie," said his mother, Jan Pugh. "He'd just stand there in the goal with his arms out."

He also played football ... and just about everything else.

"We made him try everything," Jan Pugh said. "We wanted to make all our children try everything once. Then, if they didn't like it, well, at least they'd tried it."

Well, Pugh tried it all and gravitated toward basketball. Of course, a seven-inch growth spurt from eighth to ninth grades helped his decision.

"There aren't too many 6-9 running backs," Pugh said with a smile.

Pugh started playing basketball in the third grade.

"I wasn't really into it," he said. "I knew my dad played somewhere. It turns out it was Creighton. But I knew he played, and I knew we watched it on TV."

'He drove us nuts'

As a seventh grader, Pugh started to focus on basketball.

"He drove us nuts," Jan Pugh said. "When he was frustrated or upset, he'd be out in the driveway with a basketball."

Pugh entered the eighth grade as a gangly 6-footer. By the end of his injury-plagued freshmen year, he had stretched to 6-foot-7.

And, by his mother's estimation, he weighed all of about 50 pounds.

"We get these big winds around here," Pugh said, "and I couldn't go outside."

But seriously, folks, his scrawny frame led to numerous injuries.

To wit, his freshman year he broke his right foot, right wrist and left ankle in basketball and his left hand skiing.

He missed "40-some" days of school his freshman year nursing the broken bones and a bout with mononucleosis, and he played just five games on the freshman team.

He also tooled around school in a wheelchair since opposite appendages were broken, prohibiting the use of a crutch.

"That was tough," Pugh said, "especially being a freshman in a big school. I took a lot of flak for that. I had to play with both ankles practically in casts to keep from breaking them."

"His last cast wouldn't stay on because he wouldn't stay off it," Jan added. "He kept playing. The cast literally disintegrated in the gym."

After the cast disintegrated, Pugh blossomed. He said he's now up to 6-10 -- "My doctor says I might have another inch or two left in me," he said -- and 215 pounds.

"Now I do things that would have broken my ankles then and barely even cringe," Pugh said.

'It's just his'

Pugh would make an interesting study in genetics.

His father, Tim, stands 6-5, while Jan is 5-10. T.J.'s older sister, Rebecca, a sophomore at DePaul, is 5-11, while his younger brother, Pat, is a 6-foot sophomore at Creighton Prep.

"My mom is 5-3 and my dad is 5-11," Tim Pugh said. "I don't know where he got it."

The Parents Pugh can't explain the source of his son's basketball skills, either. Sure, the father played at Creighton -- "I was on the team, let's put it that way," he said -- but the Pughs don't exactly have a history of athletic excellence.

"I don't think he got it from me," Jan Pugh said. "His sister's 5-11, but she could trip over dog hair. She has no athletic ability. Pat has a lot of athletic ability, but he's more social."

Pugh credits his skills to repetition, to long hours in the gym and the driveway. Especially the driveway.

"It was always a goal for him," Jan Pugh said. "He was really focused -- on basketball and school. At times he totally spaced off the rest of the world. But he was totally focused on those two things. Where did he get his work ethic? I don't know. It's just his."

That ethic extends beyond the court.

Pugh has a 3.9 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, and his mother made sure it's not a hollow reading.

"Seniors like to take pottery and basket weaving," she said. "It's not easy for T.J. He's taking AP courses and physics. He wanted to drop a class, and we wouldn't let him. It's really been basketball and school. He takes a lot of pride in both of those."

Prep or bust

Pugh has worked with D.A.R.E., a student anti-drug group, and he spent four months working at a school for behaviorally disabled kids.

"I didn't have to teach anything. I was like a big-brother type," Pugh said. "I had recess with 'em, and they used me as a jungle gym. Their favorite game was to see who could touch the top of T.J.'s head first."

Pugh was a lock for Prep. With its strong athletic and academic background, the Pughs could think of no other school they'd have their son attend.

"I didn't have any choice," T.J. Pugh said. "As soon as the doctor said, 'It's a boy,' I was going to Prep."

The Pughs are well aware T.J. might encounter a little social shock next year when he leaves all-boy Prep for co-educational, 26,000-student-strong KU.

"The social conditions are a lot different since it's an all-boys school," T.J. Pugh said. "With no girls -- and, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind if there were girls there -- it makes it easier to learn. You don't feel you have to impress anybody."

"It might be difficult. He'll have to learn a lot of social skills," Jan Pugh said. "At an all-boys school, they tend to be more ... relaxed."

The mother expected her son to be more ... relaxed ... after he committed to KU.

"He still spends hours at the gym. I was waiting for him to relax, to cut back, because this was a major goal of his, and he had accomplished it," Jan Pugh said. "But he hasn't cut back. He still works as hard."

The son disagreed. He thinks he works harder.

Sure, it would be easy to sit back and coast, to look at where he was and where he is and forget about the next step. But that's not in the plans.

"Sometimes I think back to the nights I'd be in my driveway, counting, '3,2,1,' thinking how I wanted to be here. Now I'm thinking about what's next," he said. "I want to make an impact at Kansas. People tell me, 'You're going to sit on the bench for four years at Kansas.' I want to make an impact at Kansas."

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